Let There Be Light!

Sharon August 13th, 2009

This is week two of the AIP course, and I’ve mostly covered, in past classes, the range of options for heating, cooking, water, toileting, etc…  One subject I haven’t written about is light - and I think it is one that bears some attention, because even though light isn’t necessary for life, you’ll be awfully sad, particularly if you live in extreme northern or southern latitudes, if you have to go to bed when it gets dark all year ;-) .  Not to mention that high cost in broken toes of tripping over things.

One of the funny things about generating light, unlike a lot of other non-fossil fueled alternatives, is that most of the homemade, seemingly lower impact models are actually *higher* impact - that is, the petroleum based candles you buy at the store are probably of greater impact than simply running a Compact Flourescent lightbulb.  So is your kerosene lamp.  Even beeswax candles may be a bigger impact, depending on where you are getting them from.  That’s because electricity isn’t a bad way to generate light.

That said, however, plastic and battery based things break.  I find that my best solutions are a mix of all of these - candles and kerosene lamps, solar lanterns and rechargeable batteries. 

 Now preparations need to have two functions - first, they meet your needs in a crisis.  But second, they allow you to live the kind of life you want even when you aren’t in crisis, and presuming that most of us want our light sources to be ethical ones, and to provide the most for the least, that means sorting out some options.  Let’s talk options. 

Actually, first, let’s talk not setting your house, child, cat or ferret on fire.  Many of these solutions involve open flames, or slightly enclosed flames.  If you are going to use them, use them very carefully.  Have a good smoke detector around and batteries, keep fire extinguishers and know how to use them, and never leave them unattended where kids or pets could get at them.  If you have children or pets, stable candles with solid bases are better than tall candles with candlesticks, and hurricanes or other containment, or wall sconces are safer than the table where the kids can reach or the dog can bump into things while hoping someone will drop something.  I have several wall sconces with hurricane glasses that I found at a yard sale.  Mirrored sconces will nearly double the amount of light in a room as as side benefit.

 If you really desperately needed light, and wanted to be outside, you could make rushlights or flaming torches - dip cattails in oil or set a stick on fire.  You do not want to do this in your house, just in case you were wondering ;-) .  But this is not the most carbon-efficient option, nor is it terrifically convenient (although flaming torches have their place in driving monsters out of the local ruined castle, I suppose).

You could also burn olive oil, in a homemade lamp, with a wick made from a shoelace (cotton only, pull off the plastic ends).  This is not cheap, but it is clean burning.  It won’t give tons of light, but if you have olives where you live, you can make a simple lamp. Here’s a variation that uses a mason jar: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/Make-Olive-Oil-Lamp.aspx

Next possibility are candles.  Most candles are petroleum based, and some have lead wicks, which are not good to breathe, so be careful when buying cheap candles.  I think scented candles are generally disgusting, and they can cause problems for people with allergies or scent sensitivities, so I avoid those as well (is there anyone who thinks those Yankee candle stores smell *good* ;-P).  Soy, beeswax and bayberry candles are much nicer and better for you.  Tallow candles don’t smell so hot when burning, and you really can’t buy them, but you could make them out of leftover animal fats.  If you plan to use candles, think about where your candles will come from - get to know your local beekeeper, plant some bayberry bushes if you’ve got sandy soil, or get your own hive and candle molds.

 Kerosene is not environmentally more sound, but lamp oil does store well, and kerosene lamps can provide a good backup lighting source.  Make sure you know how to use them, and how to trim wicks and clean them.  Lamp oil stores pretty much indefinitely, but make sure you store it in a fire proof container.  These oils are byproducts of coal production, so not likely to run entirely out, but also not real environmentally cool.

You can get lights that will run on propane or on natural gas - try www.lehmans.com - these are used by the Amish, and if, for example, you have a natural gas well or use propane for other things, are another possibility.  Again, they aren’t necessarily a huge improvement over grid electric (depending on how your electric is generated), but they may allow you to rely on more stable supplies.

Flashlights, battery powered lamps, booklights and headlamps make a lot of sense when combined with rechargeable batteries and solar powered battery chargers.  Set these in your window, have several sets of each battery type to rotate, and these can give excellent light for extended periods.  Headlamps are especially nice for a host of purposes - going out to the barn with stuff in your hands, washing dishes, etc…  Book lights clip to your book and allow you to read with tiny quantities of light.  These are also a great mix with LED nightlights for kids. 

If you are going to get flashlights, get at least one serious, heavy duty, police-officer style flashlight, or a floodlight LED type.  The reason is that sooner or later you are bound to have to help track the dog through the woods, find out what’s making that noise under the house, or otherwise do something with a light with *power* - little flashlights are adequate for most jobs, but once in a while, these are useful.  They are also an excellent security device - most people prowling about will stop, blinded when you shine one on them, and many pesty critters will run away ;-) .

Hand crank flashlights are good, but usually not super powerful.  Plus you might have something to do besides crank.  I have some, but I also recommend some battery powered ones, although the crank type are great for kids.   Although not at all sustainable, for bugout bags and such, I also see the value of chemical lightsticks for little kids, who need something to be secure.

Solar lights are also great - and the kind designed for gardens are very cheap these days.  Buy a bunch, plant them outside, and then simply stick one in a bucket of sand in rooms where you need light.  Unlike many of the other options here, they are quite pleasant to read by. I also have a couple of solar lanterns, which are very nice, especially when children and pets are about.  The lanterns are easy to carry about with you, as are the outdoor lights, if you keep buckets about.  Plus, the outdoor types can be used, well, outdoors ;-) .

You can, of course, put in a solar, wind or microhydro system and use it to power lights and a few other things.  A small system that can run your computer, your lights and your CD player won’t be too expensive.  I recommend this generally, however, only for people who either aren’t grid tied to begin with or who have done most of their other preps - because it is perfectly possible to run those things on rechargeable batteries for much lower cost.

The most important think you can do about alternate lighting is change your attitude towards it - that is, instead of assuming that everyone needs their own lighted room, you all congregate together.  One person can read alound near the light, or perhaps everyone can do something like handwork that is done in low light conditions, to conserve energy.  If you can keep things mostly in the same places, there’s no reason why lights are needed for basic things like trips to the bathroom at night or to latch on an infant.  You can get up earlier and go to bed earlier.  There are lots of ways to adapt to lower light conditions that are less about what you have than what you do.  Of course, that’s true for all of this.


32 Responses to “Let There Be Light!”

  1. Kevin Wilson says:

    The thing which gives me pause about systems involving rechargeable batteries (which includes solar garden lights and hand crank flashlights, as well as the more obvious things) is the batteries. They all have a useful service life, and if my experience with cordless power tools is anything to go by, by the time the batteries no longer hold a charge properly, you won’t be able to buy new ones for that system because everything has changed (and looking ahead, maybe because no-one can make that kind of thing any more).

    So while they are a great choice for now, and a huge improvement over disposable batteries, or kerosene, they may not be a good or even possible long term solution.


  2. Sharon says:

    Kevin, this is true, and a good point. I’ve been using the same rechrageable batteries for 5 years, and they are still holding out, but that’s so. In the case of the lantern, you can get replacement parts now, though.

    Nothing, however, lasts forever, and that’s why I’ve got candles and kerosene lamps along with the other stuff.


  3. Kim says:


    Last year when Hurricane Ike blew through KY and southern IN we went weeks without power. We thought our backup plan of flashlights with rechargeable batteries was good — until then. The hurricane left cloudy skies behind it for almost a week. That meant a week without the ability to recharge those batteries.

    I learned the lesson of not relying on one back up in a hurry!


  4. ctdaffodil says:

    we use a combo of candles (tons of Yankee bought on clearnace), soy based candles, votives and tealights in old salsa jars (the ones with a wide mouth that come from the grocery). I have a few hanging sconces for candles which my hubby could put up if we ever needed too because of extended power outages.

    We have flashlights (battery and crank). The kids use the crank ones and keep them in their rooms for power outages in the middle of the night. I do too - just so I can get to a better light source - We also have a few battery lanterns which we use camping that come into the house when camping season is done.

    Have been looking into getting some oil lamps at the next church tag sale and some wicks and oil on my next run to superwalmart - a just in case kind of thing.

    We have several coleman lanterns and propane lanterns but don’t burn those in the house - another camping item that my hubby could use in the garage or shed with the doors open if need be.

  5. Jenna says:

    One more thing to keep in mind is how your house itself brings in lights. One of the things I love about my old home is that, as it was built at the beginning of the 20th century (1911) making the most of outdoor light was part of the planning process. Windows facing sunrise and sunset keep the house filled with light during the day - and the curtains and window treatments I have made try to make the most of it.

    Its one of the things I most dislike about a lot of new homes my husband and I looked at before buying our current home. So many have windows only on the front of the home - leaving many rooms inside without a drop of sunshine or moonlight to allow you to maneuver around without another source of light. Not a lot that can be done if that’s the case in your current home - but definitely something to look at if you are finding a new one!

    In addition to our : candles, lamps (oil, kero, battery, etc) solar garden lights, and more (my husband has a slight light… fetish. The running joke is he’ll never leave me for another woman - lumins however….) one small add as well. We have light bars - most often found on the bottoms of tricked-out cars - that we take event camping with us to use with our solar array. They are already built to run off car batteries - so they are sometimes an easier option to use with solar panels than attempting to power a generator to run “normal” household fixtures.

  6. MEA says:

    There are times when having a good source of lilght at night is vital — it’s hard to perform any kind of first aid in pitch darkness. I think even the moonlight, up at day break, bed at sunset crowd would do well to keep a powerful light source by the first aid kit. There is a reason they used to wait for day to perform surgery.

    MEA, who thinks a good night light doesn’t hurt when trying to get someone to vomit INTO the bucket, INTO!!!! though it’s harddly a life threatening situtation.

  7. Joseph says:

    I ordered a copy of your book, ANOF.

    I wouldnt worry about your Amazon ranking - I’m sure that when it is all said and done you will sell 500,000 copies.

  8. curiousalexa says:

    I have both oil lamps and hurricane lanterns that run on purchased lamp oil. I have discovered that the lanterns are much easier to use, due to a lever that lifts the glass to light! This makes a big difference when using it nightly. Most decorative oil lamps are a pain to remove and replace the glass chimney, and long lighters don’t seem to work upside down through the chimney too well.

    I joke that my light switch is the refillable butane lighter just inside my door.

    This does leave me dependent on lamp oil and butane, along with (eventually) replacement wick. I intend to check the local ‘honey’ farm and see about getting beeswax, but that still require wick material. Hmm, can I twist some milkweed fluff to dip in beeswax?

    This is where I hope Greer is right about a gradual descent - in a couple generations, nighttime lighting may be considered an extravagance? In the meantime, we will learn how to conserve and adapt. (I’m good at bed at dusk, but bad at rising at dawn!!)

  9. Lori Scott says:

    Having lived off grid for ages, we used kerosine lamps (most of which were inherited) and candles. We had no other option.

    Kerosine is currently cheap to buy in a big quantity and stable to store. You can stick big drums of it in the shed forever.

    On the other hand, I can state categorically that candles actually give a lot more light than the kero lamps. I could light a room with 3 candles placed in front of a mirror - on a dresser or a shelf.

    Beeswax is cheap fairly easy to buy in 1kg blocks but a local person would be a better contact to get this. Many beekeepers send their wax back to a central business who then put foundation wax on their bee frames and there is a bit of a circulating business there where lots of beekeepers who don’t want to sell wax to just anyone.

    Best solution is don’t imagine that your lifestyle enables lighting the night very much. Artificial lights are for emergency only and its lovely when the kids are little and they will go to bed at sundown.

  10. MD says:

    Is there a good resource for learning to maintain coal oil lamps properly? I bought new wicks for some of mine, and have had trouble getting them to burn properly since then. They flare up too much for comfort. I also inherited a very old kerosene lamp with a glass shade over the chimney from a great aunt, but have never put a wick in it or filled it, for fear of doing something wrong and breaking it. It smells of kerosene after decades of sitting on shelves. I tried googling their care and maintenance, with limited success.

  11. TheNormalMiddle says:

    Call me dumb, but I’ve never considered using my solar lights outside in the yard, inside! GREAT tip! So practical and yet, I’ve never even let it come across my radar.

  12. Risa says:

    The lady at our local post office burns those smelly candles. None of us likes to be the one to get the packages because we come out reeking.

    Regarding tallow candles. The ones I make don’t smell. Maybe because mine are from grass fed goat instead of factory farmed cow. I had read in a lot of books that they stink and drip like mad, but I decided to give it a try anyway.

    When I render it it doesn’t smell so great. I put it in the solar oven or in the crock pot outside so it doesn’t stink up the house. If you render it very slowly it comes out clean and white. Don’t let it brown. The more browning the stronger the smell. It takes a full day on low in the crock pot (or slightly tilted away from the sun in the solar oven). Then I filter and jar it. For about he first week after jarring it has a “meaty” smell, then it gets replaced by a “oily” smell. In fact, it smells a lot like palm oil. I make all of our soap and candles with it. I make candle sticks and jar candles. I don’t use any fancy supplies. The wicks are plain old cotton string. The sticks actually drip less and don’t have the chemical smell that tapers from the store do. They do drip in the middle of the summer when it’s hot in the house, but that’s when the jar candles are handy.

    I get a about a half gallon of tallow (fat from inside the body cavity) per 70 pound (live weight) goat. Needless to say we have a lot of tallow after butchering season.

    I’m sure I made a lot of people gag. So I’ll shut up now. LOL

  13. gaiasdaughter says:

    Risa, far from making me gag, you have me intrigued. I’ve been looking for a book that would tell me how to make soap and candles without buying all the ingredients at a craft store! Is there such a book, do you know? (PS I love it that you are able to render in a solar oven!)

  14. Sharon says:

    Risa, I’m not gagging, I’m totally fascinated - I never thought of goat tallow candles. How wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing!


  15. Crazy Gardener says:

    One of my favorite emergency flashlights is the BogoLight. It’s a solar LED flashlight designed to be used as the main source of light for people in third world countries. It’s tough, has a solar panel directly on the flashlight, and can be hung above tables. There are multiple levels of light (brighter task lighting versus dimmer area lighting), so you can adjust how long the batteries will last based on what you need the light for. Generally, one full day of sunlight will give you light for most of a night on low. Most rechargeable batteries will last about 2 years of regular nightly use (I think). It’s not a cheap light - $26-40 each (there is a sale on right now), but you don’t need to buy a separate charger or solar panel for them.

  16. MEA says:


    Doesn’t make me gag either, but I expect Sharon’s goats are looking over their shoulders.


  17. heathenmom says:

    Risa, thank you SO much for sharing that! It never would have occurred to me that (a) you would get so much rendered tallow from a 70 lb. goat; or (b) you could use said tallow to make candles and soap! You’ve just given me a couple more ticks on the PRO side to add goats to our little homestead. Yay!

  18. Heather G says:

    We have a variety of light sources here too. We even have a couple of garden solar lights, but they’re little ones that can sit on any flat surface. I love the sand in a bucket idea though, because the post-type solar lights are much brighter!

    On oil lamps, was talking with my MIL about them and mentioned some folks use olive oil, which of course is on the expensive side. I remembered that she doesn’t care to use olive oil because the end of the bottle usually goes rancid on her (I don’t have that problem but I think I use it up faster than she did). Anyway, I mentioned that lamps would probably be a good use for rancid olive oil and she remembered that _her_ MIL used to have a container marked “rancid olive oil” — we speculated that it might have been saved for just that purpose. Then she went on to talk about all the other oddments that were saved and labelled, and we had a good chat about what those things would be useful for — it was a great conversation!

    It’s possible to get tallow candles commercially, but not easy — Yankee carries them in their historical section (they have a room where they do traditional candlemaking demos, with a huge basket of bayberries in it, and stacks of beeswax).

    Risa, thank you for the tallow candlemaking description, that was great!

    We also have some mirrors here and there, set up to catch light from rooms that have windows in them, to extend passive lighting of our hallway. We also try to be predictable about where we put things so that we can mostly wander about in the dark without a light. But I agree a good light for emergencies is important!

  19. Andrew says:

    The electric light solution I found involved getting a number of 12V bulbs that are used in trouble-lights for cars. They are designed to fit interchangeably with normal light sockets.

    The next step was to put in some junction boxes for different parts of the house, so I can switch from 110V (entire house) to 12V (by room - and then only certain rooms). This gives me an option now to either power the 12V from regular lead-acid batteries (which are readily available - I’ve even seen a farm-made version at our local historic village - although I think it was from when farms were all independently powered with 24V systems mostly from the wind). Funny observation - by keeping the same room wiring, and fixtures, well, it feels easier to cope without the 110V. Many home power enthusiasts go this route by extension, with full house battery systems and inverters. I opted to manage down my power needs instead.

    Two things come to mind as part of my lighting solution: (1) Perhaps I will set about getting a small photovoltaic cell (like the kind used in RVs - which are still readily available) as a charging solution. Or better yet - hook up a 12V alternator from a car to a bike. Right now it is easier to keep three batteries in a charged state while the 110V is on; (2) If I was to start over, I would seriously try for LEDs which don’t have a large draw on power to produce their light. I think manufacturers are starting to produce common fixture sizes.

    The weakest link in this approach is replacing bulbs over time as they would be the hardest to replicate (LEDs apparently have a much lower failure rate), then the batteries which do wear out over time even with good maintenance and storage conditions. But for me, electric lighting is still preferable to candles and lanterns - you really do need to be careful with the heat and flame they produce.

  20. ctdaffodil says:

    liking the garden solar light idea - they are going to be on sale soon at box stores - along with lawn furniture…
    Will have to get a couple and try them out - if anything they would work in the bathroom at night - or in the hallway on a table in a bucket/pitcher/milk jug. Worth a try anyhow.

  21. Risa says:

    gaiasdaughter- I don’t know of any particular book that gives all the info on soap making and candles from scratch. It can be really frustrating. I have found one website that gives instructions on how make soap including how to make the lye. It is intended for people in third world countries. I printed up the instructions but I can’t seem to find the web address on the pages. I’ll see if I can find it again and post it here. In general it’s been a lot of trial and error. I started making soap about 15 years ago with The Natural Soap Book by Susan Miller Cavitch. Plus you can go online and search “lye calculator” and calculate how much lye you need for many different fat sources.

    Sharon- I think goat tallow is similar to sheep tallow. Its harder than cow tallow. From what I’ve read the old favorite mix was bee and sheep candles. I have tried them (but with goat instead) and they are great. Just a little beeswax in the mix keeps the tallow from dripping in hot weather. And the smell it gives off is heavenly. But we don’t have bees yet, and I’m too cheap to buy the stuff. LOL

    Mea- LOL! I’m sure the girls won’t have to worry too much. But, very soon she’s going to have more boys than she knows what to do with.

    Heathenmom- I actually raise mainly Pygmy goats, but there is a little Nigerian in them. Pygmies are actually a meat goat (officially they are a “dual purpose” goat). These guys put on a lot more meat and fat than the dairy goats we have raised.

    As for the candles and soap you can use just about any fat for both. We actually started with a Jersey cow, and she gave so much cream we would churn it into butter than make ghee out of it to stock pile. When we started running out of jars and storage space I decided to try making soap and candles out of it. It worked great. The soap was a beautiful butter yellow. You can also make soap with used filtered cooking oil, but I only use this stuff for cleaning soaps. Waste not, right!

    One more tick for goats is that you get a little treat in the spring. Cashmere. All goats but the angoras shed a downy undercoat. To officially be considered cashmere it has to be a certain length and diameter. And you don’t get much per goat. I get about 30-50 grams per goat per year. But I’m not complaining.Though I could give you a few ticks for the con side as well. LOL!


  22. cecelia says:

    whatever light source you use - you can increase the light it creates with mirrors - even a small mirror behind a candle will greatly increase the illumination you get.

  23. Straker says:

    “is there anyone who thinks those Yankee candle stores smell *good*”

    Yeah, I love Yankee candle.

  24. Segue says:

    I don’t see an analysis (admittedly more difficult) of the life cycles of these various technologies. Grid Electricity requires tremendous infrastructure and there are inherent losses in the system vs. Kerosene or Propane which must be distributed. An electric light that is mounted in the ceiling serves only that room, while a kerosene lamp might be carried by the person from room to room, always lighting what must be lit. Therefore, one kerosene lantern could replace 10 lighting fixtures. It’s really all how you look at it and somebody maybe has the time to take a closer look at this.

    I’m not saying I have a preference of one over another, except to say that using fewer lighting sources and taking advantage of the sun’s natural light as much as possible is the only clear winner in this debate. Improving building design is key, as there are many many buildings which RELY on artificial light to provide sufficient lighting. This needs to be changed, and building codes removed or relaxed that currently discourage good energy-efficient design (of which there are more than a few, despite their claims to the contrary).

  25. Janet says:

    I have learned a lot from the comments, thanks. Does anyone have advice on where to buy solar items such as the solar lantern or a solar recharger that recharges batteries (for flashlights)? I like the idea of using outside solar lighting for inside - and will be watching for sales soon.

  26. Peter Shield says:

    Because we live totally off grid we had to think very carefully about lighting. The first thing we did was watch the light from the windows move around the rooms during the day, then popped our favourite reading chairs where the light is in the early evenings- both our favourite time to read, after a days work and before dinner. Because where the light goes, so follows the heat,and trust me it gets hot here in the Languedoc, we also used that to guide where the bed and kitchen storage went so as to be as cool as possible.

    The first few years we were without power, so used wind up head torches for reading, and moving about and cooking. Candles to eat by, have to say the romantic side soon wore off, and on sunny days brought the solar lights in.
    As a previous comment said, mirrors artfully placed can make what ever light you have work so much harder for you.

    Now we have a 2.8 kw PV system, but despite a virtually unlimited supply of power old habits die hard and we still live with very little lighting, occasionally buring candles we make from the bees wax we scrounge off the bee keeper who keeps her hives on our land. Its a smelly process melting down used combes and sieving out all the bits and peices, but worth it, now we don’t need candles, the romance of their soft lighting and the fact we mix in home made essential lavender oil helps keeps teh flies and mozzies at bay.


  27. NM says:

    The only windows in our house face due east and west, and it’s a pain. I very badly want to build a house with passive solar lighting instead (on a different piece of land).
    The lighting direction is combined with aluminum frame windows from the 1970s, that are very large, and so far we haven’t been able to afford to replace the worst ones. So in the summer, we spend a lot of time blocking the light out, to keep the heat out.
    We also planted large cedar and maple trees in the front yard, because in August, the afternoon sun coming in heated the house so much it was unlivable (we don’t have air conditioning). The shade helps a lot … but now the only light in the house is in the east-facing kitchen, where, on a sunny summer morning, it is blinding. The living room is like a cave. Drives me nuts. I wanted to consider a solar tube, but DH is categorically opposed to knocking holes in the roof (he might have a point, at that).
    The (small, highly practical) dream house I’m designing in my head has wall sconces with mirrors behind, so I can use homemade candles and lamps without worrying about the cat who enjoys knocking things over. Haven’t dared light candles since he joined the household. I also want to try making an olive oil lamp. Have read that you can buy lamp-quality olive oil much cheaper than the good stuff I cook with, although I haven’t yet located a source.
    The information about rendering tallow was interesting. We’re vegetarian, so not doing that in the near future, but I could see that becoming important information to have, if/when we all find ourselves living a much lower tech lifestyle. I hope we’ll have beeswax, but it never hurts to know about the alternatives. And ghee candles? Never would have thought of that!

  28. Ideasinca says:

    Just wanted to echo the recommendation for the BOGO solar-recharged light. They will recharge on very little light and are multi-functional. With their handy hook and high-medium-low settings for both ambient and directed light, they can light a room or a path. After using them for a year in various camping and home-power-loss circumstances, they are by far my first choice, followed by the UCO Candelier candle lantern, which I also really like.

  29. Fle in TN says:

    A little late for the conversation, but…
    If you have any breathing problems in the household, candles and kerosene can be a killer. Seriously. Try each one out before you have to use it and see. Unfortunately we had to heat with a kerosene heater for a few days one winter and I ended up very ill. We now have the emergency heating thing worked out based on my cr@&&y lungs.

  30. risa says:

    gaiasdaughter- I have been looking for the soap making instructions, but I can’t seem to find them. I think it was on http://www.fao.org but they have sooo much stuff to sift through. It was years ago, maybe it’s no longer there. Sorry.

  31. jason says:

    Today’s (08/19/09) woot is particularly relevant:


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