Prepping: Burn Barrel Basics

Sure – the lights will be on forever.  Until they are not.  And – should that day come due to (pick as many as you please)…

  • Major earthquake
  • Windstorm, tornado of hurricane
  • Attack on the SCADA level of power systems
  • Sabotage by anti-American terrorists
  • Financial meltdown… (the list continues)
  • Script-kiddies…

…One of the most useful things to have around is a Burn Barrel.

There’s an interesting history to such “oil barrels” – since I read deeply on the topic years ago.  This is from memory, for the most part so it may contain some “factual drift.”

The story of them began with the widespread use of “oil lamps” that were fueled by a fellow named Rockefeller.  He sold a “Standard” lamp oil (yes, the name goes back to the 1800’s) and mainly he was delivering product (when possible) via pipelines.  But, when those didn’t work (or in one case, where a competitor blew up one of his railroad and pipeline bridges going into New York since street-fighting type competition was how Capitalism made its money) other ways had to be found.

Along came barrels.

The barrels had actually been around since the Civil War aftermath as Wikipedia fills in more history:

“Around 1866, early oil producers in Pennsylvania came to the conclusion that shipping oil in a variety of different containers was causing buyer distrust. They decided they needed a standard unit of measure to convince buyers that they were getting a fair volume for their money, and settled on the standard wine tierce which was two gallons larger than the standard whisky barrel. The Weekly Register, an Oil City, Pennsylvania newspaper, stated on August 31, 1866 that “the oil producers have issued the following circular:”

Whereas, It is conceded by all producers of crude petroleum on Oil Creek that the present system of selling crude oil by the barrel, without regard to the size, is injurious to the oil trade, alike to the buyer and seller, as buyers, with an ordinary sized barrel cannot compete with those with large ones. We, therefore, mutually agree and bind ourselves that from this date we will sell no crude by the barrel or package, but by the gallon only. An allowance of two gallons will be made on the gauge of each and every 40 gallons in favor of the buyer.

and by that means King Richard III’s English wine tierce became the American standard oil barrel.”

Barrels of lamp oil found their way into the big markets of the Northeast so suppliers that couldn’t get product into Rockefeller’s pipelines still found ways to distribute product.

Eventually, the barrel of oil (lamp or otherwise) settled at 42 gallons and to this day, the English measure is how oil production is measured.  Oilfield numbers are 42 gallons.

We saw the emergence of the “55-gallon barrel” (drum) in time for World War II.  It was bigger, being about 23 inches across and almost 35 inches high.  It has some efficiencies that a lot of people don’t know about.

You see, newly pumped oil, heavy lubricants and Bunker C crude are generally heavier than water.  So, at somewhere north of 8 pounds per gallon, heavy petroleum can be anywhere from water’s weight (336 pounds for 42 gallons) to nearly 500 pounds – depending on what’s in the barrel.  (Molasses is.heavier than water too, for example.)

During the Second War, it was easy to make ship loading estimates based on “barrels” of difference physical sizes.  In other words, a 55-gallon “drum” filled with AvGas (weighing only six pounds per gallon) weighed basically the same as heavier refined product in 42-gallon “barrels.”

If you’re loading an aircraft, say, the idea is the number of barrels gives an approximate weight regardless of 42-gallon (*heavy) product or light 55-gallon product.  You can still find 42 gallon “barrels” of heavy distillates today.

Something not in most WWII fighter simulations?  A hawk-eyed fighter pilot on a strafing run over a fuel depot would be well-advised to aim for the “big barrels” which were easier to set off in secondary explosions than small barrel content which contained lower flash-point product.

55 gallon drums are cheaply made.  Here’s what the top of one looks like after 8-years sitting out back of the tractor barn in East Texas:

Those pock-marks in acne-like fashion are where drum tops rust out.  Then they fill with rainwater and…yuck!

Takeaway #1:  Store 55-gallon drums on their sides to avoid standing water on the tops.

We burn about 2-3 times per week here at the ranch.  We have been  known to put certain “human product wipings” in old plastic grocery sacks and burn them.  Almost never need to have the septic tanks pumped that way….

Toss in paper products (*boxes and such) and it reduces the amount of trash picked up to very low (small impact) levels.  With a scoop of dirt on top of the ashes, its not an environmental mess.

Takeaway #2:  Empty the Ashes Regularly

This will keep the top of your fire lower in the barrel and less likely to catch on to buildings, grass, or nearby trees.  Also, a  low-in-the-barrel fire heats up the drum more evenly so if you’re working outdoors, you get more heat output for a given fuel supply.

Even so, burn barrels are not very efficient.  You can help matters by emptying about 1/2 a 30-round AK-47 magazine into the lower side of the barrel a foot up from the base.  Gets additional combustion air in and the fires will draw more evenly.  Don’t get too carried away…hard to plug up too many of ’em.

Takeaway #3:  Fires need oxygen to burn cleanly – control airflow.

Since you will be burning low in the barrel,  and if you’re likely at some point to be burning newspaper or heavy goods, a “fire stick” (poker) is necessary.   A 3-foot hunk of straight 3/8ths rebar with a crook and then 18-inches to grab onto, is about right.

Takeaway #4:  Stir the fire with a long-enough stick that you don’t get burned.  (Did we really need to mention that?)

Speaking of “stirring” one of my brother-in-law’s chores during the Vietnam war to burn classified material.  Again, fine use of a 55-gallon drum.

With secret documents, you need to do more stirring to make sure nothing intelligible remains.  So to help, once the initial fire burned down a ways  (flame a few inches high remaining), it was time to dump in some diesel fuel.  Stand back for a moment for the “whoosh” (if you mix in some gas for excitement) – and then stir like hell again.  Rinse and repeat until the CO’s happy.

Sound like a wast of diesel?  Well, not really.

We come up with “polluted diesel” around here often enough.  Condensation from the air in the bottom of tanks, or the by-product from “fuel polishing.”  (Worth a whole article in itself…)

When done, with polishing tractor diesel, for example, I end up with an occasional half-gallon Ocean Spray cranberry juice jug filled with part diesel, part water.

The 1/2-gallon size jugs are just the ticket to let mixed diesel and water separate:  (Arrows show the fuel/water separation line for the city-slicker types for have no hands-on-Life experience!):

Takeaway #5:  Even dirty diesel can be damn useful stuff.

When pouring it onto a pile of (whatever you’re burning) just take care to pour from the top;  pretend you’re decanting a fine wine and you can do pretty well.  The polluted water can be poured along a fence line where it will degrade over time, but it helps keep down the goat weed.

Another thing to consider – if conditions are dry and there’s any kind of wind blowing – is to get some fine hardware cloth (1/8th inch mesh) to use as a spark-arrester.

NEVER burn, though, if there is a burn band or “red flag” warning for winds up.

Takeaway #6:  Don’t burn stupidly.

Then there’s the matter of burn barrel “art.”

I’m a huge fan of burn barrel stoves.  You get a kit from Amazon to make one.  Like the $45 US Stove BSK1000 Cast Iron Barrel Stove Kit and be on your way.

One of these days, I will put putting a new stove kit together so I’ll snap some pictures of that and walk  you through how easy the process is.

Good to remember: Barrel Stoves are not something to put in a “regular house.”  Your insurance company would freak, for one thing.

If the crap ever hits the fan , we have enough roofing tin that we would build an almost “all metal” lean-to on the size of the house and put a barrel stove in there.  Open up windows to let the heat in, and so forth.

Takeaway #7: With a Plasma Cutter and a Welder, no telling how much fun a person could have building things…

Life’s too short to work all the time, anyway…

Write when you get rich,

author avatar
George Ure
Amazon Author Page: UrbanSurvival Bio:

14 thoughts on “Prepping: Burn Barrel Basics”

  1. Classified documents were not the only thing disposed of in country in this manner. There was also the “personal wiping’s and associated material”. A 1/2 oil drum was placed under the 2 or however many holer to collect said materials.

    The process involved removing the collection drum to a point approximately 8 to 10 feet from the collection structure. It required great skill and physical dexterity as the job was always left until the collection vessels were brim full. Protective gear had not been developed for this process yet. Once the vessel was placed in it’s safe position, and following and adding any further personal wippings from removal of any over slosh from the technicians self to it depending upon the dexterity of the technician, the addition of 5 gallons of Fuel, Diesel,#2 was added to the vessel. Remember though that most times the vessels were already brim full so a second empty vessel was needed to handle any overflow. Material transfer process to the second vessel details will be left to the readers imagination.

    The next step was obvious. Take a piece of paper, one of those classified documents maybe, and using what should have been a standard issue item your engraved Zippo to set fire to it and tossing it into the treated vessels. Try to stand downwind and ovoid breathing the fumes.

    Think I’ll skip breakfast and head straight to church now.

    73, stay safe.

  2. Ah yes, enteraining oneself on the farm. A burn barrel, some diesel fuel and an AK47, how I miss those days !!

  3. Based on watching the TV show “ALONE”, when the SHTF most of us are doomed. I have always managed to wing it during life in bad times, but I had electricity & it wasn’t that bad. If the professionals can’t make it, what are our chances. Only Bear Grylls will survive.

    Conclusion: But doing something to prepare is better than not being prepared at all. You got to at least try.

  4. On a barrel with a top, a holy tee shirt on top hanging over the side, will wick the moisture off.

    Take care, 73’s

  5. Using a torch, plasma cutter , or cutting disc in a 4 1/2 angle grinder, cut a series of ‘C’ shaped slots around the bottom of the barrel. About the size of a door hinge. Bend the metal out about 1/2 inch , all in the same direction.
    This will introduce air at a tangent and produce a fine twisting burn.

  6. George

    “Speaking of “stirring” one of my brother-in-law’s chores during the Vietnam war to burn classified material.”

    That seems to be the accepted method in the military for getting rid of outdated classified documents.

    I was once on such a detail. The method was to rip out a page from a crypto book, crunch it into a ball and toss it into a burn bag. That bag went into an incinerator. It was a good thing that there was about 20 of us doing the work or I would still be there.

  7. George, I know that you are assuming a certain level of knowledge about burn barrels, but you didn’t mention that some jurisdictions in particular, forbid the use of that device.

    And, burn barrels should be placed on a non-flammable surface with area around said burn barrel, cleared of burnables.

    Personally, I’m not keen on burning plastics – keep your barrel away from living area so not to burden others with inhaled smoke!

  8. Used a burn barrel in the NYC “suburbs” for nearly 45 years till they becanme cityfied and the neo mafiaoso trash company and new neighbors wrote “law” making it illegal and put trash colllection as a tax bill item forced.

  9. The burning of plastic bags (and PVC pipe) should be avoided if possible. They release hydrogen chloride, pure hydrochloric acid gas, on combustion. One of my rubs against plastic baggery is: Once created, there’s no elegant way to destroy or re-assimilate them. Dad used wax-lined paper bags for sanitary disposal, and had a barrel screen made from ~7ga diamond wire (the stuff from which the ramp/gates on garden implement trailers is made), to which he welded a hardwood handle. He’d dump the ash periodically and bury it, then dig it up a couple months later and use it in the garden.

    This seemed to me at the time like a lot of work for nothing. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned what he was actually doing, and why.

    • “One of my rubs against plastic baggery is: Once created, there’s no elegant way to destroy or re-assimilate them.”

      Politicians know this — why not outlaw?!

  10. Some plastics release highly toxic chemicals like dioxin (think agent orange) when burned. Just google burning plastics and dioxin and you will find info on how to separate the plastics. Also best that you have open desert and not your house downwind.

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