Space heaters

Five top our list for quick comfort on the cheap

Last reviewed: October 2010

Practically any heater can help make a chilly room more inviting. Our latest tests show that the best do that more consistently, conveniently, and safely than ever for as little as $60—not the hundreds you can spend on a fancy infomercial model.

We focused on electric heaters, the best-selling type by far. Most models include thermostats to help them maintain the temperature you set. All the heaters in this test have a sensor that shuts them off if they overheat; in our tests three years ago most of them had one. You'll also find more models with tip-over switches, hot-surface alerts, digital displays, timers, and remote controls. Some, such as the wall-mountable Kenwood, $80, bring a dash of style to cold-weather comfort.

But even manufacturers admit that space heaters won't trim your utility bills on their own. The website for the $550 Heat Surge (also known as the Amish electric fireplace) advises turning down the heat, usually in other rooms, to save, after pressure from the Better Business Bureau to clarify its energy-cutting claims. That's because the 1,500 watts needed to fully power most heaters cost an average 17 cents per hour nationwide compared with 13 cents for oil and 6 cents for natural gas for the equivalent amount of energy. Kerosene and propane heaters can cost less to run, but they pose added safety risks.

Months of tests in a climate-controlled chamber show that even some portable heaters with thermostats can give you the chills in the room you're heating, and some still lack important safety features.

Some heaters scrimp

Two models, from Honeywell and Lasko, allowed wide temperature swings. The Heat Surge doesn't have a thermostat. That model and the $300 EdenPure also lack the temperature display and timer that you'd expect for the price, along with a hot-surface alert and a tip-over switch, which turns the heater off if it's knocked over. Overheat protection is the primary safety feature, but the others add a layer of protection.

Faster heating brings added noise

Convection heaters without a fan were as silent as some ads promise. Fan-equipped models distribute heat more quickly with some noise. The quietest were in the low-40-decibel range, about as loud as a refrigerator; the loudest, at more than 50 decibels, were about as noisy as moderate rain. But that's still far less raucous than the 80-plus decibels some vacuums emit.

Radiant heaters didn't shine

Those heaters tend to warm one or two people fastest because they use an electric-ribbon element or quartz tube to quickly heat what's in front of them. But the $35 SoleusAir we tested had no thermostat for optimal temperature control, and the Lakewood was missing a number of safety features included in other models.