What's the safest space heater?
October 17, 2019 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Heating a basement rental unit. Don't trust the tenants. Best devices?

My Canadian basement rental unit needs heat. I have numerous short-term tenants who aren't familiar with space heaters, can't read instructions, and don't follow simple verbal instructions to take normal safety precautions like turning a heater off when they leave for the day. Many are also from warm regions, so they panic when cold and crank the heater to its max, then leave or fall asleep. I've found clothing, bedding, and suitcases jammed right on top of our previous heaters while they were in use, resulting in melted and scorched items. Assume zero common sense. (I have already installed extra smoke alarms and fire extinguishers.)

The coldest parts of the unit have vinyl plank flooring, a synthetic Ikea rug, and a cotton rag rug. None of these materials make a great base for a heat source -- and I don't trust the tenants to have common sense about things like not putting a space heater on a synthetic rug.

So far the most appealing device is the Dyson Hot + Cool Jet Focus because it's up on a pedestal so the heat is well off the floor, and the casing stays quite cool. It also functions as a fan which would be great in summer. The downside is that it costs $500, which isn't a total dealbreaker, but it is pretty expensive.

What should I purchase?

If I get a normally-priced heater, is there some kind of tray I could place it on that would make it safer from a flammability standpoint?

posted by nouvelle-personne to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
We use a Delonghi portable ac with heat pump (link example, not best price or model) for our heat. Primary reason we got it is we have gas heat from two wall mounted heaters that are in exact toddler hand reach area and are more afraid of burns to hands than high electric bills, so we switched out for the winter until she is old enough to reliably not touch very hot objects. You can touch this thing on high heat with no problems. This does require a way to vent out, and can require drainage if it pulls in to much moisture , but that's more a problem before it is consistently cold and dry.

The outer plastic stays touchable which is why we went with what we did. Of course normal safety precautions should be taken, but from our standpoint this seems to be the most leeway in a heater we could find.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:24 PM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Plug it in to a smart plug type device so you can control it remotely?

The cheap space heater I have turns off automatically if it's not upright (i.e. if it falls over).
posted by lookoutbelow at 1:29 PM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I bought our Dyson fan / heater refurbished on Amazon for 2/3 the price of a new one. It came with a one year warranty and I've had it 3 years now and it's still going strong.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 1:43 PM on October 17, 2019

You need to spend money for a solution that works well for everyone. As a professional landlord, some exploration beyond space heaters is reasonable. Maybe a wall heater with a thermostat, or one of these ductless units that mounts up high.
posted by amtho at 1:45 PM on October 17, 2019 [37 favorites]

Related perhaps, we use a modern super safe electric blanket to avoid the need to heat house areas at night to no real advantage. Digital, very adjustable and with timers, the blankets are very safe and a wonderful comfort.
posted by Freedomboy at 1:48 PM on October 17, 2019

I've stayed in cabins with gas heaters that were bolted to the wall in a place where people would not normally congregate, so that seemed to limit the trouble you could get into.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:49 PM on October 17, 2019

I'm not clear on whether there is any heat in your basement rental unit, or whether you are just looking into supplemental heat. Regardless, as a landlord, it is your responsibility to provide safe and effective heat in your rental unit (I am also a landlord). I'd look into a ductless mini-split. They cost around $4000, but they're very efficient/cheap to run, provide cooling and dehumidification as well as heat, are very safe, low-maintenance, and basically idiot-proof. I think they're supposed to last something like 20 years? If renting out your basement is a long-term proposition, the cost amortized out might be worth it, especially given your safety concerns.
posted by ClaireBear at 1:54 PM on October 17, 2019 [11 favorites]

No real answer from me but we recently stayed in an Irish cottage and I had to go press the heat boot on the digital smart meter every half an hour to keep the heat going... it was annoying for me but I’d get the same thing if I was doing a holiday let (Ireland is CHILLY all the time and some Spaniards, for example, might have left the heat blasting all day while they were off on their cliff walks)
posted by catspajammies at 1:56 PM on October 17, 2019

Another nice thing about a mini-split heat pump is, because they're very efficient, you can get government incentives on them in various jurisdictions. eg I bought mine with a zero interest loan through MassSave.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 1:57 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the advice so far. We installed hardwired electric baseboard heaters which are extremely effective, but unfortunately, last winter, numerous tenants used them so idiotically and dangerously that we flipped the breakers to disable them and are looking for a safer solution to replace them.

For some reason the model our contractor chose have open tops (kind of like this), so bedding, child fingers, and random items can just reach right in and touch the heating fins! Ridiculously bad design.

I also just googled and realized that you can get slide-on covers which may be my best solution. And I didn't know those ductless units existed- thanks for the tip, I'll investigate.

I don't mind spending money- Canada is cold and I want people to be healthy and comfortable! But I also don't want a fire because some tenant falls asleep and kicks their blanket into the heater.

I feel demoralized about the shitty baseboard heaters our contractor chose. Replacing them seems like an ordeal because they mentioned they cut the wires a bit too short when they first ran them to the location. I feel overwhelmed by the options and pessimistic about the whole thing, maybe that's not reasonable.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 2:15 PM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

for safe supplemental heat, the oil-filled radiator style is tough to beat plus they actually feel good in the room.
posted by Dr. Twist at 2:31 PM on October 17, 2019 [17 favorites]

That sounds so frustrating, nouvelle-personne. Baseboard electric heat is notoriously expensive to operate (I think it's something like 3x or 4x the cost of ductless mini-splits to operate). People install it in rental units because it's relatively cheap to install. It also sounds like your contractor wasn't clear with you about your options and pricing so you could strategize in advance what you wanted. Given the baseboard is already installed, the best option might be to try to get covers for them (as you say). But I'd try to determine how much you pay to run the baseboard heat (maybe by checking your winter/spring electric bill divergence, or your winter electric bill before/after installation). Mini-splits are very expensive to install but are wonderfully efficient, safe, and basically maintenance free. I had two installed 2.5 years ago in rental units I own and have been very happy (much lower heat bills (that my tenants now pay for), zero problems, zero maintenance except for wiping filter 4x/year, which takes 2 minutes total), 10+ year warranty included with Diamond Dealer purchase/install. I figure I'm paying under $200/year for the heater if they last for 20 years, which seems like a reasonable price to me. If you go that route, I'd look for the ones that work well at low temperatures, since you are in Canada (Mitsubishi Hyperheat is the headline one, and the one I got, but I gather there are cheaper brands nowadays that do the same thing).
posted by ClaireBear at 2:46 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’m with Dr. Twist. Those oil-filled radiator-style space heaters are pretty hard to beat. They’re pretty darned idiot-proof and provide a good amount of heat.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:21 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, came in to suggest the oil-filled radiator style of space heater.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:11 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you need to look not just at the cost to install something. You probably know this, but I think some landlords don't: every time you make a decision about your rental unit, you're making both a business decision and a choice that can profoundly affect another person, or family's, quality of life.

Business-wise, you need to look at installation cost, probable lifetime of use (1-2 years for a cheap space heater), cost to operate, likelihood of it needing repair (which implies money spent AND your time and attention), whether it's in the way of living space (which would make people need to put stuff on top of it), how it looks (which has a big effect on quality of life AND rentability), etc.

In business and in home goods, everything is more complicated than we think it is, unfortunately.
posted by amtho at 5:25 PM on October 17, 2019

another vote for the oil radiator, mine is about 5-6 years old and still works perfectly and i love it so much i wish we could hold hands while sitting on the couch together
posted by poffin boffin at 7:31 PM on October 17, 2019

Nthing the recommendation for the ductless unit. (Had no idea what it was marketed as in English before today; learned something new!) I live in Japan and those units are pretty standard for apartments here, and many have both cooling and heating functions. They're cost efficient, relatively easy to clean (though watch out for mold if you have humid summers), and work fantastically.

With anything set on the ground, especially the Dyson unit you linked and the oil radiators, I'd be worried they might drape clothing over it to warm it up and welcome a fire hazard. Ductless is off the ground and out of the way.
posted by lesser weasel at 9:57 PM on October 17, 2019

I would check with your local habitability and tenancy laws, because it would surprise me if providing portable heaters as the sole heat source in a rental unit were legal in a jurisdiction where heating is a necessity in the winter.
posted by drlith at 7:11 AM on October 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Depending on how cold it gets in your location a heat pump style minisplit may not function on the coldest days.
posted by Mitheral at 7:42 AM on October 18, 2019

Another vote that oil radiators are the best in this situation if you want a space heater. They don't get hot enough to be a fire hazard if something is on them or they are left on or knocked over, and warm up the room really well. The only disadvantage I have found is they smell "oily" the first few times you use them when they are new.

You can also get wall- and ceiling-mounted radiant electric heater panels.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:52 AM on October 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Echoing drlith, depending on where you live, not only may it violate landlord/tenant laws to only provide space heaters, but I would be shocked if you could get a rental homeowners insurance policy without a source of heat that can be set to be on indefinitely.

I would recommend getting covers over those baseboard heaters.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:00 AM on October 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I bought a Mitsubishi ductless mini-split w/ Hyper Heat this summer for my above-garage office/studio. I got it mostly for cooling during the summer, but it's supposed to provide heat down to -15F/-26C, although I'm not sure how efficient it is at those temperatures. (It used to be that heat pumps were only good down to about +15F.)

I'm in New Hampshire, so we're getting down close to freezing at night at this time of year. The Mitsubishi has kept it at 68F very easily, running at very low/slow speeds. So far, so good!
posted by nosila at 12:03 PM on October 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

If the ductless / minisplit doesn't handle the coldest days, you could supplement it (SUPPLEMENT) with a quartz rod heater. Those things are awesome, and also tall and scary looking.

You could also make sure there's a good place to put said heater, both in the main living space and in any separate bedrooms, so that people can enjoy the warmth/glow and still have places to put all their other stuff. Making sure there are hooks, closet space, towel bar space for 2-3 spread out towels, a good drying rack, etc. will help a lot.
posted by amtho at 1:28 PM on October 18, 2019

Thanks for all the advice, lots to pore over this weekend. I marked as Best the people who pointed out that warm-climate people might carelessly use a space heater as a drying rack (!) which is wildly dangerous and therefore something I would never even think of, but will now take steps to prevent.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 1:59 PM on October 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's more that there's nowhere else to put stuff in some rental units, not that someone from Florida thinks it's a good idea to use an operating space heater as a drying rack.
posted by amtho at 9:18 AM on October 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

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