"Amish heater" does a good job, but don't expect any miracles

Consumer Reports News: February 21, 2009 12:09 AM

When is an electric space heater more than just an appliance? When it's an "Amish heater."

At least that's what those spread newspaper and magazine ads and television commercials for the "miracle" Heat Surge Roll-n-Glow Electric Fireplace would have you believe. The marketing for this appliance says it will help reduce your heating bills and even touts that the heater is free. There is the small matter of the wood surround you have to buy for about $350 to $400—which is where the Amish apparently come in, since the heater itself is made in China. Heat Surge itself is based in Canton, Ohio. (Check out the TV spots by searching for "Amish heater" on YouTube.)

"Miracle heater" is certainly an attention-grabbing way to describe what is essentially a space heater with a lightbulb-powered display of faux burning logs. Some checking in our labs confirmed that the Roll-n-Glow and its built-in light show are no more miraculous than other space heaters we've tested. Some specifics:

The Roll-n-Glow functions primarily as a fan-forced convection heater like those we've tested. Heat Surge says its heater produces "an amazing 5,110 BTUs," but that's just another way of saying it's a 1,500-watt electric heater (it has a 750-watt setting, too), like most we tested. And while the oak surround on the model we bought appears well-built, some pieces are actually veneers, and we saw some nail holes in the trim. So much for that "superior craftsmanship."

The surround also comes in cherry and black and white. The list price on the Web site for the oak surround and heater is about $550 and for the cherry version it's around $590. A current promotion cuts $200 off the price, and some newspaper ads list a price that's $50 lower still. A bookcase and a hearth and mirror are optional add-ons.

How about those lower heating bills and Heat Surge's statement that the heater "can handle a 325 sq. ft. room for about 16 cents an hour"? Any similarly sized electric heater will do that, provided you use it in one room and keep others chillier—that's just basic zone heating. Note, however, that electricity costs roughly two and a half times more than natural gas, which is what most homes use. So any electric heater will cost you more to provide comparable heat unless you cut down significantly on heating elsewhere in your home.

As for performance, we found using this heater reasonably convenient, quiet, and safe. A remote control lets you turn the heater and its display on and off, switch the heat between low and high, and choose from more than a dozen brightness settings for the fake flames. But the heater lacks a thermostat, a key feature that allows you to regulate room temperature. The metal heater cabinet and its glass front panel did make our version somewhat front heavy. That and wheels recessed about an inch inward from the front increase its potential to tip forward, though a built-in tipover protection switch, found on many heaters these days, shut it off quickly when we intentionally tipped it in our tests. After two hours of continuous heating on high, most of its surfaces weren't hot to the touch, and even the center air-discharge grille above the front glass panel wasn't extremely hot. The Heat Surge complies with nationally recognized standards for safety and construction.

You'll find many less expensive but high-performing convection and radiant space heaters that will do a good job in a small space. In fact, David Baker, Heat Surge vice president, recently told The New York Times, "If someone would come to me and say, 'I need a heater and I want to spend as little as possible,' I would say go to a local big-box store and buy one for $29.99. Our heater represents a fireplace rather than just some space heater."

The Heat Surge Roll-n-Glow is not terribly overpriced compared with other faux fireplaces on the market, which start at about $250.

Just don't look for any money-saving miracles.—Jim Nanni, Manager, Technical Department

Essential information: As we reported in “Better Business Bureau Complaints and ‘Amish Heaters,’” the BBB has looked into some issues with the Roll-n-Glow. Use our advice to lower your heating bills this winter.

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