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Consumer Reports

How to pick a space heater without getting burned

By Alan J. Heavens | Portable electric heaters are the best bet for use indoors because they are the safest and most versatile. Kerosene, propane/natural gas, and wood-burning heaters are designed for garages and outdoor spaces and require venting to prevent buildup of deadly carbon monoxide. Some municipalities have rules on what can be used. So may your condo, co-op board or landlord, if you live in an apartment.

Need to know: The difference between convection and radiant heaters: A convection heater is designed to warm an entire room; a radiant heater directs heat at an object.

Convection-type heaters include ceramic fans and heater fans. Ceramic fans heat up quickly, but their plastic casings stay cool, so they can sit on a desk or tabletop. Heater fans circulate warmth around the room.

Radiant-type heaters typically use glowing quartz crystals to generate heat.

There are also oil-filled heaters that look like radiators and baseboard heaters. Both are designed to heat larger rooms.

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What it will cost: The average retail price is $45. Operating costs depend on what you pay per kilowatt/hour for electricity. If you pay, say, 0.00092 cents per kwh, it will cost 13 cents to operate a 1,500-watt heater for an hour.

Be sure to ask: Request a demonstration of each model. If a heater needs a grounded (three-prong) outlet and you don't have one, you'll need to call an electrician. The heater should have multiple settings (750, 1,000, and 1,500 watts), a thermostat that you can regulate, and an automatic shutoff in case it tips over, so it won't cause a fire.

Good advice: Don't use heaters to dry towels. Don't leave heaters on when you aren't home or are asleep. Place the heater on a level, hard and nonflammable surface, not on rugs or carpets or near bedding or drapes. Keep the heater at least three feet from flammable materials.

Bad advice: Don't let anyone tell you that space heaters are a permanent solution to chilly spaces, unless you live in an apartment and have no control of your environment. Correcting insulation levels, replacing or repairing drafty windows, and having a heating contractor look at how your furnace does its job will save you money in the long run.

Jargon alert: BTUs and watts trip up everyone but electricians. Just remember this: It takes 28 BTUs an hour to keep a one-square-foot space at 70 degrees. If you have a 100-square-foot room, you'll need a heater that gives off 2,800 BTUs an hour. The number of BTUs equaling one watt is 3.413. Divide 2,800 BTUs by 3.143, and you need a heater that produces at least 820 watts.

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Alan J. Heavens is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.


© 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services