Zippo lighters are the epitome of design. They are simple, rugged, and dependable, making them attractive to anyone who may find themselves in a survival or emergency where they need to start a fire quickly and reliably. The downside to Zippo lighters is their tendency to dry out, which can leave you in a bad situation and raises a question.
Your Zippo lighter dries out because the fuel evaporates. Three factors affect this evaporation.
- Surface area
To control the evaporation, you can:
- Seal the Zippo
- Control the conditions
Zippo lighters, indeed, are rugged and dependable. However, that doesn’t mean they are perfect or don’t need regular maintenance. Keeping your Zippo lighter operating at its top potential requires routine care. Learn about your Zippo lighter and how to maintain it properly.
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Why Your Zippo Dries Out
As great as Zippo lighters are, they do have some design flaws. When George Blaisdell invented the Zippo lighter in the 1930s, there wasn’t much thought given to packing away a Zippo lighter for emergencies. The Zippo lighters were meant to be easily carried in a pocket or purse and to deliver a quick flame to light a cigarette.
Now, most Zippo lighters are purchased as commemorative gifts with fancy engraving and emblems attached or bought and put into an emergency bag as an “in case” tool. The commemorative models may never see lighter fluid, and the emergency model invariably dries out. The why is in the design.
Three critical factors in the design are behind the problem of drying out.
- The use of a wick
- The lack of an airtight seal on the lid and the main body
- The use of a volatile fuel
Zippo lighters are straightforward devices. A wick is fed from a reservoir filled with an absorbent material that holds the lighter fluid. A rotating steel wheel runs against a flint, producing sparks. The sparks ignite the vapor of the lighter fluid as it is wicked up from the reservoir. This simple design is the major culprit in dry Zippo lighters.
Consider the mechanics of the whole fuel system, and it soon becomes clear where the problem exists.
- Volatile fuel wicked up the wick from the reservoir and vaporizes around the wick.
- The vapor dissipates unless there is a flame, and more fuel is taken from the reservoir and vaporized.
- This continuous process occurs no matter where the Zippo lighter is kept.
- If you want to call it that, the vaporization or evaporation occurs until there is no more fuel in the reservoir.
Some fuel will evaporate or vaporize around the sides of the Zippo lighter, where the reservoir slides into the case, but this loss is minimal. Most of the fuel is lost through the wick. The lid on Zippo lighters is far from gas-tight and does nothing to limit this loss of fuel.
This vaporization continues, whether in your pocket, sitting on a shelf as a display piece, or stuffed in your emergency kit. You can never completely stop the process. However, there are some things you can do to limit the process.
How to Slow Down the Process
The very design of the Zippo lighter makes completely stopping the problem of lighter drying out almost impossible. There are ways to slow down the process.
Seal the Lighter
When considering sealing a Zippo lighter, you are limited in your options. Many people have attacked this problem from the sealing angle with varied success. Some of the techniques that have been tried include:
- Wrapping the lighter in duct tape or similar material is probably the least effective method of sealing a Zippo lighter. The duct tape doesn’t create either a watertight or an airtight seal, so the vaporization process continues. Duct tape may slow things down, but the Zippo lighter will eventually dry out.
- Using heat shrink wrapping to seal the lighter – Some innovative individuals have tried using shrink wrap material to seal their Zippo lighters. Heat shrink material is easily obtained. Using a heat gun to cause the heat shrink wrap to contract around the Zippo lighter seems like a perfect solution. The problem is getting a completely airtight seal on the edges of the heat shrink, not to mention the fact that you are heating your Zippo lighter, which increases the vaporization rate.
- Making covers for the chimney to stop the wicking action – Constructing a cover for the chimney that surrounds the wick has been tried but is a challenge, given the small space under the lid. The Zippo lighter’s construction makes it impossible to get a tight seal to prevent vaporization.
- Commercially designed air and watertight cases – Leave it to some budding entrepreneur to offer a product to stop the lighter dry-out syndrome. These plastic cases are designed to hold the Zippo lighter tightly inside, and the lids usually include an O-ring seal. The more expensive models are watertight and airtight and keep a Zippo lighter from drying out longer than any other method. However, the lighter fluid will still vaporize off, and you will have a dry lighter in time.
The Alternative Solution
By far, the better solution adopted by most folks preparing emergency kits is to store the Zippo lighter dry. You will likely store several other things with your Zippo lighter.
- An extra can of lighter fluid
- some extra flints
- at least one extra wick
- and some cotton balls to replenish the reservoir material.
The few seconds it takes to fill the reservoir from the can of lighter fluid is minimal and keeps you from wasting fuel refilling the Zippo more lightweight reservoir every few weeks. The other solution is to carry your Zippo lighter as part of your everyday carry and refill it as needed. It is always handy and always ready in that case.
Zippo Lighter Tips and Tricks
Here are some helpful hints about your Zippo lighter.
- The flints used in most disposable butane lighters work perfectly in Zippo lighters. An empty disposable butane lighter can provide enough flints for several flint refills on Zippo lighters.
- Be careful about what you buy. The market is overrun with cheaper counterfeits of Zippo lighters. Make sure you buy from a reputable dealer.
- You can trim the wick before it needs replacing. Zippo wicks, when new, are about four inches long. As they burn down, you can pull the wick up out of the reservoir and trim the slightly burned portion off, even with the top of the chimney. You only need to change the wick when the portion in the reservoir doesn’t extend to the bottom.
- The packing in the reservoir is made of rayon. However, in a pinch, you can use cotton balls as a substitute. It does take longer to refill the reservoir when you substitute cotton balls, but they seem to work just as well.
- Never use gasoline in your Zippo lighter. Cigarette lighter fluid is much less dangerous and is explicitly designed for Zippo-style lighters. Gasoline should never be substituted, despite what your grandfather told you about his experiences in the Army. Gasoline has a much lower vapor point and can ignite when least expected.
Zippo lighters have a long and illustrious history. From World War II to the present, military personnel has carried these rugged and dependable lighters, and many are stories of how the lighters have served. The tradition of the Zippo lighter continues, and when you understand the limitations, it is a valuable part of an emergency kit.