Alcohol Stove Boil Time Videos: Theater of the Absurd?

What do alcohol stove boil time test videos done in peoples’ kitchens, basements, and backyards tell you about the real world performance of your alcohol stove?

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You can’t measure stove performance indoors unless you take into account all of the real-world factors that can affect boil times and fuel efficiency (arguably the more important measure.) Even then there are a gazillion variables that make these tests crude approximations, at best.

Here are a few of the most important variables that will completely change the boil time or fuel efficiency performance of an alcohol stove in real conditions.

  • Wind speed because wind will kill the boil time or fuel efficiency performance of a stove, even when it’s protected by a wind screen.
  • Cook pot shape. Cylindrical pots can waste heat by venting it up their sides while flatter pots capture more of the heat generate by a stove. It’s always important to match the shape and circumference of your stove with the right pot shape so you don’t waste fuel.
  • Pot lids. Beware of tests that don’t us a pot lid because they waste so much heat. Pot lids also differ in whether they vent heat through colander holes or fit tightly on a pot.
  • Distance between the bottom of the pot and the top of the flame: The hottest part of a flame is at its top so a pot stand may be required to get optimal heat transfer for different pot/stove combinations.
  • Type of material that the pot is made out of. Different metals conduct energy better than others: Aluminum pots conduct heat better than stainless steel, which conduct heat better than titanium.
  • Stove priming times. Alcohol and white gas stoves take time to prime and it is difficult to determine when the priming phase is over and the boiling/fuel efficiency test should begin.
  • Fuel quality: There is a great deal of variability in the composition and purity of denatured alcohol from different manufacturers that will affect boil time and fuel efficiency performance.
  • Environmental factors including barometric pressure, water temperature, air temperature, and the temperature of the surface that the stove is sitting on will all affect boil times and fuel efficiency.

Is there any value in of all those alcohol stove boiling time tests on Youtube?

What do you think?

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25 Responses to Alcohol Stove Boil Time Videos: Theater of the Absurd?

  1. romney July 8, 2013 at 6:54 am #

    Well, its not scientific but it can be interesting. More interesting if they’re comparing two stoves under the same circumstances.

    I’d say a similar thing of gear tests in magazines sometimes. Anything where its used under a particular set of circumstances that aren’t the circumstances you’re going to use it in by a person that doesn’t resemble you. Men testing sleeping bags doesn’t have much relevance because I’m a woman.

  2. Birch July 8, 2013 at 7:31 am #

    How relevant is the EPA MPG rating on a new car?

    Until an industry standard is published, or a user standard is agreed to, kitchen boil times are probably the best we will have. Yes, a direct comparison can only be made in the exact same conditions. But testing boil times under all conditions would drown us in data rather than be more useful, and likely the conditions would be less well measured than “room temp inside”.

    I would find “how to optimize boil time on this stove” more useful, I think.

    • Philip Werner July 8, 2013 at 9:00 am #

      For all its faults, its at least a standardized test that correlates pretty well with real world performance. But kitchen boil time tests don’t, unless you camp out in your kitchen.

      • Birch July 8, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

        Do you have a standard test to propose that will give relative real world performance rankings? (Curious, not snarky.)

        I don’t care how long my water takes to boil, as long as it does. But I’ve cooked on my front step more than once to test recipes.

        • Philip Werner July 8, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

          Nope – I’m not sure one can be easily formulated for home testing – too many variables. Perhaps one could figure out the maximum kcals produced by a volume of fuel and then measure how much a stove outputs independent of a pot. Just brainstorming, though. That would eliminate priming time vs cook time discrepancies. Boil time is far less important in my mind than efficiency in terms of fuel weight.

  3. John July 8, 2013 at 8:16 am #

    I would argue these tests are valid if conducted such that stove A can be compared to stove B under identical circumstances. The goal of such tests should not be to determine the time to boil per se, but rather to measure that stove A boils x liters of water starting at y degrees in z% of the time stove B required.

  4. Ross Gilmore July 8, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    If someone wants to do it, I don’t mind. I don’t bother for the reasons you mentioned, but to each his own. The only value of the tests is to maybe show some relative performance comparisons as John mentioned.

    • Philip Werner July 8, 2013 at 8:52 am #

      But the tests are meaningless unless the stove is placed at the proper height above the flame for maximum heat output. If not they only show that the tester is….uninformed to put it kindly.

      Moreover NONE of the results from different testers can be compared.

      But even worse, they all paint an untrue picture of these stoves real world performance. Someone might actually believe them and take too little fuel on a backpacking trip when they need 3 times as much

      • John July 9, 2013 at 8:22 am #

        When I started using my Caldera Cone, I packed probably 2x as much fuel as I thought I needed (based on my experiments in the garage getting used to the setup). It was only after many trips worth of experience that I was comfortable “cutting it close” and carrying only the fuel I expected to need.

        IMO, anyone who sets out on a multi-day trip with no chance of resupply simply MUST have experience with their equipment. Otherwise, well, sadly I guess you get what you deserve.

  5. JT July 8, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    Whether it’s “what’s in my pack,” “stove test/build,” or “how to pack ultralight,” these videos are a treasure drove of entertainment. My favorites are the ones where I can’t tell if they are serious or satirical. I’m thinking of the guy who drills holes in his machete to cut weight or SoulSurvivorX2’s tips for camp bathing.
    That being said. there is some truly helpful information available. I think approaching stove videos as demos, not tests, is probably more useful.
    And in the end, it’s the internet – beware!

    • Philip Werner July 8, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

      I agree with you there JT – Good demos – they show people how to light the stoves and that they can boil water.

  6. Peter July 8, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    Boil tests always amuse me. Who cares? You’re sitting in your camp about to cook your dinner and you have all evening to do it, waiting for the sun to go down so you can turn in. And you’re worried about a two minute difference in boil times between stove A and B? If time is of the essence, don’t use an alcohol burner.

    • Jell December 3, 2013 at 4:39 am #

      Hi Peter,

      I’d agree to some extent, but on the other hand I have just spent a weekend training teenagers in the hills, and often stop to wait for a group to reach a checkpoint or come over the crest of a hill. In those circumstances, knowing that I have time to get a stove out and have a brew makes a difference.

      Not sure I’d rely on a home made alcohol stove for that though!

      Jell

  7. Rob Lewis July 8, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

    Im an avid alcohol stove user and i have found the most efficient setup for me. I think people waste too much time bringing their water to a boil, wasting fuel. Most one pot meals or boil in bag meals only need to have hot water, but not boiling to cook the food. A lot of the foods can be put in the water while cold to begin the rehydration process while on the stove. This is one of the ways I conserve my fuel. Never bring all the way to a boil (unless its untreated water) and add foods that rehydrate in the pot right after the stove is lit for it to maximize exposure time. Sometimes pre soaking things like couscous, potato flakes and pasta can save on rehydration and boil times, therefore conserving fuel.

  8. pebbleshoo July 8, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

    I completely agree. I want to see stoves used under the worst case scenario conditions, not the best. Even a slight cross wind can have a huge impact on the performance of a stove. I’d rather know the failing point of a stove than how fast it can boil a cup of water in someones toasty warm kitchen. Might as well compare it to their kettle under those conditions :D

    Another factor that is almost never considered is setup time. If Stove A) takes 3 minutes to bring a cup of water to boil and stove B) takes 2 minutes. Which do you buy?

    What if Stove A) takes 2 minutes to set up on average and Stove B) takes 4 minutes to setup? The time savings have now been reversed.

    I switched from White Gas to Canister primarily because of the huge time savings Canister stoves have over White Gas Stoves in regards to setup.

  9. Jerry Schleining July 8, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

    I converted to alcohol stoves a couple years back and love them. I am one of those guys that not only watches as other boil water.. but I am one that gets the camera set up to record water being boiled. Is it scientific? Nope… Its fun. Just pure entertainment. Why do we hike? Well, HYOH is the saying of the year.. I hike for fun.. not science or research. I put way to much time and energy in to tinkering with gear.. not for science but for the simple fun of it.
    So is there value in these videos? You betcha!.. I can watch water boil for hours. Now that’s 2 cups and 1 ounce of fun.
    Great post Philip.
    Jerry

    • Philip Werner July 9, 2013 at 9:03 am #

      I obviously need to “lighten up” Jerry! Thanks for the insight.

  10. Rob Lewis July 9, 2013 at 9:47 am #

    I have experimented with every stove and pot type combo. I have found short fat pots (Evernew UL 600 & 900 or similar) and the George Andrews pepsi can stove from Anti Gravity gear has been the most efficient and hottest burning setup thus far.

  11. john July 9, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    I’ve watch several of these videos, and your points are valid, but anyone with any sense know that in different conditions you get different results time wise etc…

    But you can assume that if one is more efficient in the ideal conditions then it maybe in other conditions. Not always true I know but it does give one a starting point for comparison.

    Testing your own gear is always a good idea, as most people know. But reading about others experience with what they use or try to test is an enjoyable time filler while we are stuck in the day to day existence thinking about and planning our next hike or foray into the woods.

  12. josh camp July 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    I am guilty of suffering through a few of these videos also. I like watching people fumble around while trying to operate multiple stoves at one time. It gives you a good idea of the quirks inherent in each stove and most importantly things you shouldn’t do with each. A man can learn a lot from watching someone else’s mistakes.

    P.S. Shameless Plug Alert : Caldera Cones do help minimize some of those ” alcohol stove variables” that you mention (i.e. wind, distance from flame, pot shape, etc.)

    • Philip Werner July 10, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

      Glad you made that point. Russ – the engineer who designed the Trail Designs Caldera Cone is the one person who’s boil time tests, I would trust.

  13. Keith July 11, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    It’s like watching “Finding Bigfoot”, far from reality but fun to watch.

  14. Stu November 28, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

    The boiling times of an alcohol stove are very dependent on pot type and height above the flame. You have to test the whole system to get meaningful results. But testing is the only way to know if the design is improving. Of course wind affects alcohol stoves dramatically but the easiest test and realistic for some situations is to test in still air.

    I convert my results into an efficiency. The ratio of joules (or calories) in the fuel to the amount in the heated water. Usually about 30 to 38% on my tweaked for speed not efficiency stoves.

    In the end videos are one test, under one set of conditions they give a little bit of information but you really have to run side by side tests if you want to make useful comparisons. But like Jerry pointed out there is a lot of amusement to be had watching pots boil.

  15. Brian October 8, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Measuring stove burner performance is, to me, a futile exercise as Philip points out. What’s less futile is the overall performance of the SYSTEM. Piecemeal systems — a knock off Trangia burner paired with a pot stand Uncle Joe made in the garage with a 900 ml aluminum grease pot you found on clearance at the kitchen store — tell you nothing because you lose control of variables (distance from burner to pot, lid style, fuel choice, pot materials) and really don’t show hikers what they’re likely to have in the real world.

    But a pot stand made FOR a Trangia Spirit burner paired with a Trangia Spirit burner and with an MSR Titan pot can be compared with another integrated system (like the Caldera Cone, the 12-10 stove and the Titan pot) using the same fuel to measure relative performance under ideal conditions.

    Yet you must know conditions are seldom ideal. And unless we adopt a multiple testing model (controlled winds, controlled temperatures, controlled humidity, controlled water starting temperature, etc.) and take some sort of multi-test average, we have nothing but an ideal condition comparison between two systems. Why the kitchen method? Most of us are enthusiasts trying to figure out the solution of the perfect riddle in a kitchen, not scientists conducting tests in a laboratory. Back to my point: Tests need to be considered in the context of integrated cooking systems, not burner comparisons because those other factors do change and skew the results.

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