Warm Up Your Workspace with a Unit Heater

Tired of DIYing in the cold? Here's one way to bring a little bit of heat to your garage or workshop.

By Donna Boyle Schwartz | Updated Jul 29, 2017 3:01 PM

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Unit Heaters

Photo: supplyhouse.com

If you spend time on projects in the garage, or if you’re lucky enough to enjoy a stand-alone workshop, chances are that you’re tired of wearing a winter jacket while working. Rather than put progress on hold as the temperature drops, why not make the area more comfortable? One cost-effective method would be to install a unit heater. Designed expressly for the purpose of introducing warmth to work spaces, unit heaters come in a range of sizes and styles, and can be powered by a variety of fuels. Most can be purchased for a reasonable up-front cost, are relatively easy to install and operate, and can provide you with years of reliable service.

According to Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com, “unit heaters are a good fit for large, open, unheated spaces.” While they are used quite often in commercial or industrial applications, “homeowners typically use them in shops, garages, or barns.” And because most models are meant to be mounted on the ceiling or to a wall, you don’t need to give up any square footage that could otherwise be devoted to, say, a grinding machine or a table saw.

Unit heaters are rated, like air conditioners, in terms of British thermal units, or BTUs. At SupplyHouse.com, which sells unit heaters from the leading brands, outputs range from a modest 15,900 BTUs to a whopping 400,000. Most residential applications call for a unit heater on the smaller end of the spectrum. For instance, 30,000 or 45,000 BTUs would suffice in a one-car garage, while in a three-car garage, a 100,000- or 125,000-BTU heater would be most appropriate.

Sizing a unit heater isn’t a slapdash matter. Make the wrong choice, and you end up uncomfortable or overspending, or both. Proper sizing, says O’Brian, “should be done with a full heat loss report,” which accounts for “the construction of the walls, floor, and ceiling, as well as the amount of insulation.” To arrive at a rough estimate, however, you can use a simple formula: After carefully measuring the space, find the approximate BTU rating needed by multiplying the room’s length times width times five (L x W x 5 = BTUs needed).

Photo: supplyhouse.com

For many handy homeowners, installing a unit heater can be a DIY project, but as there are likely to be relevant building codes, you may wish to at least consult with a professional. Plus, depending on the model you’ve chosen and the fuel type it uses, “wiring, exhaust venting, and gas and/or water lines may need to be taken into consideration,” O’Brian says. If your installation involves any elements with which you’re not experienced, it’s recommended that you seek out help from a pro.

When it comes to locating your unit heater, there’s a great deal of flexibility, particularly with natural gas-powered models. These can be placed virtually anywhere within the space—on the ceiling, on the wall, or on the floor—so long as there’s ventilation and access to both a gas line and electrical outlet (to power the blower). Meanwhile, electric, infrared, and hydronic unit heaters do not require ventilation, but they do need to be near an electrical outlet, and in some cases they do require a minimum clearance. For example, an infrared heater must be placed at least three feet away from the nearest object and seven feet from the floor.

Gas-powered unit heaters are a common choice, partly for financial reasons. Compared with electric or infrared models, they cost less to purchase (sometimes half as much) and, depending on the utility rates where you live, they’re likely to be less expensive to run. Gas-powered heaters, however, typically operate like a forced-air home heating system, with a blower that kicks on intermittently, sending a blast of heated air through the conditioned space. If you have a wood shop filled with sawdust, that’s not what you want! It may be better, depending on the type of work you do, to opt for an electric, infrared, or hydronic model without a blower.

No matter what type of unit heater you select, you are going to love being able to keep working, even through the coldest days and months of the year.

Unit Heaters - Product Detail

Photo: supplyhouse.com

This post has been brought to you by SupplyHouse.com. Its facts and opinions are those of BobVila.com.