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Best and Worst Garage Heaters

Need to heat your garage shop so you can work year-round? Several options are available, but the most efficient system is usually a gas-fired, forced-air unit heater mounted on the ceiling.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Garage heating systems

We recommend a ceiling-mounted, gas-fired, forced-air unit heater. Some installers recommend infrared heaters because they heat objects instead of air. You’ll be warmed and so will the floor (if it’s free of vehicles). But you won’t be happy with the cold tools inside your tool chest. Infrared heaters are no more energy efficient than forced-air heaters, and they cost about twice as much.

The least expensive alternative is a portable kerosene or propane heater. But they’re a poor choice. They require ventilation (think “open door”) and pump gallons of water vapor into your garage. That means working with a constant cold draft and putting up with smelly exhaust and burning eyes. Then there’s the issue of rust on your tools from all that humidity. Kerosene and propane heaters just aren’t a good solution if you work in the garage regularly. So bite the bullet and buy a ceiling-mounted, forced-air unit heater that’s rated for residential use (building inspectors won’t OK an industrial unit in a residential garage). Plan to spend $500 to $650, plus the cost of professional installation. Advanced DIYers can install a unit heater, which involves gas lines, venting and electrical work. But don’t skip the permits and inspections. An improper installation can kill you. Check with the inspector to see if it’s even legal in your area to perform your own gas hookups.

If you’ll be working on wood projects or using spray finishes, choose a heater with a separate combustion chamber. They burn fresh outside air instead of the dust or paint-laden air inside a garage. There’s a slight fire danger using a conventional heater, and the dust and paint particles will cause burner problems that require service calls.

Some unit heaters are more compact than others and can be mounted within 1 in. of the ceiling. So review the dimensions of the heater and calculate the installed height to ensure proper headroom.

To help size the heater and estimate monthly energy costs, consult manufacturers and dealers. Most residential garages require heaters with a capacity of 30,000 or 45,000 Btu. Your heater size depends on the garage’s square footage, ceiling height and insulation, so don’t guess. And don’t oversize your heater—especially if you intend to leave it on (even at a reduced temperature) all winter. An oversize unit heater cycles too often and wastes energy.

If you have an attached garage, mount the thermostat on the common wall between the garage and the house and away from the heated airflow. In a detached garage, mount it on the wall below the heater.

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August 15, 8:18 PM [GMT -5]

Excellent comments and suggestions. One exception, however, the recommended forced air is also notorious for rusting precision machinery and tools since they are still cold as the moisture laden warm air tries to warm them. While radiant heat may not get the tool deep in your tool box warm as fast as forced air, my lathe and mill no longer suffer from chronic rusting since I jerked the forced air and went with a ceiling mounted gas fired radiant heat tube that is exhausted outside. The best of all worlds, fast heat, no rust, minimal fire and flash concerns and it is very comfortable as it warm your bones through your clothes, like standing next to a nice campfire.

February 10, 12:15 PM [GMT -5]

I decided on a window unit heat pump for my 1000 foot shop in Virginia. With good sun exposure and insulation, the heating load is low, so even a small unit can keep the temperature at 62F when I'm working. Shade trees keep the cooling load low in the summer. I've tried propane heaters, but don't like the pilot lights and how they add so much humidity. The window unit heat pumps can be user-installed as long as there is 220V power near the opening.

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