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Old 10-26-09, 07:07 PM   #1
Niles H.
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Counterintuitive Burning Alcohol

I've had some close calls with alcohol, when using it with alcohol stoves.

After reading about Russ's mishap, it started some extra wondering about what is going on with alcohol, and why its behavior and burning patterns are different and surprising at times.

Part of it is that it doesn't spread in the same way as more familiar liquids. It has a strange way of creeping much farther than expected, and getting all over things.

It turns out that artists use alcohol in just this way. When they want a wash of color to spread more quickly and farther (on various types of surfaces), or to penetrate or infiltrate more, they will mix in some alcohol. Supposedly it serves as a surface tension breaker, and helps to make things move and spread out.

It can form a thin film on your skin, and you don't always know it. It can also form a thin film on other surfaces, like the outside of a fuel bottle, or on clothing or nylon. (This happened to me -- and since the flame can be hard to see, especially in daylight, it can be burning away without your knowledge. I watched a bottle of alcohol start to melt before my eyes, seemingly mysteriously, in this way. You couldn't see the flame.)

It spreads or travels a lot faster and farther than one tends to think, invisibly (the thin films aren't as visible as water); and it catches fire very easily.

It also seems to leak down around the lids or openings of certain types of dispensers (certain squirt bottles, for example), without its being obvious that it is doing so. And it gets all over things very easily, in this way and others. It spreads more quickly and easily than water, and moves farther. It seems to spill and spread and get onto things unusually easily, and you don't always know that it has done so. When there are flames around, this can cause problems.

Most people's experiences with alcohols (rubbing alcohols, for example) do not involve flames, and it's easy to become a little too familiar (as if we know them well enough already), and easy or casual with them, and used to them -- and accustomed to an idea or assumption that they are relatively safe, predictable, innocuous liquids that don't cause these types of problems (or don't have some surprising behaviors), and don't warrant some extra care or attention.

Last edited by Niles H.; 10-27-09 at 11:50 AM.
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Old 10-26-09, 07:28 PM   #2
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In college we did flaming shots. I got away with it but I had a friend that got scorched. After that incident I decided it was a bad idea. All fire needs to be respected.
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Old 10-26-09, 08:19 PM   #3
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It has a strange way of creeping much farther than expected, and getting all over things.
Indeed! I'm used to white gas, which burns and evaporates quickly. I even light my fingers for fun when I spill gas on them but alcohol just keep spreading and burning. Unfortunatly for camping owners, all my mishaps involved picnic tables.

Be careful!
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Old 10-27-09, 04:54 PM   #4
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I use a squirt top bottle instead of pouring because I find if much easier to keep the fuel down in the stove this way. When I try to pour the fuel, it wants to run back and spread around.
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Old 10-28-09, 05:30 AM   #5
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+1 I have a old 500 ml water bottle with a toxic sticker on the outside I use for large amounts and a 100 ml container for flying with fluids container for short trips.
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Old 10-28-09, 08:37 AM   #6
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it sounds like basic precautions with inflammables is the issue here, not the liquid.

water has high surface tension, and so does mercury for that matter, but neither absolve the reality that you generally dont' want to store stove fuels in random plastic squirt bottles.

metal bottle, o ring seal. problem solved. although Sigg no longer makes fuel bottles, any sigg style or MSR bottle is, really, the only way to go. I've carried alcohol in a plastic flask however, but think a gasketed lid is more reliable than a simple screw top.

my experiences from 30 years of backcountry rambles.
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Old 10-28-09, 09:19 AM   #7
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it sounds like basic precautions with inflammables is the issue here, not the liquid.

water has high surface tension, and so does mercury for that matter, but neither absolve the reality that you generally dont' want to store stove fuels in random plastic squirt bottles.

metal bottle, o ring seal. problem solved. although Sigg no longer makes fuel bottles, any sigg style or MSR bottle is, really, the only way to go. I've carried alcohol in a plastic flask however, but think a gasketed lid is more reliable than a simple screw top.

my experiences from 30 years of backcountry rambles.
Well I looked on my fuel bottle to see if it was a "random" brand but could not find a name

I got mine from Tinny here.

http://minibulldesign.com/mbdstore/i...&reviews_id=23

Very cheap, very reliable, I tested my bottle by stepping on it, no problems.

Avoid using a fuel bottle that requires you to pour alcohol, because like Bekologist said, it has a low surface tension, so it likes to backflow and spread. Also if your fuel bottle has an rubber seal or "O" ring, make sure it is alcohol resistant, alcohol eats many rubber products.
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Old 10-28-09, 09:44 AM   #8
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The good thing about alcohol is that the flame is easily extinguished with water - unlike many other fuels.
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Old 10-28-09, 06:02 PM   #9
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I've had some close calls with alcohol, when using it with alcohol stoves.

After reading about Russ's mishap, it started some extra wondering about what is going on with alcohol, and why its behavior and burning patterns are different and surprising at times.

Part of it is that it doesn't spread in the same way as more familiar liquids. It has a strange way of creeping much farther than expected, and getting all over things.

It turns out that artists use alcohol in just this way. When they want a wash of color to spread more quickly and farther (on various types of surfaces), or to penetrate or infiltrate more, they will mix in some alcohol. Supposedly it serves as a surface tension breaker, and helps to make things move and spread out.

It can form a thin film on your skin, and you don't always know it. It can also form a thin film on other surfaces, like the outside of a fuel bottle, or on clothing or nylon. (This happened to me -- and since the flame can be hard to see, especially in daylight, it can be burning away without your knowledge. I watched a bottle of alcohol start to melt before my eyes, seemingly mysteriously, in this way. You couldn't see the flame.)

It spreads or travels a lot faster and farther than one tends to think, invisibly (the thin films aren't as visible as water); and it catches fire very easily.

It also seems to leak down around the lids or openings of certain types of dispensers (certain squirt bottles, for example), without its being obvious that it is doing so. And it gets all over things very easily, in this way and others. It spreads more quickly and easily than water, and moves farther. It seems to spill and spread and get onto things unusually easily, and you don't always know that it has done so. When there are flames around, this can cause problems.

Most people's experiences with alcohols (rubbing alcohols, for example) do not involve flames, and it's easy to become a little too familiar (as if we know them well enough already), and easy or casual with them, and used to them -- and accustomed to an idea or assumption that they are relatively safe, predictable, innocuous liquids that don't cause these types of problems (or don't have some surprising behaviors), and don't warrant some extra care or attention.
You need basic fuel handling techniques.

For example, NEVER EVER EVER do any of the following:

1) Fill a hot stove, if your stove goes out, leave it for 30 minutes before fuelling and relighting, if you can't touch it, it's too hot. With alcohol stoves that have small amounts of fuel, having a second stove unit available so that you can switch them, makes sense.

2) Smoke when fueling a stove, yes some people are that stupid.

3) Keep a larger then needed container of fuel near a lit stove.

4) Forget to wash your hands thoroughly, with soap and water after filling and before lighting the stove.

5) Wear any piece of clothing that you think you may have gotten fuel on while lighting or operating the stove.

6) Fuel a stove near an open flame

7) Fuel a stove near anything that has built up any kind of electrical charge.

8) Store a stove or fuel where fuel could get on clothing or into other gear that could later be near a stove that is being lit.

9) Keep any fuel container that leaks, even just a little.

10) Use a stove that leaks fuel.

Keep these things in mind with not only alcohol stoves, but any stoves, and you should be safe. There may be a couple more, the idea is that fuel burns, so you want to keep fuel and things that may have fuel on them away from burning objects.



Keep these things in mind, not only with alcohol stoves, but any stove.

Last edited by Wogster; 10-29-09 at 05:22 PM.
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Old 10-28-09, 06:26 PM   #10
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All this means nothing if you overfill the stove. That's when the alcohol spreads out.
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Old 10-28-09, 06:27 PM   #11
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11. Never ever fuel a stove while parachuting from a burning balloon.

12. Don't drink fuel while smoking.

13. Something, something with fuel and fire.

Sorry, just having a little fun.
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Old 10-29-09, 12:11 PM   #12
Niles H.
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14. Never mix parachutes, flare guns, and alcohol unless you enjoy that kind of thing,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YziFeaukVeY
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Old 10-29-09, 02:38 PM   #13
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14. Never mix parachutes, flare guns, and alcohol unless you enjoy that kind of thing,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YziFeaukVeY
WOW, I am so glad he was not trying to cook Ramen noodles while he was acting so irresponsible!
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Old 10-29-09, 06:05 PM   #14
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I usually carry a small flat metal sheet w/ turned up edges that I set my stove and fuel bottle on. In the event of a spill, all the fuel will be contained within this sheet and the whole thing can be moved in one fell swoop without dripping flaming fuel along the way should the fire get out of hand. The sheet I carry is about 12" x 12" and is made of 22ga. stainless steel. It makes a great cutting board and a good place to set small parts when I don't have the luxury of a picnic table. A piece of stainless this size is considered scrap at any sheet metal shop and is easy to come by.
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Old 10-29-09, 06:23 PM   #15
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Alcohol was a preferred fuel for boats where one can easily end up trapped behind a flaming stove near the only exit. One good thing about alcohol seems to be a low heat flame. I have had the stuff burning on me, and while it hurts it didn't cause even a first level of burn, or any lasting effects. Short exposure. Try that with Sterno.
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