We never recommend a product unless we have personally tested it or spent enough time researching its effectiveness. The car heaters we recommend in this guide have all passed our exhaustive testing procedure, and we’re confident that when you’re ready to buy, the product you pick meets the highest standards. In this article, we specifically address the problem of portable car heaters, their effectiveness, and limitations. Looked at electric, propane and diesel options, investigated the claims made by sellers and manufacturers, and came up with our own independent TOP Best Car Heaters that would surely work as advertised.
What you’ll learn from this Guide:
- Problems with Car Heaters & How Do You Heat Your Car Then?
- Personal Experience: How I Heat a Car
- Best Heaters for Harsh Climates and Old/Slow Batteries
- Best Diesel Heaters
- A Buyer’s Guide: Things to Look for when Buying
- Best 12V & Propane Car Heaters
There aren’t many places in the world that don’t contend with some level of significantly cold weather at some point of the year. Anyone who lives in a desert is familiar with how, despite being notoriously hot during the day, it can be frigid at night, even cold enough to freeze water in some cases.
This is true for even tropical climates which, during their “winter” can get pretty chilly at night – so chilly in fact that while it may not freeze over, it can produce frost, fogged windshields, and significant discomfort. So, with that in mind, no matter where you live on planet earth, you’re going to need some heat for comfort and practicality, at least from time to time.
Well, we all know that, when cold weather happens, the worst part is having to warm your car up in the morning. Having to get up extra early, so you can start your car with enough time for it to heat up (and god forbid, having to scrape ice and snow off of it) is an insult to injury. Isn’t it?
Well, while most vehicles have a built-in heating system, it really doesn’t get hot until the engine runs for a while, meaning you need to run your car for sometimes up to half an hour or more before any real heat comes out. This has led to the development of portable parking heaters that can warm your car up faster, or keep it warm for a protracted period while you’re shopping or at appointments.
This technology is a good idea on paper, but it has problems, some of which are probably pretty obvious. For one, heat requires energy, and you really only have two ways to obtain this energy to supply sufficient BTUs to heat a space, and the colder the climate, the harder this is.
You can use electricity, which means having to run an extension cord (which works only if you’re home, and requires the window to be partially down), or connect it to your car battery. If your engine is running, you won’t be depleting the battery, but you will be working the battery, given in most vehicle electrical systems, all voltage produced by the alternator does pass through the battery as something of a capacitor/voltage reservoir.
On top of this, the usual place to hook one of these up is your cigarette lighter port, which can provide somewhat limited voltage, to begin with, meaning that just about every joule of energy provided has to be converted to heat. Seeing as a heater has fans to blow this hot air, that’s just not going to happen, meaning that you need some seriously efficient heating coils.
Your other option is a fuel-powered heater. But the problems here are also obvious. If it’s burning fuel, there will be exhaust. In a closed cabin, the problem here is self-evident, of course. Some fuels don’t produce toxic asphyxiants, such as alcohol burners. However, the heat from an alcohol fire isn’t as efficient for heating a space, and it’s a fuel that’s spent rather quickly compared to petroleum fuels like gasoline, kerosene or diesel.
12V Portable Car Heaters
As we discussed a moment ago, electric car heaters are safer and more practical on paper, but the cigarette lighter port provides only a 12V signal. This is not a strong enough signal to even provide a mild electric shock to dry human skin. Computer motherboards deal in these low voltages between 5-12V, for example. But, do notice that, despite this low voltage, CPUs put out a lot of heat over a period of time.
This does mean that, with the proper design, it is possible to heat a small space with this low power yield. It’s all about the design.
Therein lies the problem. A lot of these 12V heaters are not very powerful, and can even border on useless in colder environments. This is because while you can produce a decent amount of heat if all the voltage is “wasted” thermally, they divide this power between the fan and the heating coils. This is inevitable, as the heated air has to be moved, but poor fan design that eats a lot of this power means that what heat is produced won’t have the staying power against the cold climate into which it’s being discharged.
A prime example of this is the Zataye 150W portable car heater. This one utilizes ceramic heating coils which, while far safer than tungsten elements, is not very efficient. Basically, it has a bank of resistors that shed every bit of their voltage into thermal heat. The issue, though, is that it uses three high-powered fans which devour most of the 150W of power provided.
By the time the heated air is produced inside the chamber, and blown out of these powerful fans, it’s lost a lot of what energy it had. This heater takes so very long to produce this heat, and it’s so very weak, that you’ll never get your car heated up if it’s actually bitter cold. You’re just wasting power.
Zataye 150W: Check the current price
Diesel Air Heaters
As we said earlier, a diesel air heater is going to provide more heat, more rapidly. The problem is that these produce exhaust, and disposing of this exhaust is problematic. Heaters such as the Doudouli Air Diesel Heater do have workarounds, with an exhaust line that can be connected to your car’s ventilation system, or be vented out a window with some flushing for a seal.
However, there are other dangers with this. This is a bulky machine with an actual separate combustion motor, which means there’s an actual fire inside your vehicle. This means that fire hazards, fume leaks, and other problems could happen. This is probably not a safe option for a family vehicle. It’s also expensive, and the fuel is at the whim of diesel prices.
So, long story short, these diesel blow heaters will definitely work, but the hassle with setting them up, the dangers inherent to a combustion heater sitting in your car, and the dangers of fumes or other issues, means that you take a lot of potential risks that may outweigh the benefits.
Doudouli Air: Check the current price
While I do live in Florida now, I have lived in places where it gets far colder (complete with ice and snow) such as the Pacific Northwest, and the midwestern part of the United States. My solution was a little different, and did require the slightest bit of electrical knowledge, but not that much.
I bought a simple electric space heater, and I placed two car batteries in the back of my car. I turned the heater on low (for safety), and I connected it to these batteries in series, using a little bit of splicing of some extension cord to fit it. On low, with the batteries in series, I got about four hours of runtime out of them, which, combined with actually running the car heater to maintain heat created, sufficed fine for me.
How to connect electric space heater like Lasko?
Use an inverter providing no less than 200 W of power.
This takes up some room, car batteries are heavy, and you really have to be careful about insulating your splicing. And, never, ever turn your heater on high. If the elements are glowing, you’re taking some risks. You also have to shore it up, because most of them shut off if they fall over for safety reasons.
I only experienced a diesel heater for a vehicle once, and that was my uncle’s pick-up truck. He had it mounted in the bed, next to the tool chest, where the exhaust wasn’t a problem, and a simple little alteration let the heat line feed the cabin. I cannot see installing one of these inside a vehicle, with one exception.
So, thus far, I’ve decried diesel heaters due to the nuisance of pumping out the exhaust, and the inherent dangers of a combustion heater inside your car. That said, if you live in a really harsh climate where you get hardcore ice, snow, and low temperatures, they’re the only option that really works.
Thankfully, if you’re not interested in a portable solution to this, there do exist secondary heating systems that can be integrated into the vehicle more directly. We’ll be looking at two examples of them in a moment.
The challenge with these is that they’re complex, meaning that you need to be somewhat mechanically-inclined, or seek the help of someone who is. However, the benefit here is that they’re safe, as just a second system in your vehicle, producing none of the dangers of portable diesel heaters.
TABODD 12V 500W Truck/Bot/Motorhome Heater
This is a prime example of the inline style of heater. These are generally mounted underneath the car, or somewhere in the engine space if a room can be found. They’re small, meaning that it’s not that hard to find a place for it.
The exhaust can then be tied to your vehicle’s primary exhaust lines. This one has its own fuel tank, pump, silencer, controls, and electrical integration, literally making it a dedicated heater system.
This one is pretty effective, but eats fuel pretty quickly, meaning you only want to use this for initial heating, and switch over to your engine-produced heat as soon as it’s available.
TABODD 12V 500W: Check the current price
Happybuy Heater with Digital Thermostat
This one is less complicated to install, with the tank and several of the other components being internal. It’s a little bigger as a result and is intended to either be inline or portable, depending on your vehicle.
It performs well, though it is louder, and the exhaust is a nuisance if you’re going for the portable type of installation. However, it will heat your car quickly and does get a bit more longevity from its fuel supply than the Tabodd model.
Happybuy w/Thermostat: Check the current price
So, now that we know the types of heaters out there, the pros and cons of the different types, let’s look at a short little buyer’s guide.
If you have a small enough vehicle, some of the electric ones will actually work, but avoid ceramic ones with a lot of fans. Make sure they’re at least 150W, and a single fan, which means more energy is going into the heating coils. You want tungsten or another traditional element if possible because ceramic is a “lazy” heat provider.
Larger vehicles or you live in an exceptionally cold climate
If you have a larger vehicle, or you live in an exceptionally cold climate, you may want to go for a diesel heater. But, avoid ones that need to sit in your vehicle, exposed. There are just too many risks, and the exhaust disposal is a real menace to deal with. Go for an inline one if there are space and a sufficient set of fittings to do it.
When shopping for diesel or electric, read blogs and reviews. Everyday users will not hesitate to complain about the problems they encounter, and if they laud a product without a sponsorship, that means a lot. Negativity is free online, positivity is costly by way of performance.
Best Portable Car Heaters
We always vouch for quality and we want to help you become an expert in the world of car heaters and so we try to find the best and most useful ones. But when we started writing this review, it turned out that there are very few portable car heaters on the market which are worth buying. The grand majority of such devices have a very low rating.
You won’t believe this, it’s the first time we’ve encountered such a situation! But then we thought that you deserve to know the truth. That’s why here is the naked truth about portable car heaters.
But we've found something worthy. We’ll start with the cut-rate models under $30, and then we’ll tell you about Tractor and Truck Car Heaters, and will finish with the best selling Trailer Heater.
Here it is, a typical car heater. There are over 90% of such car heaters on the market.
✔ Uses One 20 Amp Blade Fuse
✔ 180 Watts Power Rating and 15 Amp Current Draw
✔ 6 foot, 10-gauge power cord
It heats up quite fast and works well in moderate temperature. It has a fan and a heating mode. However, RoadPro 12V is not frost-proof. The manufacturers kindly ask the customers to read the manual and not to heat it if the battery was previously frosted. We’ll add that it won’t be able to heat up the entire windshield when the temperature is low. It will only heat up the space in front of itself.
By the way, most of the clone car heaters under different names have the same problem. Almost all of their power is limited to the capacity of the electrical system of the car. Long story short: if you don’t understand the details of your car’s energy systems, don’t buy it.
What do buyers say?
«A Very nice unit. This works well. I use it in the back seat of my sedan to give instant heat before the car warms up. Warms a small car in 8 minutesin 35 degree weather to 72 degrees. If you need supplemental heat in your car, plus you have a tight budget, this is the heater for you ».
«One of the least expensive heaters. I needed something to defrost my windows in the winter. It will work great as a defroster. It has 2 Heat speed Settings and a Fan Setting. After having the heater on one spot for about 10-15 minutes it warms up the windshield enough to where I can safely drive».
RoadPro RPSL-581: Check the current price
Next comes Peak PKCOJ5 12V Heater and Fan/Defroster, it was the #1 Best Seller in Automotive Heaters section. But it seems like this is the best one on the market today, and people are forced to buy whatever is sold.
According to the buyers’ comments, Peak is supplied with a 15A adapter fuse. Some users recommend using an extension cord to connect it straight to the battery. In this case, “This baby heater will heat your entire car”. If you have neither time nor effort for such action, you’ll find that the product’s real productivity is rather mediocre.
Peak PKCOJ5 Heater: Check the current price
Mr. Heater MH4GC Golf Cart Heater
Although the device's called a Golf Cart Heater, it can be just as well used for cars. One of the customers even shared an image of him mounting this thing on a tractor plowing snow, so this is a pretty versatile device, which, considering its price, is easy to recommend. Other cool things about this gadget are that it has an oxygen depletion system, features a porcelain coated reflector and a pilot wind guard. Besides, it has an ergonomic design and fits into any standard cup holder.
This is an excellent option to warm up your frozen car. It connects to a one pound propane cylinder (not included), which might prove to be invaluable if your car’s frozen shut and you can’t open the doors.
It will also quickly heat up the car’s interior, in case you have problems with a car battery, or you’re stuck somewhere in the middle of the road during a storm. As claimed by the manufacturer, 4,000 BTUs guarantee for up to five and a half hours of operation on one tank.
Important! Do not direct the heat of this device right to the windshield, this is a bad idea, because rapid changes in temperature can damage it and would result in chips and cracks.
Also, I’d advise you to look at all product images of the device, because it is actually quite bigger than it seems.
Mr. Heater - Golf Cart Heater: Check the current price
Big Electric Car Heater
On we go! This gadget belongs to a different size segment. You needn’t connect this box to a socket, you’d better connect it straight to the battery. The manufacturers position their invention as a tractor and truck device. You’ll also find space for it in SUVs. It might be a bit too complicated for the owners of hatchbacks and sedans, though. Most often it is bought for heating the tractor cabin or by truck drivers for overnight stays.
RoadPro RPSL-681 12V Direct Hook-Up Ceramic Heater/Fan with Swivel Base
This heater is recommended to install in a hanging positions, which means that placing it inside the vehicle is restricted. You won’t be able to put it on the floor or the dashboard. A certain advantage of this device is the 14 ft cord it has. The only thing that makes us worry is that here the users also complain of lack of heat and say that “This one is better than other models. And it is surely better than nothing. But of course this cannot replace a real heater; this is more like a powerful hairdryer.”
In general, it turns out that there is alternative heater for trucks and tractors on the market.
Recently a new model, Back Seat Heat Plus 1100 BTU 12V Truck Heater for a crazy price has been launched, but it is still a pig in a poke. It has less than 10 reviews and it’s too early to judge its quality.
RoadPro RPSL-681: Check the current price
Finally we have a rather reliable and state-of-the-art heater here. We can’t call it a purely automobile gadget though, as it is powered by… a small propane tank. This British Buddy has made it in our rating because a certain class of automobile fans loves it. It is often bought by travelers and trailer owners.
Mr. Heater F232000 MH9BX Buddy 4,000-9,000-BTU Indoor-Safe Portable Radiant Heater
This is in 5 Best Sellers in RV Heaters & Furnaces which can be used outdoors with the highest rating among all of the car heating devices featured in this review. This gadget is valued for its power: the miniscule thing can heat up an area of several cubic ft within a couple of minutes. 91% of the customers are satisfied with it, which is a very high indicator. Mr. Heater can be used in your garage.
Tim writes that “I purchased the LITTLE BUDDY heater to aid in the early morning to warm up my car. The auto shut off feature is EXCELLENT, it shuts off instantly if it is knocked over or bumped too hard. I was concerned about carbon monoxide levels inside of the closed car so I also bought a CO detector and ran some tests on the heater placed in the car....there were no problems at all after a full 20 minutes of usage time” Read other 2000 customers’ reviews
By the way, it’s a good thing that it has an automatic shut off system in case it gets turned over or bumped. So if you travel a lot, this is a great option!
Excerpts from buyers’ reviews
«It was nice having this heater during my last hunt. Great heater and easy enough to use.I was really happy about the safety features and with the casing. I would suggest getting the adapter and using a big propane tank if you think you will need it most of the night. You use a lot of propane - a 1lb. propane tank lasted me about 4-5 hours on low setting».
«I had to use it 2 out of the 4 nights and it sure heated up our tent fast. (Coleman 10' x 14' cabin tent). It warmed the tent nicely each morning. This allowed me to get dressed in a warm tent without feeling rushed to beat the cold».
Mr. Heater F232000: Check the current price
Car Heaters Comparison Chart
|Zataye 150W ||Ceramic heating coils |
Voltage: 12 V
|Doudouli Air ||Diesel |
Fuel consumption: 0.1 liters per hour oil
|TABODD 12V 500W ||Diesel |
Heater Power: 5KW
Fuel Consumption(L/h): 0.2-0.5
Operating voltage range:10-12/20-32
|Happybuy w/Thermostat ||Diesel |
Type: Cooling, AC & heating
Runtime power consumption ≤100W
|RoadPro RPSL-581 12V All Season Black Heater and Fan ||Portable car heater |
|Peak PKCOJ5 12V Heater and Fan/Defroster ||Portable car heater |
RoadPro RPSL-681 12V Direct Hook-Up Ceramic Heater/Fan
Tractor and truck car heater
|Mr. Heater F232000 MH9BX Buddy Indoor-Safe Portable Radiant Heater ||Trailer heater |
|Mr. Heater MH4GC Golf Cart Heater ||Golf cart heater |
|Wagan IN9438 ||Heated Seat Cushion |
|Lasko ||To connect an electric space heater use an inverter.|
If you’re installing a diesel heater, quite frankly, don’t do it yourself unless you have some skill as a mechanic. It’s actually very complicated, and requires connecting electrical systems, mountings, oil, and fuel lines, as well as tying in exhaust and heat throughput. It will come with instructions, but you really shouldn’t attempt this yourself.
I usually don’t discourage DIY with products, but this is one case where the undertaking is significant enough, and the consequences of mistakes sufficiently severe that I do say, have this done by a professional. It will cost more, but that’s just how it is.
Heaters Installed at Repair Shops
If you’re having one installed, chances are, they’re going to recommend an inline option similar to the two above, though a wide variety of brands do exist, some made by more well-known German and American brands. However, they’re too numerous and varied to really get into detail with.
When it comes to heating a car themselves, they usually fit a blow heater into a window, seal it up, and just pump hot air from a stationary or big wheeled heater.
At the end of the day, if you live in a climate where you really need to quickly heat your vehicle, it’s worth the expense of an inline heater, and the labor to have a professional install it. If you live in an area where it’s just chilly in the morning, or your windows like to fog annoyingly, simply reading reviews and blogs by those who have had success with some of the electric models, will lead you to one that does indeed meet your needs.
This is a problem with no “excellent” or completely reliable solution, and it’ll take advancements in vehicle voltage supplies and battery technologies to make this any less of a problem.
What Can a Car Heater Be Replaced With?
As you see, we can’t please you with many quality car heaters, so if you’d like to warm up, buy a car seat warmer. We recommend the most reliable option, the best-selling Wagan IN9438-2 12V with Lumbar Support. It is powered by the 12-volt DC outlet, has a 3-way temperature controller and it heats up fast. Over 1300 customers have already rated it highly.
It is distinguished by its simplicity, durability and affordable price tag. For instance, NEW FIVE STAR will not only heat you, but will also gently massage your tired neck, back, hips and buttocks. And with the help of New Five Star FS8801 you will be able to enjoy a real shiatsu massage and use it not only in the car, but also at home or in the office.
Q: Does a portable car heater work when the car is turned off?
A: Nope, it doesn’t. If it did, a heater would simply drain off your car battery and you wouldn’t be able to jump start your car. If you need to heat your car when it’s turned off, you may use a propane heater, however we do not recommend leaving it on when you’re away from your car.
Q: Does a portable car heater have a timer? Can it automatically switch on in, say, 8 hours?
A: No, it doesn’t have such a feature. If the car is not started, the heater won’t turn on.
Q: Does a portable car heater have a remote control?
A: No, a portable car heater doesn’t feature a remote control. However, if your car has an automatic start off function, then as soon as it starts, the heater will turn on. So by the time you're done with your morning coffee, the car would be warm enough for take off.
Q: Are portable car heaters safe?
A: Yes, they are generally safe. The worst thing that can happen is a blown-out fuse.
Q: How much time a portable car heater needs to warm up the car?
A: In case you drive a sedan, then 10-15 min is enough even for the cheapest heater. Turn it on, and by the time you’re down brushing snow off your car, it’s going to be warmed up and ready to go.
Portable heaters, heated car seats and other automobile gadgets are extremely popular in winter. Online stores sell hundreds of them. Such a wide range can easily confuse an inexperienced buyer. We have decided to find out just for you: which one is the best? Here are some of the cases when it can come handy.
Why are Car Heaters So Popular?
- You travel in winter. Any long road is a way to many dangers and adventures, especially in winter. What if you get stuck in the high snowdrifts far from the civilized world? Or what if you won’t be able to heat up the door lock of your car in the morning? Surely, some heat will be useful then!
- Your car heating system doesn’t work well, wind up too slowly and break down. Portable ones work fast and practically don’t depend on external conditions
- You like to save money. Many automotive corporations charge enormous sums of money for seat, window and air heating in the cars. Why pay so much? Almost all of the car heaters are considered to be cost-saving. This is very reasonable, especially if you are used to counting every penny.
- You earn living by driving. Our analysis of online stores comments sections has shown that drivers, truckers and taxi drivers most often buy automobile heating gadgets.
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