Many people combat winter’s chill by using a portable space heater—a cheerful gadget that radiates June in the middle of January—in drafty rooms, home work areas, chilly entryways, or the office cubicle. These appliances are also perfect for lowering the thermostat elsewhere (saving you money) and heating only a select room or rooms. We called in a big batch—nearly two dozen heaters in all—and tested them to see how well and how safely they work.
Read on to find a portable heater that will see you through the cold months ahead. Winter won’t seem as long with one at your side.
How Heaters Heat
Heat is transmitted one of three ways.
-Radiation: A ray in the infrared (electromagnetic) spectrum that travels through space, creating heat energy when it passes through a solid, such as you, furnishings, objects and equipment, or a structure (such as your home).
-Convection: Movement of heat energy through a fluid, either a gas such as air or a liquid such as oil or water.
-Conduction: Movement of heat energy through a solid, by means of direct physical contact.
And every heater makes use of all of them, to one extent or another.
Electric-coil fan heaters: The simplest and least expensive heaters blow air over an electrical heating element.
Ideal use: Good for quickly producing heat in a small area, such as a shed or office, so that occupants can move about in a small zone of warm air.
Ceramic heaters: Simple, inexpensive, and versatile, these use an electrical resistance element encased in a ceramic block or a ceramic element that is itself semi-electrically conductive and heat generating. The block stores heat and radiates it out as infrared energy. Most of these heaters have a fan, but there are a few relatively primitive ones that do not.
Ideal use: A better and quieter alternative compared to the electric coil fan heater, these are great choices for shared offices or where quiet heat is needed, such as in a living or waiting room.
Oil-filled radiators: These wheeled appliances are filled with oil heated by a resistance element. They slowly and noiselessly raise the air temperature within the area.
Ideal use: A specific-use appliance best placed in a central location, especially where noiseless (not necessarily quick) heating is the priority, such as a home office or library.
Gas and liquid-fuel heaters: These appliances burn propane or kerosene to warm an infrared emitter that projects the energy.
Ideal use: A construction site, garage, or work area are the best places to use this, since you want to place the heater at a comfortable distance and the work area remains unobstructed. Tools and equipment in the vicinity are also warmed.
How We Tested
You would think if a heater heats, it passes our tests. Right? We wish it were that simple.
We began our test with a Fluke 345—a clamp-on amp meter and a power-quality test instrument—to check whether the appliances drew more than their rated amperage. And using the meter’s oscilloscope, we examined each heater’s energy use on the high setting. Why? Its energy use profile tells you whether a heating element, switch, or fan motor is misbehaving. Next, we used a thermocouple on a Fluke 233 meter to measure temperature on the heater’s front, and gauge whether it’s a burn hazard should you accidentally graze it. After that, we checked whether the appliance would shut off if it tipped over. Many heaters are equipped with a switch on the bottom of their case that will open the heater circuit, shutting off power to it, when the heater is tipped over. Finally, we shot a thermographic picture of each heater using a Flir C3 camera to search for unusually hot areas or any other anomaly that escaped our other tests.
Heat Storm HS-1500-TT
Watts: 1,500 | Type: Carbon-filament infrared | Highest grill temperature: 323 degrees | Highest recorded amps: 12.2 | Weight: 11.6 lb.
This no-frills appliance has precisely one control: the on/off switch. Flip it, and the 16-inch carbon fiber heating element glows to nearly cherry red in seconds. Its parabolic reflector bounces the infrared ray quite effectively. Don’t stand too close; optimal distance is several feet and we could feel the warmth out to 12 feet. This Heat Storm is rated for outdoor and indoor use, but you don’t want this thing in your living room. Really, it’s best used on a construction site, a patio, or in a workshop. Its tripod allows you to adjust the height from three feet to a bit higher than six feet. It could use a cord wrap, though. The heavy 13-foot cord is fairly stiff and flops around without some means to keep it under control.
Vornado MVH Vortex
Watts: 1,500 | Type: Electrical resistance | Highest grill temperature: 163 degrees | Highest recorded amps: 11.4 | Weight: 4 lb.
Pound for pound, the MVH is hard to beat. It’s a simple heater with a circular resistance coil and a three-blade fan that blows through a spiral-scroll grill. The result is surprisingly quiet and evenly distributed warm air. Its heat output can be adjusted to three settings: low (750 watts), medium (1,125 watts) and high (1,500 watts). The grill temperature we recorded may seem high, but it’s certainly not objectionable, especially when based on the standards of other heaters here. The appliance’s case stays cool to the touch, and a convenient hand hold is molded into the back; those allow you to comfortably reposition the heater even after it’s been running awhile on the high setting. Sitting at floor level and moving as much air as it does, the MVH is bound to pull in lint and dust. We think the guts of the appliance should be protected with an air filter, to avoid a fire hazard. Lacking that, vacuum the MVH regularly.
–BEST FOR HEATING LARGE ROOMS–
Lasko AW315 Tower
Watts: 1,500 | Type: Electrical ceramic | Highest grill temperature: 161 degrees | Highest recorded amps: 12.2 | Weight: 9.4 lb.
Our curiosity was piqued when we saw that Lasko calls the AW315 “bladeless,” as if it lacked a fan. And in the truest sense, it does lack a fan, using a multi-vane impeller instead. It appears to us that the fanless design (to call it that) contributes to the appliance’s quiet operation, as it pulls in a fair amount of air through its base and into its tower. To the company’s credit, it equipped the appliance with a cleanable air filter, right outside the impeller, which you can access through a tool-free hatch. We also liked the sleek touch pad on the front for controlling the wattage setting for the heating element, tower oscillation, and the eight-hour timer. The large amount of air flow and the appliance’s even heat distribution does help it bring a room or a large floor area up to a comfortable temperature faster than other heaters. If we had to pick one gripe, it would be that the battery hatch on the remote needs another trip through engineering. Taking it off? Forget about it.
–BEST FOR SILENT HEAT–
Watts: 1,500 | Type: Electrical, oil-filled radiator | Highest surface temperature: 162 degrees | Highest recorded amps: 11.9 | Weight: 21.8 lb.
The DeLonghi was the test’s pot belly stove, you might say. Okay, it’s safer and more sophisticated. It has a thermostatic control, three heat settings, and a timer. But there’s no denying that it has a simple old school look and feel that’s surprisingly similar to a wood stove. Nearly the entire surface of this grill-less appliance gets piping hot—the thermographic view through the Flir showed a large, bright yellow box-shaped hunk of heat. Like a stove, it will set up a convection current, with hot air rising up from it to the ceiling, sinking back down along the walls, toward the heater, and up again. Keep in mind that oil heaters are noiseless specific-use appliances with a narrow application, and they’re most effective when positioned in the center of a space with still air. If that doesn’t describe what you have in mind, look elsewhere.
–BEST FOR THE HOME OFFICE–
Watts: 1,500 | Type: Electrical ceramic | Highest grill temperature: 263 degrees | Highest recorded amps: 11.9 | Weight: 4.2 lb.
The DeLonghi oscillating tower heater is an excellent product for several important reasons. First, it’s equipped with two forms of protection. A tip-over switch will shut it off if it falls, as will an overheat switch if it gets too hot. The appliance is otherwise fully equipped. Its dual ceramic heating elements provide two levels of output (high and low), and they can even be totally switched off, allowing the heater to function as a low-speed fan. The timer has a 24-hour cycle, allowing you to designate on and off periods as if it were a small furnace. And, icing on the cake, it was the only heater equipped with a remote that came with a battery.
–BEST FOR A CABIN–
Mr. Heater F232025 MH9BX
BTUs: 4,000 (low) or 9,000 (high) | Type: Propane-fueled | Highest grill temperature: 360 degrees | Highest recorded amps: N.A. | Weight: 9.4 lb. with propane cylinder
Twist on a propane cylinder and turn the ignition knob to light: that’s all there is to warming up a frosty space using this little gas-fired dynamo. It’s noiseless and, according to our Flir camera, produces a well-heated circle with a four-foot diameter. Mr. Heater estimates that, when placed in an enclosed space, the MH9BX’s infrared output can heat up to 225 square feet. That’s a lot of firepower in an appliance about the size of a toolbox. If you need longer run time than its estimated three hours on high, you can buy a kit that enables you to hook it up to a 20-pound propane cylinder. As for its safety, it’s equipped with both an oxygen-depletion sensor, for operating in enclosed areas, and a tip-over switch that shuts it off. Be warned: It doesn’t take much of a breeze to blow it out.
–BEST FOR THE WORK BENCH–
Watts: 1,500 | Type: Electrical resistance | Highest grill temperature: 146 degrees | Highest recorded amps: 11.4 | Weight: 8 lb.
It took some looking, but we found what we believe to be the last portable electrical space heater still made in America. Made by Markel Products Company in Johnson City, Tennessee, the rugged little heater is an all-metal appliance that’s well built and refreshingly retro in a 1970s sort of way. It operates smoothly, quietly, and without vibration, and it appears that it would give you a lifetime of service without complaint. It’s a pity this little gem of an appliance is this expensive.
–BEST AT FLOOR LEVEL–
Honeywell HCE840B Heat Genuis
Watts: 1,500 | Type: Electrical ceramic | Highest grill temperature: 252 degrees | Highest recorded amps: 12.5 | Weight: 4.8 lb.
The aptly-named Heat Genius is about as sophisticated as space heaters get. It employs two vertical heating elements, two fans, and a thermostat. You can set the fan speed and temperature to heat a room, or you can set it to heat just at floor level, mid-height, or in the head and chest area. It’s also equipped with a timer that adjusts the heat down over two hours, dropping its output every 30 minutes. After two hours, the heater turns off and remains off. One other feature that we really like is the appliance’s Quiet Mode. It shuts off the lower fan and runs the upper fan on low speed for almost noiseless heat. We do wish Honeywell had equipped this with a cord wrap for better storage. But to be fair, it’s a design deficiency shared by most small heaters.
–BEST FOR OUTDOORS–
DeWalt DXH 140KTHCF
BTUs: 140,000 | Type: Kerosene-fueled | Highest grill temperature: N.A. | Weight: 47 lb. without fuel
The DeWalt is an extremely powerful and robust heater designed for drafty areas, like construction sites and buildings under renovation. If your garage qualifies as something close to that, so be it. We found that it requires a minimum of two gallons to fire reliably. Yet the fuel cap is in an inconvenient place below the combustion chamber barrel, mystifying on an otherwise well-engineered appliance. (We recommend you get a long-neck flexible spout to fill the tank.) But once it’s loaded, press the on switch, dial the thermostat to the desired temperature, and watch it fire right up. We were pleasantly surprised by several things: its copious heat output, how little current it draws, and how its outside surface does not get hot. Even after a half an hour of operation, the barrel surface was only warm, thanks to an insulating air chamber between the barrel’s cover and its inner surface.
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