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Tool Review: Mr. Heater HERO

Tool Review:  Mr. Heater HERO


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.

28 thoughts on “Tool Review: Mr. Heater HERO

  1. uxgrump says:

    Biolite ( have done the Peltier thing with a wood gas cooking stove. Not sure that the wood gas stove needs a fan on par with a jet engine though, so it might be a limitation of the efficiency of the Peltier junction not being able to produce sufficient oomph to have the effect you’re looking for in a propane powered heater at a suitable cost or weight.

  2. Joseph Cummings (@fotoflojoe) says:

    What are the ventilation requirements for this? I’d like to run one in my detached garage, but worry about CO levels.

    1. Hackett says:

      The manual says
      “For indoor use only. The area must be well ventilated. Provide minimum openings of 1/2 square feet near the floor and 1/2 square feet near the ceiling.”
      I suppose it depends on how many cubic feet your workspace is, and how drafty.


  3. Guillaume Filion says:

    Lee Valley sells a fan that gets its power from the heat difference without converting it to electricity first:,104,53209&p=50246

    It’s made for a wood stove, but I guess one could use the same principle on a propane heater.

    1. Guillaume Filion says:

      It seems I was mistaken, it’s actually a thermoelectric fan, using the Peltier–Seebeck effect…

  4. Lorinc Del Motte says:

    You could have a sort of passive-convection system. Just put the heater inside a channel shaped so that when the heated air rises it generates a pressure difference that sucks in more air and continues to do so until the heater is turned off.

    1. Lorinc Del Motte says:

      I believe ConvectAir has a register like that.

  5. Keith Olson says:

    Why complain about the cold, when you could use it as an excellent reason to build a propane-powered rocket stove? A propane stove element, two nested, vertical, stainless steel tubes with insulation between them and a baffle on top, and Voila! Hot air everywhere!

  6. salec says:

    Heating air volume to warm yourself up through convection is the most wasteful way. I don’t have original source handy but it was shown that most comfortable setup in terms of both body warmth and oxygen content in air (which is higher in colder air) is Infrared heating and cold air – no air heating at all, heating only the exposed surfaces, using radiation.

    I am certain you can find electric and even propane infrared heaters in your area. If not, a high power incandescent light bulb in large reflector fixture can serve the same purpose, but perhaps you should add a dimmer circuit to lower the temperature of the filament down to the red glow, to increase IR output (and save some energy).

    1. Mark says:

      Ummmm….. what? Turn down the light to get more IR out? You mean put less energy in to get more energy out? To quote the noted scholar Homer J. Simpson : “In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”. Seriously though, I work with halogen lamps up to 1200 Watts and one thing I do know is that they get colder when they are dimmed.

      1. salec says:

        You are right. Please excuse my misexplanation. I was referring to Wien’s law ( I should had written: “to increase IR to visible light proportion in the output, unless you don’t mind too much visible light, that is”.

  7. Travis says:

    Instead of a Peltier/fan combo, use a Sterling engine.

    On a totally different thought instead of heating the whole shop or area around oneself, build a water heated set of coveralls. A kind of space suit underwear..(In the summer make it a chiller). You would probably be tethered to a power source though, either with tubing to a water heater or a cord powering an on board heater. Wouldn’t do much for the head and hands unless you added gloves and a hat to the mix. I have considered doing this for a seat cover in a car running antifreeze/coolant through tubing instead of the electric heated seats.

  8. George says:

    I think the words “pulsejet engine” says it all. It heats the place, makes a cool jet sound and depending on the design has no moving parts.

  9. NickS says:

    While the review was amusing, rather than going through a container of propane every day and half, why not insulate and seal your inefficient shop space?

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