Next-Generation Portable Heaters

After 4 years of development, UL plans to release the first safety standard for Wi-Fi-capable portable heaters in fall 2017.

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Manufacturers introduced Wi-Fi capability in the past 4 years in most small and large appliances, but the technology developed slowly in portable heaters. That could change in fall 2017.

UL, which is an independent laboratory that sets certification standards for products in the United States, tells Consumers Digest that it hopes to introduce the first safety standards for Wi-Fi-capable portable heaters as early as September 2017. UL has talked about setting such standards since at least 2013.

Almost all manufacturers of portable heaters tell us that they explored adding Wi-Fi connectivity and mobile-app control to a portable heater but were waiting for UL to provide safety standards before the manufacturers introduced Wi-Fi-capable models. (Manufacturers rely on UL to certify their portable heaters. UL won’t certify a portable heater that it deems to be unsafe.)

At press time, UL’s existing standard for portable heaters recommends that you don’t leave a portable heater unattended. Tom Blewitt of UL says portable heaters have the potential for safety problems.

“Portable electric heaters are one of those categories that we want to be very careful about,” Blewitt says. “As you introduce new technology, we want to make sure that it doesn’t get misused. We want to make sure that the remote-connection capability doesn’t introduce a hazard.”

In 2013, Linda Hotz of DeLonghi told us that every manufacturer of portable heaters could provide a remote-control app “tomorrow” after UL’s updated safety standard was in place. Today, Hotz says DeLonghi will introduce a Wi-Fi-capable portable heater that meets UL’s updated standards as early as 2018, and she expects other companies will do so as well. DeLonghi already sells a Wi-Fi-enabled portable heater in Japan.

“As more and more households get used to using apps and wireless remotes, I think this will be the way of doing things in the future,” Hotz says.

In July 2017, UL finally decided on the Wi-Fi-related requirements that the updated standard will include.

UL says the standard likely would require all portable heaters to shut down their heating element automatically if the heater detected that a room’s ambient temperature exceeded 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

“If you have a [conventional portable] heater and the room gets too hot, you turn down the heater,” Blewitt says. “There’s a user there, and the person responsible for the heater is doing what they need to do to operate it safely. When it’s remote, you lose that user. That’s why there’s this requirement that the heater isn’t allowed to continue to heat up.”

The standard also would prevent a portable heater from being left in remote-operation mode for longer than 24 hours. After 24 hours, the portable heater would have to shut down automatically, and you’d have to reset it manually before you could control the portable heater again remotely through your app.

We believe that the 24-hour-shutoff requirement might take consumers by surprise. When we browsed online forums and message boards to read about scenarios in which a consumer might use a Wi-Fi-enabled portable heater, we found that most consumers want to use it to keep a remote property warm. In other words, if they lived in Chicago and had a second property in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, they wanted to use an app to control a portable heater and make sure that the second property stayed warm until they arrived there.

“You shouldn’t be using a portable heater to do that,” Blewitt says. “You should be using other types of products, water heaters and so forth, which can’t be moved around and don’t have the same hazards as portable heaters.”

One manufacturer, Vornado, says the 24-hour-shutoff requirement is “well-intended” but might frustrate consumers who want to use an app to control a portable heater in their home. Brian Cartwright of Vornado says the requirement will force a user to reset his/her portable heater to an app every day so he/she can use it and, thus, will make the feature less attractive.

Vornado hasn’t ruled out making a Wi-Fi-capable portable heater because of the updated standards, Cartwright says, but the standards will make it a “challenge” to produce such a portable heater. “It will take further creative development work to determine if we can successfully align our goals to these standards,” he says with regard to making a Wi-Fi-capable portable heater.

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