A radiant heater is one of the energy saver choices available to heat your RV in cold weather.
In fact, if you are RVing all year around and you happen to be in the south-west US in winter, the 70 F (21 C) degree daytime temperature may drop to high 50s (10 C) at night.
This means heating the RV to stay comfortable. If you are in a campground with full hookup, this is less of a concern since you have access to all the energy you need to warm your living space.
While boondocking (dry camping without a hookup), the situation is very different and can be a challenge. This is where the installation of a radiant heater is an excellent alternative.
Using the regular electrical furnace normally installed in the RV will run down the battery power very quickly. Even if you switch to the propane mode function, the large blowing system that brings air from outside to be heated and pushed into the room also consumes a considerable amount of energy. This is not the case with a radiant heater.
These often very noisy furnaces are far from efficient (60 to 70 %). As proof, put your hand up the exhaust and you will realize that the pushed air is only warm.
It loses 400-500 BTUs of heat to the outside. In terms of propane consumption, these heaters are not efficient either.
A radiant heater (catalytic or ceramic) or a blue flame heater model is the solution.
Both use propane but a lot more efficiently and do not require electrical power. Many experienced 'boondockers', staying in colder temperatures of the desert or winter nights, install these vent free radiant heater furnaces.
A radiant heater is a vent free furnace which requires that you provide fresh air to the heater to create adequate ventilation.
You must find a balance between different variables. Either you crack down a window, leave a roof vent slightly open a quarter of an inch or so, or prop the exterior stove vent so it brings fresh air inside.
Too little ventilation can result in a lack of oxygen or an accummulation of carbon monoxide (CO) which is deadly.
On this note, turning the stove burners or oven on to warm up the RV interior is extremely dangerous, and never recommended. This is why a radiant heater normally has an internal sensor which will shut off the furnace if the oxygen level becomes depleted.
RVs should come equipped with an oxygen sensor which sets off an alarm to warn you that the level of oxygen is getting too low. Make sure you have a CO detector installed in your RV.
It is also important to periodically verify that there are no leaks in the propane gas lines of your system.
Once all the detectors are installed and you know where your source of fresh air will come from, you are ready to install the radiant heater, as instructed by the manufacturer.
A small fan to circulate the air is a necessary addition. It will consume a bit of electricity but nothing major. A little DC fan like one used in a computer could be sufficient. An AC fan is fine but obviously, it functions via the inverter , increasing the amount of energy consumed.
Don't be surprised to read in the literature that these heaters have limits of maximum elevations (3500-5000 feet) to guarantee optimum functioning.
However, some RVers succeed to have them work at 6000-8000 feet (2500 m) without any problem. Problems arise at higher altitudes where oxygen levels are lower. The pilot light keeps going out.
There are also limitations in terms of the maximum size of the heater that can be used based on square footage. A big unit (25000 BTU) installed in a bedroon for example, would deplete the area of its oxygen very rapidly creating a hazard.
It normally goes like this:
The main manufacturer of these heaters is Olympian (Wave models) and they normally cost between $300 to $450.
You can find them at RV Solar Electric .
These silent furnaces do not need electricity to function. They work by using a catalyst which is a platinum impregnated pad which produces heat when combined with propane and oxygen.
It uses chemical combustion not a flame to heat the air. It is a radiant or flameless heat that ranges from 1600 to 8000 BTU. The heat from the pad radiates to nearby objects first and, with time, the air in the room becomes warm.
Sitting too close to the heater is not comfortable. In fact, having objects nearby is a hazard; a couch or cabinet can be set on fire. You also have to pay special attention that your pets don't burn their tails by touching the pad.
These heaters have been in use for years. They come in different sizes, and are portable or wall mounted. They normally do not have a thermostat so they won't turn off by themselves.
Settings are either low or high. If the pad gets dirty, it is not easy to clean. A replacement pad ($100) is available as long as the model is still being manufactured. If not, you may have to change the whole unit.
When not in use, it is a good idea to cover the heater so no dust or dirt collects on the pad. Never try to clean the pad; it will leave marks and damage the active platinum on the surface. If there is dirt on the pad, it is probably already cooked into it.
If you smell propane while the heater is on or if the unit does not stay lit or if the heat drops substantially, this means that the pad is likely poisoned and you need a new one.
Finally, note that there is also on the market a newer type of radiant heater which is called ceramic or brick heater. They work on the same principle of radiant heat.
The difference is that instead of having a pad like the catalytic heater, they use two to five bricks to radiate 10000 to 25000 BTUs of heat.
Their main manufacturers are Pro Com and Kozy World. Note that Vanguard/Glo-Warm declared bankruptcy in 2009.
Contrary to a catalytic heater which radiates heat to nearby objects first and then warms the air, the blue flame heater has an open blue flame and works on the opposite principle.
They warm up the surrounding air first, and then objects. It simply provides a different kind of heat. The heater draws air from the floor, heats it up and throws warm air out of vents. Unlike the catalytic pad, there is no danger of burning nearby objects, pets or children.
These heaters are produced by Pro Com and Kozy World.
Two variations of the same model are offered: either with ceramics (infrared) or with an open flame (blue flame).
They come with or without a thermostat ($30-$50). A thermostat is worthwhile. It keeps the temperature constant within 2 degrees.
Interestingly enough, you also have the option of a blue flame fireplace with the look of artificial logs and a mantel. They cost about $200-$300 more but create a romantic atmosphere in your RV.
Whatever your choice (my personal preference being the blue flame fireplace model), just be cautious to use the unit properly.
This means providing enough ventilation with a sufficient source of oxygen, having detectors in place if problems arise, and using the proper copper propane tubing with approved joints and connections.
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