Saturday, January 22, 2011

Electric Heaters

Lazy Daze equips its motorhomes with two heat sources - a propane furnace and an electrical heat strip integrated with the air conditioning unit. The furnace, of course, does a great job of providing heat; however, it comes at a cost. It uses up propane and the blower fan is a big consumer of 12-volt electricity. If you have hookups, the latter is not a problem, but if you're boondocking, running the furnace will be a major drain on your batteries. The heat strip does only a so-so job as a heat source and it's rather noisy and of course requires 110-volt power.

As a result, many boondockers have turned to catalytic heaters, which use no electricity. Refer to the Propane Heaters FAQ for more information.

Most other cold-weather campers turn to small electric heaters when hookups are available. After all, why use up your propane when electricity is available? There are many different types; this FAQ explains some of them, based on comments from LD'ers.

- I suggest a compact ceramic disc heater. They are small but put out as much heat as the larger units and tend to be safer because most will not ignite a piece of paper laying in front of them. This may not apply to all but that is the claim for the Pelonis Disc Furnace we use.

- We use the Pelonis because it can be set to an actual temperature on the dial and the fan speed varies with the amount of heating needed. At about $70.00 it costs a bit more than some others but has a great reputation and serves us well.

- I've been using a diminutive 750W/1,500W Holmes Insta-Furnace "cube heater" for the past six years. It cost me less than $30 and has performed flawlessly.

- Andy has some interesting words regarding heaters he tried with electronic controls. They, like others of that type I've seen, had two major flaws.

-- First, the thermostat could not be set independently of the power setting (750W or 1,500W), so it was impossible to run the heaters on half power but at a reasonable temperature.

-- Second, and much more annoying, both electronically controlled heaters FORGOT THEIR THERMOSTAT SETTINGS whenever power was interrupted. What made this a fatal flaw was the heaters' anti-tip safety switches. If I so much as nudged a heater by accident--let alone picked it up to move it to a different location--the power would be cut off by the safety switch and all settings would be lost. When power was restored, the heater would default to highest power and highest temperature, meaning that I'd have to click the "up" or "down" button as many as 15 times (to the tune of loud, annoying beeps) to get back to the temperature setting I had chosen in the first place.

- The Pelonis HC461 is very unobtrusive in operation. The fan is always running when turned on, speeding up or slowing down as heat is or is not needed. The heat output varies too. I'm a light sleeper and the noise of a conventional heater is disruptive with its turning on and off, as the thermostat calls for heat. The HC461 does not do that, instead it will slowly increase or decrease the fan speed and output. At the lowest output level, you can barely hear it, even when up close to it.

- The DeLonghi Safe Heat Model #TCH659OER has a small footprint, it's quiet, it has 2 speeds, it rotates, you can set the temperature, and it has a remote control. We usually set it at 50 degrees when we go to bed (when we're hooked up) and I keep the remote by the bed. When I first wake up in the morning I just hit the remote to turn it up and roll over and go back to sleep. When I get up, it's nice and toasty. You do have to reset the temperature every time you move it or turn it on, but we have not found that to be a big hassle.

- The Vornado AVH2 full room heater uses a rotary thermostat control and will hold the setting regardless of what happens to it until you change it. It has all the other desirable features as discussed about the Pelonis such as two heat settings, very quiet during operation, fan full on or variable with the amount of heat needed and fan only for cooling. There's also no switching noises during operation. At roughly 12" x 10" x 12" high, it is considerably larger than most cube heaters.

- A suggestion from Andy: You can run two electric heaters simultaneously from your household outlets *if* they are both set to half power (750W). This works much better for evenly heating your coach than a single heater running at full (1,500W) power, and is the method I use and recommend. It permits use of the microwave oven, which is on a separate circuit, without fear of tripping a breaker.

You can also plug a heater into the same outlet pair that the microwave oven is plugged into, which is located deep within a kitchen cabinet. Because that outlet pair is on a separate circuit from all other your household outlets, you can run that heater at full power, while simultaneously running a second heater plugged into a regular household outlet at half or full power. BUT if you try to use the microwave oven while doing this, you'll trip a breaker!

I recommend you try using two heaters at half power, both plugged into normal household outlets. I think you'll find that if properly positioned and kept lint-free, they'll do a very good job of heating your rig, with no worries about "shutting off A before you turn on B."

- Another approach is to install a totally separate 15A circuit dedicated to an electric heater. Install an exterior electric box with a male connector and run armored cable from there to a new outlet inside the rig. Use a 12-gauge extension cord to hookup to the utility post at the campground. Pictures and further discussion here.

Most RVers, including us, carry some sort of portable electric space heater which can be quickly hooked up and run anywhere there is a plug. They typically put out about 1500W - a fraction of what the propane furnace can do, but about all the 30A LD circuits can handle while running other appliances. Such heaters are convenient, flexible, and range in price from about $20 to $150. Another option is the heat-strip add-on to most roof air conditioners, still reasonable in price, but less flexible in use. And, for truly economical off-grid use, many of us have catalytic propane heaters. They are radiant, silent, and have similar or greater heat output.

But, if you want to heat the interior quickly, particularly in very cold weather, the 16,000 to 20,000 BTU/hr of the propane furnace will beat any other alternative.

Steve - "aq433"

I agree with everything Steve says. I carry three $15 Holmes/Sunbeam electric heaters that I picked up at Wal*mart for $15 apiece. They run at either 1,000 or 1,500 watts (I always use the lower power). They're compact, lightweight, and quiet.

And unlike most ceramic heaters I've seen, their open-coil design never clogs with lint, pet hairs, etc. How many of you have disassembled your ceramic heaters to give them a thorough cleaning? If yours are like the ones I've seen, you may be unpleasantly surprised to discover what's trapped in those narrow channels. For that matter, you may be surprised to find that you can't disassemble your heater for cleaning unless you have a Torx Security driver (six-pointed star with a hole in the middle) in the right size.

Finally, they have mechanical thermostats that work reliably and "remember" their settings, even if power is switched off or the heater is picked up and moved.

Yet they put out just as much heat as an $80 Pelonis. (Our resident physicists will tell you that any resistive-element heater is 100% efficient at converting electricity to heat, whether it's nichrome wire, Calrod, or a ceramic disk.)


Our Pelonis has never been apart due to its efficient washable filter. I just took a look at the heater and, using a bright flashlight, all the holes in the ceramic discs are clean and pass light. I have never even blown it out with compressed air. Not bad for daily use, in the winter, for eight years.

It was a bit pricey but you get what you pay for. Try taking it away from my wife and you will get hurt.

If the heater does need opening, the screws are a standard Phillips head. Torx wouldn't be a problem either, got a full set in the garage, LD and Jeep, since they are commonly used in automotive applications.


So there is the Pelonis ceramic camp and the cheap ordinary heater camp.

Contributors: Monti, Larry Wade, Andy Baird, Kate Klein, Ray, WxToad
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