Denatured alcohol has a long and successful tradition (over 125 years) of being used to preheat kerosene-burning stoves and is the sole acceptable fuel used with alcohol-burning stoves. Alcohol-burning stoves are still used aboard boats as the alcohol is extinguishable with water.
I recently posted a YouTube video about denatured alcohol scarcity in the State of California at my YouTube channel BernieDawg Cinema. https://youtu.be/nOCT77ma9zg I posted the video so that stove users and fanciers in California could do the leg work to figure out what is going on with the disappearance of denatured alcohol sold in their State. I am a resident of Oregon and we have plenty of denatured alcohol still available through small shops and big box stores that sell paint and paint sundries.
Who I Am
Most of you know I do work on vintage stoves and sell after-market silent damper caps under the “BernieDawg” logo/trademark.
What you may not know (because it’s pretty invisible to interweb denizens), is that I get 2-3 emails a week from folks who need help, instruction, or advice on fixing or operating their stoves. Some of these emails are sent to me because individuals need a bit of extra help in repairing or restoring their stoves after watching one of my YouTube videos or because they don’t understand something they read at a forum. I give this help out for free – no charge – just like I take no monetization from my YouTube videos.
How I Got Involved
A gentleman in California, let’s call him Lester, contacted me recently about getting parts for his SVEA 123 stove and also about some tips on problems he was having with the stove. During several emails back and forth, Lester asked me specifically about my YouTube video recommendation where I say the best way to preheat stoves up to vaporization temperature was to use denatured alcohol (aka DA for the rest of this story). DA is great for preheating stoves because it burns clean and sootless, is plenty hot for this purpose, and can be purchased in “green” flavors that are not only better burning, but better for the environment. Lester wanted to know where he could get DA. I told him any of the “big box” stores like Home Depot or Lowes would have it in the paint aisle.
A couple days after this email, Lester wrote me back to say that he’d tried both Home Depot and Lowes near his home in California (aka CA for the rest of this story), and neither one had it. Now, the Home Depot website is pretty neat, because if you put in the store location of the store you are going to go to, and then search for a product, the product will come up with the inventory count and the location of the product inside the store. There will be an Aisle and Bay number for the product location right there on the web page. Cool!
Yes, it’s paint thinner. Read the story to find out why it’s not denatured alcohol.
Now, since I’d bought DA just last week at the Home Depot near me here in Oregon, I reckoned that Lester was just having trouble finding it at his store in CA. But, when I entered his CA store location in as “my store” and did the search for DA, nothing came up! I mean zip, nada. As if DA didn’t even exist at Home Depot!
I checked it using my own Home Depot here in Oregon for the store location and there was the DA in aisle and bay such-and-such. Then, I checked for DA at Lesters Lowes in CA and no mention of the product there, either.
Could this be something to do with California? Uh-oh, I thought. Could this have something to do with CA environmental regs? So, wondering if maybe it was something about those CA environmental standards, I typed “california denatured alcohol ban” into the Google search box and was presented with a listing of many links to various forum websites where a ban was already under discussion. (Go ahead and try it yourself if you don’t believe me.) The earliest link I saw was January of 2019 and the most recent just days ago (October 2, 2019).
These forums ranged from yacht owner forums to finishing technique forums to model railroad forums to metalworking forums. I quickly scanned over their writings because I’m not a big forum reader. I didn’t reckon these guys were idiots, so I made and posted my video: https://youtu.be/nOCT77ma9zg
I’d hoped that someone with a horse in the race, someone in CA who had alcohol stoves or liked preheating petroleum-fueled stoves with DA, would know what was going on and would respond in the YouTube video comments with the answer. Or, if they didn’t know, they’d go research it and respond with what was going on in the comments. (Remember… I’m in Oregon and we have DA a-plenty for the time being, knock-on-wood, so I didn’t see myself as being the point person beyond making the video to get the “investigation” started.)
Instead, it seems that commenters on the video I made are/were looking to me to either provide answers or prove that what I’d posted had some basis in actual fact. Okay. I get it. The way the news cycle is working these days, I should have seen that one coming. My bad.
Soooo… even though I’m in Oregon and don’t know diddly-squat about politicking in CA I got on the phone this morning and went looking for some answers. By about noon, here’s what I’d found.
What Is Going On In Stores In California?
One commenter on my video (Oarfish) had said:
“Are y’all sure? I’m in California, so I checked the local paint store. It’s for sale, just like always. It was at a Kelly Moore paint store in El Cerrito it’s about 1.5 hours from Sunnyvale. I’m sure there is a closer store.”
So, I started there by calling the shop Oarfish said had DA.
East Bay Paint Center
969 San Pablo Ave
El Cerrito, CA 94706
b/t Marin Ave & Buchanan St
I spoke with a man who said that they had it in stock. Quite a lot of it, he said. I asked why the Home Depot didn’t have it. He said that Home Depot pulled it because the manufacturer has to “change the labeling because of the VOC (volatile organic compounds) laws”. They’re labeling it “glass cleaner” now going forward, he said.
Update – Lester, (remember Lester?), reported in just minutes ago that he was able to buy some Crown Denatured Alcohol at a Kelly-Moore store near him (Sunnyvale).
I called the Home Depot in Sunnyvale, CA.
680 Kifer Rd
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Mon-Sat: 6:00am-10:00pm, Sun: 7:00am-8:00pm
I spoke with a guy in the paint department. He said “No, don’t have it. It was pulled off our website and off the shelves a week or two ago. OSHA made them do it.”
I called Lowes in Sunnyvale.
Lowes in Sunnyvale
811 East Arques Ave
Sunnyvale, CA 94085
I spoke with a tired-sounding lady in the paint department there. She said, “No. Don’t have it. We haven’t had it for a couple of months now.” I asked why they weren’t carrying it. She said, “Why? They just stopped sending it. We don’t know why. They got rid of the Jasco products and the (unintelligible other brand name) products. That’s all we know.”
I called Sherwin-Williams in Oakland.
Sherwin-Williams Paint Store: Oakland-Broadway #8582
Oakland, CA 94611-5130
I spoke with a man there who said, “Nope. Don’t have it. Got taken off the shelves a while ago.” I asked if he knew why it was gone and if he thought it would be back. He said, “California is in the process of changing everything over to more eco-friendly products. The paint strippers here were gone for a couple of months and they just got back in in a new “green” formula. It might be a few months before we’ll see the denatured alcohol again if it comes back, but I think it will.” I asked him if he thought the new paint strippers worked as good as the old ones. He laughed. “Maybe not quite as good, but they’ll get the job done”, he said.
I decided to check my own Home Depot so I could get a screen shot of the DA with the stock count, aisle, and bay info so I could show how that product-finding stuff works at the Home Depot website for posting with this article… but the DA wasn’t on the website anymore! It had been there just yesterday. I called. (THAT is why I had to use the paint stripper screenshot above instead.)
3500 Spicer Dr. SE
Albany, OR 97322
The friendly lady in the paint department took a look down the aisle (it’s right near the paint-mixing area) to see how much they had. She came back to the phone and said, “We still have plenty in gallons and quarts.” I asked if they anticipated it going away or anything because it was maybe a problem in California. She said, “I don’t think so. We still have it coming in and everything.” Just to check that idea, I asked if they could special order DA in five gallon cans. She said she’d check on their website and then said, “Oh! That’s weird! It’s not even here on our website. Weird. So, I can’t tell you about special ordering but we do still have it in the store.”
What’s Going On With California State Government Agencies
My Googling turned up that CA has their own State EPA. and, under it are at least six different agencies that deal with chemicals and regulations in the State. Here’s the organization:
Air Resources Board
Department of Pesticide Regulation
Department of Toxic Substances Control
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment
State Water Resources Control Board
The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, aka OEHHA, is the agency that is charged with working out what are the bad chemicals in CA and it is the agency that has “the list” of “bad” chemicals at its website. It was created (maybe?) by Prop 65 back in 1986. You can read more about it and navigate to “the list” of “bad” chemicals at this link:
https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/about-proposition-65 or read the Wikipedia article all about Prop 65 here:
I’d note that “methanol” is clearly on that list of “baddies” at the link above. Methanol is toxic and has much less heat content than ethanol. Methanol has only 2/3 the heat energy per kilogram as more energy-rich ethanol (19.7MJ/kg versus 30MJ/kg respectively).
Ethanol is what most alcohol stoves were purpose-designed to burn. It burns hotter and cleaner with a bluer flame than methanol.
But, methanol (aka wood alcohol) is what is used to poison ethanol. It is added to ethanol to “denature” the ethanol so that ethanol (aka grain alcohol – the stuff in booze and now a gasoline additive in regular unleaded gasoline) cannot be imbibed. Methanol is what will make you go blind and can kill you if ingested internally in even small quantities.
But, back to the info search.
I reckoned that since I wanted to know what was up with DA, the OEHHA would be the guys to start with since they are in the know about the chemicals on “the list”.
I called them up.
OEHHA, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment
1001 I Street,
Sacramento, CA 95814
I spoke with a friendly lady and explained I was a stove renovator, collector and hobbiest. I told her how I repaired stoves for people and had a YouTube channel where I discussed stoves and featured repair techniques. I explained that I was calling to find out about what seemed to be a ban on the sale of DA in the State of California. I added that this was important to me because there were thousands of stoves still in use that used DA as a fuel. Could she tell me about the ban or direct me to someone who could tell me more about it?
She said that she was just the receptionist and had no idea about denatured alcohol. But, she said, you can try this number and see if they can help you there. She gave me this number. 916-445-6900. I do not know where it goes to – I didn’t ask and she didn’t say. I also got the impression no one had ever called the reception desk at OEHHA asking about a certain chemical before.
So, I called 916-445-6900. The man who answered the phone heard me out on the same pitch I’d given the receptionist. When I was done, he said he didn’t know about DA. He explained that there, at the OEHHA, they do the testing and make the determination of products and chemicals that get added to “the list”. The OEHHA, he said, doesn’t take legal or regulatory action about chemicals on the list. He said I’d need to contact the proper agency for that. I asked which of the many agencies I’d need to contact in CA to find out about DA. He said he didn’t know who would be doing that. But, he said he’d go check on it and then he put me on hold. I got the impression he had never had this happen before. I was thinking to myself how surprised I was that he couldn’t just direct me to the right agency; the one that handles the legal, regulatory or enforcement actions on CA chemicals for which the OEHHA made long lists.
I waited on hold for 4-5… then the line went dead.
I’d been disconnected!
What Are Chemical Companies That Make DA Doing in CA?
I know of a few companies that make and/or distribute DA. JASCO, Sunnyside, Kleen-Strip and Crown. JASCO is the brand that the lady at Loews in CA told me had been removed from the Lowes store shelves. I first checked the JASCO product website listing for Denatured Alcohol.
Clearly (as indicated by the part of the screenshot circled in red) JASCO has decided not to sell their DA product in CA anymore.
I next checked the Sunnyside DA webpage.
I couldn’t tell much from the information at the Sunnyside site about CA, so I used the “Do You Have A Question?” contact box at the bottom of the page to ask if Sunnyside would not be sold in California anymore and why. In less than two hours I received a reply to my email inbox from a representative at Sunnyside. Here it is:
I had actually called the folks at Kleen-Strip yesterday and was sent to voicemail. The receptionist transferred my call to the appropriate rep, but that person was out and it went to voicemail. I left a message and contact info there, but no one has yet called me back.
I guess you can make your own judgements on DA in CA. To me it looks like at least some DA-producing companies are choosing to leave the State of CA. The supply chains are currently in flux and the product is unavailable for the time being. It might be because they can’t keep up with Californias demands on… VOCs? Does this mean the State of CA has banned DA? Or, have they strengthened the product requirements beyond what companies deem as sane or reasonable. I don’t know.
What is clear is that DA in CA is going to be harder to find in most areas of California for the time being.
Will DA reappear in the big box stores in CA? Unclear.
Was this a ban? Maybe, sorta, in a very passive-aggressive sort of way, (and I believe, yes).
Bottom line? At least for the foreseeable few months and maybe much longer (since some of the marine stove folks were complaining about the “ban” way back in January 2019), denatured alcohol will be difficult to find in many areas of CA. If manufacturers who chose to continue to sell DA in CA are allowed to rebadge their cans or reformulate their products to suit the scientists at California EPA (or whomever is doing the deciding in CA), perhaps DA will return in widespread distribution in the State of California.
But, I wouldn’t put my money on it.