Which space heater is best?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Feb. 10 2009 7:05 AM

Heated Debate

Which space heater is best?

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.

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Methodology
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

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
Noise: 2
Safety: 0
Bells and Whistles: 3
Total:10

Delonghi Oil Filled EW7707CM, $54.42

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
Noise: 5
Safety: 2
Bells and Whistles: 3
Total: 11

Vornado Digital Vortex DVTH, $159

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
Noise: 1
Safety: 2
Bells and Whistles: 6
Total: 16

Honeywell HZ-7200 Cool Touch Oscillating Heater With Smart Energy Digital Control Plus, $58.63

Honeywell HZ-7200 Cool Touch Oscillating Heater With Smart Energy Digital Control Plus, $58.63 For the money, this thing cooks. It's the only one of the smaller convection heaters I tested with a frost-watch setting that will kick the heater on if the room temperature reaches close to freezing. The major drawback of this black, oval-shaped model—which looks like a squished, miniature Death Star—is its short, 22-inch power cord. If you don't have a lot of outlets in your house or they are not conveniently located, this could present a problem. (Also note that only heavy-duty extension cords should be used with space heaters.) Safety features include tip-over shut-off and overheating protection.

Warm Up: 6
Noise: 2
Safety: 2 (reduced due to short power cord)
Bells and Whistles: 6
Total: 16

DeLonghi HHP1500 Mica Panel Radiator, $89.99

DeLonghi HHP1500 Mica Panel Radiator, $89.99 This was the best heater for instant, silent, blazing toastiness. While the large panel—which looks somewhat like a flat-screen television on wheels—fires up quickly and emits a strong radiant heat, there's no fan to circulate the air, so it's a bit slow on room warm-up time. A ceiling fan or a small stand-up fan would work well in tandem with this unit.

What prevents this perfectly good heater from being a really great one is that it's a little skimpy when it comes to features—no timer, no thermostat readout. It also seems odd and somewhat frightening that it doesn't have a tip-over safety shut-off, as its height and slender shape makes it really easy to topple.

Warm Up: 5
Noise: 5
Safety: 2
Bells and Whistles: 6
Total: 18

Delonghi Safe Heat Ceramic Tower, $90.20

Delonghi Safe Heat Ceramic Tower, $90.20
At the highest setting, the Delonghi Tower seemed to crank out a bit more powerfully than other ceramic heaters. It's also nicely tricked out, with a remote control, 24-hour timer, automatic overheat protection, and a tip-over safety mechanism—which, considering its height (28 inches from the base), is definitely a wise addition. But the interface was the least user-friendly of the bunch. (If your father regularly asks you how to turn on a computer, don't buy him this heater.) And like the Vornado fan, this heater makes an annoying beeping sound when you change the temperature.

Warm Up: 9
Noise: 2
Safety: 4
Bells and Whistles: 8
Total: 23

Honeywell HZ-385BP Safety Sentinel Electronic Ceramic Tower Heater, $78.99

Honeywell HZ-385BP Safety Sentinel Electronic Ceramic Tower Heater, $78.99
This model has the most safety features of the bunch: automatic tip-over shut-off, overheating shut-off, and a power cutoff if something—child, pet, strewn clothing—gets too close to the infrared sensor mounted on the bottom front of the unit. It's also the only model I tested that has the option of displaying temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius. (My Scottish girlfriend speaks only Celsius, so I found this particularly useful.) Some Amazon users complained of a beeping noise when changing the temperature settings, but Honeywell must have heard their cries—this model worked without beeps.

Warm Up: 9
Noise: 2
Safety: 6
Bells and Whistles: 8
Total: 25

Conclusion
Finding the best heater depends on what you're using it for—how big is the room you are heating? How cold is it? In general, electric convection (oil-filled heaters or heat panels) seemed best for heating a room slowly but surely while fan-forced convection heaters are best for quickly raising the temperature. 

As for me, I'm not sure I found the best heater. My ideal machine would've been some Frankenstein version of the Delonghi Mica Panel with an internal fan like the Vornado's, a simple digital readout, a multi-hour programmable timer (so I could set it to turn on early in the morning and before bedtime), and all the safety features.

It's 2009—how hard can this be?

Dan Crane is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. He is the author of To Air is Human: One Man's Quest to Become the World's Greatest Air Guitarist.