Just over a year ago, I escaped from New York City and migrated to Los Angeles seeking sunshine and cheap rent. Happily, I found both. I was dismayed to learn, however, that even in the land of perpetual sunglasses, winter nights get quite chilly, with lows in the mid-40s. Don't get me wrong—I know Los Angeles isn't Michigan, and I'm certainly not asking for pity. Still, many older California homes lack heating, not to mention insulation, and unfortunately our collective narcissism fails to keep us warm.
Shivering on my couch one evening, I began to wonder whether space heaters, which have always struck me as rather dinky, could raise the temperature in my house above sweater-required range. As I've yet to make it big as a Hollywood screenwriter (Judd Apatow, why won't you return my calls?) I set out to find the best heater on the market for less than $200.
As luck would have it, Los Angeles was experiencing an unseasonable heat wave when I began my testing. On a balmy 88-degree afternoon, I tried to cool down my friends' bedroom to 60 degrees using their air conditioner (I don't have one of those, either) and then see how long it took to raise the temperature with one of the heaters. It was a bit like that old Steven Wright joke about putting a humidifier and a dehumidifier in the same room and watching them fight it out. Unfortunately, the thermometer I purchased from Radio Shack was designed to read the temperature of an object, not the ambient temperature of a room. Oops.
Eventually the city cooled down, and I decided just to get subjective with my testing: I bought a bunch of heaters, turned them on at night when it got chilly, and graded them. Each heater could score a possible 31 points, with 5, 6, or 10 points assigned for the following categories:
Warm Up (10 possible points): How long did it take for my room to go from cold to cozy? The quicker the temperature change, the higher the score.
Noise (5 possible points): Is the heater louder than a snoring sleeping companion? Is it likely to keep you up at night? Does it buzz, whirr loudly, or make that awful clanking sound like the radiator pipes in an old apartment building? A perfect 5, in this case, means perfectly silent.
Safety (6 possible points): "More than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with the use of space heaters, causing more than 300 deaths," according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and "an estimated 6,000 persons receive hospital emergency room care for burn injuries associated with contacting hot surfaces of room heaters, mostly in non-fire situations." Yikes. Some units include no safety features, and others have two or three. I awarded 2 points for each one.
Bells and Whistles (10 possible points): Does the unit have a thermostat? Is it digitally controlled? Does the heater have a programmable timer? How about a frost feature (which turns the heater on at about 41 degrees Fahrenheit) to prevent a room from freezing?
Here are the results from cold as ice to hot-blooded:
Lasko Model 5429 Oscillating Ceramic Heater With Adjustable Thermostat, $36.94
This heater is compact and vaguely resembles the head of a small robot or a boom box with only one speaker. Like all ceramic heaters, it works by using electricity to heat a ceramic plate surrounded by aluminum baffles. The aluminum absorbs the heat and then a fan blows warm air out into your room. Although this unit doesn't score well in the bells and whistles category—two speeds, a low/high heat dial, an oscillation on or off button, and no safety features—this unit could work well under one's desk to warm the toes. For the price, it's a perfectly adequate little machine.
Warm Up: 5
Bells and Whistles: 3
Delonghi Oil Filled EW7707CM, $54.42
In my test runs, this Delonghi, shaped like a classic radiator heater, put out a nice, soothing heat and was noise-free save for the rare and unobtrusive click of the metal when it turned on. But it took a while—roughly 20 minutes—to get cooking and, unfortunately, the design wasn't the only retro aspect of this machine. Instead of a digital readout showing your optimal temperature, there's just a knob; and the only safety feature on this rather heavy heater (which weighs in at just over 25 pounds) is the automatic overheating shut-off.
Warm Up: 1
Bells and Whistles: 3
Vornado Digital Vortex DVTH, $159
When I think "digital vortex," I think Facebook; but I suppose this electric heater deserves the title, too: It blasts warm air through a fan and has a digital panel displaying both the current and desired temperatures. A compact unit, the Vornado comes with a remote control and has a sleek appearance. It also turns off immediately if tipped over, and the exterior stays cool to the touch. But this heater was too loud for a light sleeper like me, who needs regular doses of Ambien. When the heating element—which resembles the metal coil on the inside of a hair dryer—turned on or off there was a strange buzzing sound, and after it reached my desired room temperature, the fan stayed on, blowing cool air at my head. It's also rather pricey.
Warm Up: 7
Bells and Whistles: 6