Extreme temperatures and prolonged cold snaps have been wreaking havoc across most of the US, with warm-climate states like Texas seeing temps below freezing. To make matters worse, massive power outages have crippled cities, causing those cut off from the power grid to take drastic measures. When many people realize their gas lines are still working during the electrical outage, they may turn to their gas appliances as a source of heat.
In these desperate times, using your gas stove for heat may seem like a logical choice. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide poisoning is a growing concern, particularly as people misuse their appliances or neglect them. Reports of Texas residents running generators in their homes or misusing gas stoves or portable heaters are rampant as well.
Here are the facts about using gas appliances to heat your home when your electric power is out.
Is it safe to heat my home with my gas stove?
In general, no. While there are some things you can do to keep your home warm without electrical power (see below), most of them should be limited to short-term use. This is due to the prevalence of carbon monoxide (CO), which is a by-product of burning natural gas, and can lead to CO poisoning.
What is carbon monoxide and why should I be worried about it?
Combustion is created when you combine gas, oxygen, and heat to create fire. Normally, this produces carbon dioxide, which is safe to inhale in small amounts. However, when there isn’t enough oxygen present, you end up creating carbon monoxide, which is extremely toxic to humans.
"Incomplete combustion could put you at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning – an invisible and odorless gas that can cause headaches, nausea, and dizzines," said Patrick Robinson, who holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering. "High levels of carbon monoxide can be fatal."
When you run a gas stove for hours on end, it will eventually burn through the available oxygen in your home. This leads to carbon monoxide production. If inhaled in large amounts, carbon monoxide can kill you before you even realize something is wrong.
I use my gas stove to cook all the time – why is only a problem now?
Air flow is a big problem when the power is out. This is because your house becomes shuttered in order to keep the cold air out. Normally, when you’re cooking, you have ventilation through a hood or your over-the-range microwave’s air settings. This is not possible when the power is out, which creates a dangerous environment for carbon monoxide to build up.
Also if you’ve been watching the news, you may have heard the advice to shove towels under you doorways to stop cold drafts. This is great advice, but it further limits fresh air coming into the home.
"Additionally, gas stoves are not equipped with the safety features or emission regulations of home furnances," Robinson added. "Stoves are designed for intermittent, short term uses, compared to a furnace running all day."
What are the signs of carbon monoxide exposure?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some of the key signs of dangerous carbon monoxide levels are fainting or dizzy spells, headaches, and nausea or vomiting. If you experience these, leave your home immediately and call 9-1-1 to get medical treatment. In the meantime, make sure you have a good, working carbon monoxide detector near your bedroom. This will alert you carbon monoxide leaks and other issues.
If it’s the only heat source I have, can I use it?
It comes down to knowing your risk level and trying to minimize the likelihood of a carbon monoxide issue in your home.
We don’t recommend you do so, but if you do plan on attempting to use your stove or other appliance as a heat source, here’s what you should do at the bare minimum to protect yourself:
Use your gas sparingly
If your electricity goes out but your gas line appears to be active, exercise extreme caution. While basic activities like boiling drinking water for a few minutes are probably safe, keeping your gas stove running for days on end is dangerous and can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Don’t rely on the gas for more than one or two brief tasks in a 24-hour period.
Turn off your stove when you’re not using it.
When your power is out but the gas is on, you may be tempted to use your gas stove to keep your home warm. Keep in mind, though, that carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes can set off alarms and cause serious health problems, not to mention fires.
After using the oven for baking or cooking, you can shut the appliance off and let the heat inside escape, temporarily warming your kitchen. However, it’s important to double-check that the oven has truly been shut off before doing so!
Don’t leave your gas stove running after bedtime.
It may be tempting to go to bed with your home warm and toasty when your power is out. However, you should NEVER leave your gas stove on overnight, as this can cause major carbon monoxide issues.
Before going to bed, be sure to shut off your stove and double-check that it’s actually off. If your power is still out when you get into bed, bring plenty of extra blankets with you and wear warm pajamas.
Keep your generator outside
Never run a generator indoors. It may seem tempting to bring it into the living room or bedroom to connect it to your heating system. However, Consumer Reports and other experts point out that doing so can lead to the quick and fatal build-up of carbon monoxide in your home, which has reportedly happened even after running a generator inside for a few minutes.
Free up your air flow
If you’ve noticed air coming in from beneath your windows and doors, you may have placed a towel underneath to keep the warm air in (and the cold wind out.) However, if you’re using a gas stove in that room, you’d presumably be trapping carbon monoxide inside, too, which can be deadly. Remove these DIY systems that prevent air flow before using your gas stove.
If your appliance has a pilot light, keep an eye on it
Sometimes, power outages can cause appliances to restart or flicker on and off. Some older hot water heaters and stoves use a pilot light that you might need to relight. If water is running from your taps but not getting warm or your stove isn’t operating normally, the pilot light could be the issue. Do not ignore this, as you could cause a major gas leak and explosion. (See your appliance’s manual and follow it closely before tackling this job.)
If you have a new electric appliance and the power is on, you’re probably ok. Most modern appliances come with built-in safety features to keep your stove from restarting. If you have this feature installed, you can breathe easily knowing your house is most likely safe.
Using your stovetop to keep warm
While it may be tempting to warm your hands or lean over the flame on a gas stove to keep warm, you risk catching your clothes on fire or setting the kitchen cabinets ablaze. (Also, keep in mind that if you don’t have running water at the moment, putting out that fire may be virtually impossible.) Avoid using your stovetop for more than a few minutes and keep your eyes on what you’re heating up the whole time.
While you’re at it, check your carbon monoxide alarms
Make sure your alarm batteries are in great shape, especially if your system is hardwired and it’s been more than six months since you changed them. Swap the batteries out now, even if they seem fine.
If you lose power, your home’s internal temperature may drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Some experts say this can damage your appliances, including carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms. This can lead to a life-or-death situation when your house catches fire or there’s a problem with the gas.
The Bottom Line
While it may be tempting to use your gas appliances to keep you warm during a power outage, relying on them can be extremely dangerous. To protect your home from fire, carbon monoxide, and other issues, we recommend finding a new, safer heating source as soon as possible.