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,

George@ure.net

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