Portable Heaters Evolve

Mainstream manufacturers of portable heaters are adding infrared models to their portfolios, and a mobile application to control your portable heater might be around the corner. However, you should be wary of manufacturers’ claims when it comes to energy efficiency.

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The space that a portable heater covers is expanding. Thanks to varying designs in portable heaters—from concentrated airflow to oscillation to built-in fans that boost radiant heat—the appliances are capable of warming larger rooms more quickly than ever before. Unfortunately, you still have to pick your spots if you want to keep your heating costs down.

Infrared portable heaters, which cover more space than do traditional portable heaters, are becoming more mainstream, so prices for those models are coming down. However, a convenience feature that’s become common in other appliances—remote control via a mobile application—continues to be left out in the cold when it comes to portable heaters.

HEATING UP. Infrared portable heaters are nothing new. Niche companies have made such models for years, but Holmes introduced an infrared model in 2013, and at press time, Honeywell was expected to introduce three infrared models in September 2013.

Infrared portable heaters typically use anywhere from one to six quartz bulbs in the center of the appliance to produce heat. The heat then is propelled throughout a room by a built-in airflow system. The space that infrared portable heaters cover can reach as much as 1,800 square feet. Conventional portable heaters typically cover about 500 square feet.

Besides making infrared portable heaters easier to find in mainstream appliance stores, the Holmes and Honeywell models also bring a change to the marketplace in terms of pricing. Whereas infrared portable heaters previously cost around $400 and might go as high as $600, the Holmes and Honeywell models start at as little as $130. Consequently, the niche manufacturers reduced their prices to $200–$300.

Kristin Anderson of Kaz, which makes Honeywell portable heaters, says the three coming Honeywell models likely will be the start of a wider push into infrared heating by the portable-heating industry. She says it’s likely that portable infrared heaters even will move into big-box stores that aren’t home-improvement stores in the next 2 years. She also expects further competition from multiple manufacturers.

Representatives from DeLonghi and Vornado—neither of which makes infrared portable heaters—tell us that they are monitoring the category but have no plans to introduce their own models.

OPEN DEBATE. Trading on the assumption that consumers take more interest in energy-efficient products, manufacturers are changing their marketing of portable heaters of all types to suggest that certain models are more energy-efficient than are similar models. Products that have “energy-saving controls,” “energy usage indicators” or “eco-plus features” might cost up to $20 more than do otherwise similar portable heaters that don’t boast such features.

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The terms typically refer to how a portable heater operates when it heats a room. When a consumer sets the thermostat that’s on a portable heater for, say, 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the portable heater uses its full 1,500-watt capacity to achieve the warming that matches that temperature. Then, the portable heater reduces its power usage to a maximum of 900 watts to maintain the temperature.

Manufacturers that include “energy-saving technology” on their models boast of savings on your utility bill that range as high as 35 percent. Unsurprisingly, the calculations that manufacturers use to make their savings projections come with many variables and don’t apply across the board.

Brad Fletcher, who is an energy analyst at Environmental Solutions Group, which is an energy-efficiency consultancy, says manufacturers’ estimates depend on a particular duration of use and the cost of electricity in a particular area. For example, electricity costs on average 20 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) in New York City, compared with about 8 cents per kwh in Greensboro, N.C. Consequently, some consumers might benefit by paying extra for a portable heater that has “energy-saving technology” while other consumers end up losing money.

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