The Madagascar Institute shop gets very cold in the winter—not just “keep the art fresh” cold, a pleasant chill that keeps you awake and working hard and focused cold—it freezing: Numbing cold, clumsy hands cold, visible breath cold, solvents getting slushy cold, clouded thinking and poor decisions cold. There are upsides (you bleed a lot less in the cold, and numb hands are like wearing heavy gloves all the time), but for the most part, it’s a brutal slog, and the art can get a serious case of freezer burn. Absurdly, unseasonably warm winter days help, but for some sinister reason, the shop is always significantly colder than the outside world.
The solution seems simple: Heat! Like most things, that turns out to be a little more difficult than one would expect. As in many shops and warehouse spaces, there is one of those big gas heater/blower things hanging from the ceiling in the corner, but for complicated, angry-feud-with-the-gas-company reasons, ours is purely ornamental. Currently, the main source of heat (besides rage—if the rage was simmering, the shop would be consistently balmy, but it tends to explode regularly, and precious BTUs get sprayed all over the place) is a meepy electric version of a big gas blower. The little guy is trying, but electric heat has inherent limitations, and even when slurping in 60 amps at 220 volts, the best it can do is wheeze out a warm breeze, a breeze soon lost in the drafty shop. Also, as anyone who has ever relied on one of those things can tell you, little vents aside, it does an excellent job of heating the ceiling, with a razor-sharp thermocline right around sternum level.
Often, there is no need to heat the whole of a big, drafty shop—you need heat near you, near where you are working, close enough to keep fingers limber, toes in touch with your nervous system. Heat enough to work by. We have tried all types of electric heaters in the past, but they are usually little 110v things—portable, safe, completely useless unless you are within six inches of them.
The most efficient way to get heat is to burn stuff. I have no idea if this is factually, verifiably true, and I don’t care. I do know that if you want real warm, things need to be on fire—as a human, I am hardwired to associate the sight of fire with comfort, warmth, a sense of security. A little danger, a blast of heat that might seriously harm you if you get too close, vague, poorly thought-out plans for somehow warming take-out leftovers in front of the heater (pro tip: do not do this). That is what hard working artists need in the winter months.
A few weeks ago, during an especially brutal (but totally seasonal, if “seasonal” has any real meaning anymore) stint of winter weather, the Review-Stuff-for-MAKE Fairy (yes, this is a real fairy. Look it up) smiled upon the Madagascar Institute in the form of a small, sturdy little workhorse of a corded/cordless propane heat machine, the Mr. Heater brand HERO. Mr. Heater calls this, “the world’s first cordless forced air heater,” and as far as I know this is true.
There are two standard types of propane heaters. First, the radiant type, where propane is burnt and heats an element to glowing-red heat. The radiant type ranges from the smallest, cheap tank-top burners to the big fancy Satan’s-palm-tree type common to sidewalk cafes. Radiant heaters are simple, with few or no moving parts, and they usually require no external power. They are also pretty useless when it comes to heating a large space, overcoming anything more than a slight chill, or making a bad-ass sound. They get hot, but seem to only warm the air within a foot of the heating elements. (Also, since they are silent one might tend to forget when they are on, like when that lady in vinyl pants sat on a tophat heater at a Madagascar New Year’s Eve party. She hopped up pretty quickly, leaving the back of her pants on the heater. She was not injured, but her pants were, and the heater did not take well to being covered in vinyl.)
Forced-air heaters do the same burning of propane and the same heating of an element, but take heating to the next level by forcing the hot air away from the heater and out to where it is needed. They heat a space far better than a radiant heater, make a cool, jet-engine-at-idle sound, and are less likely to lead to a catastrophic wardrobe failure. On the downside they contain more moving parts, make a noise like a jet engine at idle, and require an external power source to run the blower. The need for power is often a huge hassle, as one tends to use propane heaters in places (construction sites, street fair booths, semi-natural, underground river-caves underneath Yonkers) without reliable power. (I am pretty surprised that no one has designed a Peltier junction-powered fan that uses some of the heat to blow the air. I figure someone reading this might hop on it and make it happen. Get on it, makers.)
The HERO presents itself as the solution to the power problem. Built into the base of the heater is a rechargeable 12v battery pack. It will run like a normal forced air heater, plugged into house current, but will also run off if its battery for “up to 8 hours.”
I tested the heater in both corded and cordless modes. I ran out of propane a couple of hours into the cordless test, but once the battery was charged, there was no noticeable decrease in performance after pulling the plug. The HERO is small, lightweight, and delivers a decent punch of hot air. The blast is brutal and dangerous a foot away from the heater, toasty warm three feet away, and a balmy summer breeze five or six feet away. Sitting on the floor, it turned a sub-gulag punishment shift into a pleasant work day in a short period of time. For all the heat it put out, the HERO was not a propane guzzler—a 20 pound tank that felt about one-third full lasted for around four or five hours. The HERO is (disappointingly, to some) quiet, more like a jet on the flightpath over your house than a jet in the next room. One possible drawback is that the green indicator LED (steady for charged/running, blinks for charging) is some kind of super-bright, possibly reverse-engineered UFO-grade light. It was bright enough that once it was on, it was impossible to see the on/off button right next to it. In fact it was impossible to see anything at all for a few minutes. This could be some undocumented feature that enables one to grow tropical plants in winter using the heat/light combo, but further research is needed.
Overall, the HERO is a nice, tight, efficient little heater. Makes cold places warm, quickly and well, which is the point of a heater, and the cordless feature is the type of perk that seems frivolous at first, but quickly becomes necessary and the standard by which to judge all others. Until someone out there develops a blower that runs off of heat (remember: my idea) the HERO is an excellent choice.
Photo by Becky Stern.