What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel

In a show of hands, how many of you have at least two dozen lighters set aside for survival use?  My guess is at least 50% of you have a couple of dozens and most likely 10% have 100 or more.

Along with water and food, adding tools for making fire is one of the first preps most newbies acquire.  Whether the tool of choice is matched, lighters, a fire steel, Fresnel lens, or all of the above, it makes sense to have multiple ways to start a fire.  That makes sense, since after all, fire can be used to boil and purify water, heat food, and generate heat.  Add some tinder to the mix and you are all set.

But, as with matches, how much do you know about the nuts and bolts of lighters.  And, perhaps equally important, how much do you know about fuel for your lighters? Zippo Sons of Anarchy ... Buy New $10.77 (as of 10:49 UTC - Details)

Once again with some help from my friend, Ron Brown, today I am going to delve into the world of lighters and provide you with what you need to know about lighters and lighter fuel for survival.

The Mystique of Zippo Lighters

What I am going to say in this article was inspired by this honest to goodness dialogue I had online:

“I’ve inherited an old Zippo cigarette lighter from my grandfather. Can I use charcoal lighter fluid in it?”

Well, why not? There’s Zippo Brand Lighter Fluid, Ronson/Ronsonol Brand Lighter Fluid, and even charcoal lighter fluid.

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

It’s like a discussion with my wife about cheese balls. To me, a cheese ball is made from semi-soft cheese, is the size of a baseball, and is rolled in crushed nutmeats.  To her, cheese balls are the size of marbles, made of puffy cheese-curl stuff, and contain an orange dye that sticks to your teeth. Both are popular at parties.

Turns out there are different things named cheese balls. Likewise, there are different things named lighter fluid.

Lighter Fluid: Bad Information

The Internet question “Can I use charcoal lighter fluid in my Zippo?”  received an Internet answer (but not from me):

“If you fill a Zippo with charcoal lighter fluid, you can kiss your eyebrows and nose hairs goodbye. And any other part of your anatomy that’s close to the explosion when it occurs.”

That answer is 100% wrong. It was followed immediately by a second 100% wrong answer: “Charcoal lighter fluid in a Zippo? No way. You must use butane.”

And a response: “Well, I finally got my Zippo apart but I still can’t figure out how to put in the butane.”

My take?  As Albert Einstein said, “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

Zippo Lighters and Butane

Let’s deal first with the Zippo/butane thing.

Zippo (brand) lighters were patented in 1936 and saw their heyday with the GI’s of World War II. Zippos used liquid fuel (white gas). The tiny fuel tank was stuffed with cotton fluff so that the liquid didn’t spill into your pocket. A wick brought the fuel to the flame by capillary action.

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

ABOVE (L to R):  Refilling a Zippo. First pull the innards out of the case. Then turn the inner assembly upside down and lift the felt retainer. Insert the spout of the fluid can and squeeze. The juice flows out of the can and into the cotton fluff inside the lighter. The fluid can is simply a can. It is not pressurized like a butane canister. Zippo Butane Fuel 5.82 Oz Buy New $7.49 (as of 02:05 UTC - Details)

Zippo’s reign as king of the lighters ended in 1973 when Bic introduced disposable butane lighters that could provide 3,000 lights before wearing out. How do you spell, “Goodbye Zippo”? Answer. “Flick my Bic.”

Today, a new Zippo costs $13 and a small can of fuel, $2.75. Or, you can buy a package of five butane lighters (Big knock-offs, pre-filled with fuel) for one buck at the Dollar Store. One Zippo and a can of fuel equal 78 butane lighters.

Judging by the Internet, people born after 1970 may have never seen a Zippo-style lighter. They sincerely believe that butane is the one and only fuel ever used in cigarette lighters.

So we need to understand butane a little better . . .

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

ABOVE (L to R): (1) disposable butane lighter; (2) refillable butane lighter; (3) butane refill canister; (4) to fill, hold both canister and lighter upside down, mate the fittings, push until it feels good. Zippo Lighter Fluid Check Amazon for Pricing.

Water boils and turns from a liquid to a gas at 212 degrees F. Butane boils and turns from a liquid to a gas at 31 degrees F. Just about the time ice is melting, butane is boiling. That’s why it’s a gas at room temperature. In a refill canister, butane is a liquid only by merit of the fact that it’s been put under pressure, not unlike an aerosol spray can.

You can get the butane out of its canister by:

(1) turning it upside down(2) holding it at a slight angle, and(3) pressing the injecting needle onto a hard surface

The butane comes out as a liquid but you can actually see it bubbling as it boils away. It will volatilize into the atmosphere far too quickly to be of any use in your Zippo. And you won’t like the way it smells either.

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10 Pack Refillable Lig... Buy New $9.36 (as of 10:53 UTC - Details)

Check Amazon for Pricing.