Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Can you recommend a space heater?

I am looking to purchase two new electric heaters, to be used with timers, for my children's preschool. Do you have any suggestions where I can find information on electric heaters?

Thank you,
Jennifer Straw

The Green Guide replies:

Thanks for sending in your request for information, Jennifer.

As you probably know, safety is of utmost concern when choosing space heaters for any room that houses children. Some of these appliances pose a fire hazard if they can be tipped over, placed in proximity to flammable objects, or are otherwise operated in an unsafe manner. Indeed, according to the National Fire Protection Association, space heaters are a leading cause of home fires during the winter months, with kerosene models posing the greatest hazard. Gas heaters pose a similar risk of death from unvented carbon monoxide. Overall, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission, there are more than 25,000 residential fires and 300 deaths caused by space heaters each year.

Your first step, given these risks: confirm that the preschool's administrators have verified that any space heater -- that is, a freestanding appliance that does not connect with the building's heating and cooling ducts -- is allowable. If yes, check if restrictions, including the building's fire insurance policy, exist that stipulate the type of space heater permissable. For example, "vented" heaters may be mandated, requiring direct access to outside air in order to reduce fire hazards.

And before you get started in researching specific units, Jennifer, you'd be well advised to review a couple of key governmental documents on space heaters. Please see the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) brochure, by searching for "space heaters" on the cpsc.gov web site (or to receive this free brochure by mail, call the CPSC at 800-638-2772). Please also see the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse brief on space heaters at www.eren.doe.gov/consumerinfo/refbriefs/eb1.html or call 800-DOE-EREC (363-3732).

Since you asked about electric space heaters, we will start by providing manufacturers of this kind of appliance. Precisely which company has the most efficient model depends on your building's needs. We'll simply supply contact information for reliable manufacturers, with whom you can discuss the room's (or rooms') specifications, including size, ceiling height, and number of windows, etc. Once you've obtained product info from individual manufacturers, Jennifer, you will be able to make your own analysis, weighing the purchase price of the units against their cost of operation -- along with any drawbacks they might pose. (Please note our final section on safety tips, which should be passed along to the adult who will operate the appliance.)

Electric radiant heaters are a safe and energy-efficient choice. Because no fuel is involved, they offgas no fumes, and are often chosen by consumers with chemical sensitivities, according to the Radiant Electric Heat, Inc., manfacturers of a portable radiant heater on wheels. Radiant heaters work in the same way that the sun does: instead of heating the air -- which, when hot, rises, thus reducing energy efficiency -- radiant heat is absorbed by objects in its path, which, in turn, radiate back the heat. A drawback: some of the units cost several hundred dollars (depending on size). Go to www.radiantheat.com or call 800-774-4450 to discuss your needs.

Vornado also manufactures a line of electric heaters that use fans to help warmed air circulate -- which can be noiser than fanless models. Go to www.vornado.com (click on products) or call 800-234-0604. DeLonghi is another reliable manufacturer, although phone reps for this Italian company are difficult to access. To view the DeLonghi MG15E Magnum Oil-Filled Radiator, at about $100, go to www.appliances.com (and note that this model is electric -- the oil it uses is sealed off and isn't combusted in any way, but is instead used to transfer heat).

Many space heaters on the market are powered by fuel as well as electricity; propane, natural gas, and kerosene are all common. These models are sold as "vented" -- requiring access to outside air -- and ventless (sometimes "vent-free"). According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, "most building scientists and indoor air quality professionals do not recommended ventless heaters...where small children and elderly persons live or where the heater is likely to be operated for more than two hours per day." The concern: "ventless" heaters often introduce carbon monoxide (CO), nitrous oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2) into a room. While new models are subject to codes that reduce risks of tipping over and toxic emissions, we feel hazards still exist. We recommend that you either go to the trouble of venting your heater or go with the more expensive, electric models.

Safety Tips:

Select a heater of the proper size for the room you wish to heat. Do not purchase oversized heaters. Most heaters come with a general sizing table.


Locate the heater on a level surface away from foot traffic. Be especially careful to keep children and pets away from the heater. Keep portable heaters more than three feet (one meter) away from any furniture, drapes, decorations, and walls.


DO NOT leave a portable heater running unattended or while you sleep. Do not use a portable heater in a bedroom.


Use only the approved fuel for your heater. Never use gasoline! Follow the manufacturer's fueling instructions. Fill portable heaters outdoors, wipe up spills, and do not use old or contaminated fuel. Never fill a heater that is still hot. Do not overfill the heater; you must allow for the expansion of the liquid. Only use approved containers clearly marked for that particular fuel, and store them outdoors.


Have vented space heaters professionally inspected every year. If the heater is not vented properly, not vented at all, or if the vent is blocked, separated, rusted, or corroded, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can enter the home causing sickness and death. CO also can be produced if the heater is not properly set up and adjusted for the type of gas used and the altitude at which it is installed.


Whenever using an unvented heater, always open a window about a half inch (1.3 cm) to let in fresh air.


If dizziness, drowsiness, chest pain, fainting, or respiratory irritation occurs while using an unvented heater, shut off the heater immediately and move the affected person to where he/she can breathe fresh air.


Only purchase newer model heaters that have all of the current safety features. Make sure the heater has the Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) label attached to it.


Only use portable heaters that have a tip-over safety shut-off device which will automatically extinguish the flame if the heater is knocked over.
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