Off Grid CTO: Hey Buddy, Got a Light?
As we transition to spring up here in the mountains, while I work for ModelOp as the CTO, the temperatures slowly climb, the days get longer, and the snow continues to melt. It might seem counter intuitive, but this time of year I actually have to light the most fires. During the winter, the woodstove keeps going 24×7, and I rarely have to relight it. With the days getting warmer, we now actually just have a fire in the morning and in the evening, so that means starting two fires a day.
We also start burning more slash in the burn barrel as I return to cutting wood, and enjoy an evening campfire outside on occasion. Additionally, the wood fired hot tub is back in use, now that our gravity feed water has returned. So that is a whole lot of fire lighting!
Finding a reliable lighter that works at 10,200 feet has proved next to impossible over the years. Most disposable lighters of the long reach variety fail to work at this altitude, and finding refillable ones has resulted in many a returned lighter. So I thought I would share what I have learned and found to work at high altitudes.
I will be mentioning a lot of products in this post. I do not receive any compensation from anyone for this, it is literally just what I have found to work (or not work as the case may be).
Most people, when they think of a lighter, think of something you just pick up at the store and throw away when done. Well living up here using them so often, we just really, really hated the amount of lighters we would inevitably go through. I mean they aren’t really even recyclable, given the mixture of plastic and metals in them. So I have been on a long search to find reliable AND refillable lighters so we no longer had to go through all of this waste.
That said, many, many brands of long reach disposable lighters just do not work at altitude. Now the small traditional ‘Bic’ style lighters actually are very, very reliable at altitude. The reason why is they use flint. The fuel in the lighters are rarely the reason why they do not work up here. It is the little piezo electric sparking systems that fail to ignite the gas with so little oxygen available. The spark does just not last long enough. The flint, being much slower burning, almost always lights on the first try. That said, that style lighter for doing almost anything leads mostly to burnt fingers, so we really only use it for lighting the oven and a couple other simple tasks. So any flint style lighter does work at altitude, is the moral of the story.
Of the long reach lighters, the Bic Multi Purpose long reach lighters do seem to mostly work up here. About 1 in 4 I get refuses to light at altitude. That said, it will take around five or so tries to actually get it to light, so hardly what I would consider convenient. That doubled up with the waste of throwing these things away (hint, they don’t last very long), I just had to find something better.
“And Man created the plastic bag and the tin and aluminum can and the cellophane wrapper and the paper plate, and this was good because Man could then take his automobile and buy all his food in one place and He could save that which was good to eat in the refrigerator and throw away that which had no further use. And soon the earth was covered with plastic bags and aluminum cans and paper plates and disposable bottles and there was nowhere to sit down or walk, and Man shook his head and cried: “Look at this Godawful mess.” –Art Buchwald
“How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?” — Anonymous
Starting Fires in the Woodstove
Before I move onto the lighters, I do want to mention the absolute most reliable way of lighting a fire, and in fact what I use every day to start the fire in the woodstove. Strike Anywhere kitchen matches work much better than a lighter. They can be struck right on the woodstove to start, burn hotter than butane, and thus start a fire much quicker than a lighter. They are cheap, and will get going even on the coldest of morning, whereas you will find butane lighters very finicky in the cold. Combined with a piece of fatwood or two, you can have a nice warm roaring fire in no time at all going.
So I consider matches indispensable if you are living off the grid. I keep several boxes of these around, as well as the big long matches that will burn for quite a bit of time and give you some reach. They last pretty much forever if you keep them dry, and will always light with ease. Just make sure you get the Strike Anywhere variety, not the Strike on Box. I highly suggest these for all your fire starting purposes.
“Plasma seems to have the kinds of properties one would like for life. It’s somewhat like liquid water–unpredictable and thus able to behave in an enormously complex fashion. It could probably carry as much information as DNA does. It has at least the potential for organizing itself in interesting ways.” — Freeman Dyson
So the first ‘refillable’ path we went down was to get a USB rechargeable plasma lighter. The promise was great in that we could just use our solar power to have infinite firing starting ability. The claim was that you could even light candles with it.
The reality is, though, you would have to have quite the steady hand to keep the wick in the small spark generated, and it really makes a mess of the tip that then needs to be cleaned.
That said, it is probably our most used tool to light fires. Not fires in the traditional sense, but starting our gas powered stove. It is by far the best tool I have found for getting the stovetop burners going, or lighting a pilot light. It works instantly every time, and last a very long time between charges. There is nothing to replace, and so far has lasted us several years of daily use.
So if you want to have something to light your gas appliances, these things are great and work at any altitude.
A True Refillable Lighter
So with the partial success/failure of the plasma lighter, it was time to continue to find a more traditional flame that could be used to light candles and oil lamps. I tried many different ones, and failed to find any that would even somewhat reliably light.
I then found the Zippo Flex Neck Utility Lighter. I first tried the XL (long neck) version. It lit fairly reliably (a few tries), but when you flex the neck too much, the tube actually pulls out of the end and breaks. So I returned the long version, and figured I would try the regular version. This version worked just fine, and has become a great lighter that is completely refillable, and starts somewhat reliably.
I think the trick to this one working is it has a little coil in the end that keeps it lit once going. So after about four or five tries, it starts right up. If I try and light it again after that, it immediately restarts.
It has a small jet like flame and works well for starting most fires, and does stay reliably lit. It is also made of an all metal case which makes it a very solid and well made lighter. So over all, this lighter is a winner at altitude and works OK. As I mentioned, though, it still does take a few tries and can sometimes be frustrating. But it works better than the disposable version, so at least we weren’t throwing away lighters anymore.
“Playing with fire is bad for those who burn themselves. For the rest of us, it is a very great pleasure.” — Jerry Smith
“The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness.”
— Henry David Thoreau
The Cadillac of Lighters
So while pushing the sparker for the fifth time on the Zippo lighter, it occurred to me that there must be something better. I began to search around more trying to find something entirely different that the traditional piezo based spark, and was yet still refillable.
Then on an RV forum, I ran across the Olympian GM-3 which is a ‘constant spark’ lighter that utilizes a single AA battery to produce the spark.
So rather than a single spark initiated by ‘clicking’ the lighter, there is a separate button that you push that creates constant sparks.
The flame is not jet like, which I actually prefer for lighting candles and such. It will light every single time with a single push of the button. This lighter is solid and is a complete replacement for disposables AND works better.
Now when you receive the lighter, it has the most annoying safety system where it literally takes two hands to get it lit. Fortunately mine ‘fell off’, as I would never recommend removing a safety feature, and it is much easier to use now.
This lighter is pricey, but given I can refill it and use it for years, it is actually not that expensive. It will likely pay back for itself in a single year of disposables, and I won’t be throwing anything into the dump.
Whatever lighter you choose, it is critical to get good butane when using lighters at altitude. The normal Ronson or Zippo butane in the red and white can you find in the grocery store is not very good, and is dirty. It will end up clogging your lighter, and will not have a good flame.
The key is to find any brand that advertises itself as highly refined, or ultra refined. These have been significantly more filtered and purified so that you aren’t getting ‘dirty gas’. It really does make a difference. I’ve had lighters that would not light with the cheap stuff, return to working order after buying better fuel. So don’t scrimp here as one can is going to last you a very long time.
“Success isn’t the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.”
— Arnold Glascow
The Results Are In
So rather than a single lighter we use for everything, we ended up with three real winners for different purposes.
The plasma lighter is used to light our stove top every single time. It has really performed for us, and is a great workhorse.
The Zippo is great for outside where a lazier flame might blow out. Like lighting a grill or starting a mosquito coil.
The Olympian truly is an olympian and works great for day to day use lighting candles, oil lamps, and whatever else needs lighting. It has a pleasant adjustable flame, and starts with the simple push of a button every single time.
So that’s my recommendations for lighters at high altitude, and finishes up this blog. In the next blog, we will be looking at low powered (electricity wise) AI solutions for image recognition for a security camera system running off the grid.