One of the most difficult spaces in any home to heat and to head safely is the garage.
If you were lucky, you had the foresight to have your garage built at the same time as your custom home. If you live in colder climes, you may have thought to have probably the best form of heating installed; garage radiant floor heating. An invention going back to the days of ancient Rome, in-floor heating systems are probably the best and overall most economical way to heat garage space there is.
However, most of us didn’t build a custom home and never thought about how cold that garage workshop could get in the dead of winter. More than likely, we moved into existing structures with a garage that isn’t even insulated, let alone heated.
So, if you live in an area where it gets cold in the winter, and you like spending those winter months in your garage working on the car or tinkering in your workshop, what options do you have to keep from turning into a cross between the abominable snowman and a Popsicle? There are actually several.
Radiant Garage Floor Heating
As stated above, radiant floor heating is an economic, ecologically friendly and safe choice. Like the ancient Roman hypocaust (literally “heat from below”) of old, this is a simple and straightforward technology consisting of pipes or tubing embedded in concrete floors before they are poured through which hot water flows (alternatively electrical heating coils may take the place of piping and water). The science is also simple, the concrete floor’s total mass is converted into a source of radiant heat, with less cost involved because less energy is consumed bringing the level of warmth into a comfortable range and maintaining it there. As also previously noted this is a choice best made with new construction—or when an existing damaged concrete floor is being demolished and replaced.
Recent innovations in radiant heating for garage floors include ultra thin electrical mats that can be set into thin concrete or gypsum overlays resulting in a retrofit that doesn’t appreciably raise existing floor height. Also in this line are individual heating mats which, if much time is spent standing or sitting in one area in the garage space such as at a workbench, may be the most economical and efficient solution of all.
Another alternative in garage heaters is the use of overhead ceiling panels. Similar to the floor systems, ceiling panels may rely on warm water or electrical heating coils (and less often, forced air) and can be mounted using a dropped ceiling framework or, if the surface of the ceiling is suitable, attached directly through the use of individual frames with high density thermal insulation. It is also possible to mount one of these panels on a wall above a workspace.
Other Garage Heater Options
Portable UL rated electrical heaters which can be plugged into any available outlet and moved as needed are an economical choice in terms of cost of unit and can work well in a small garage/workspace area. Portable heaters cannot be left unattended and can pose a fire risk if knocked over or if particulate matter such as sawdust is prevalent in the garage area. Portable heaters must also be kept away from combustible materials in the garage. It should be noted that most portable heaters are not particularly energy efficient and can drive up the monthly electrical bill with even moderate use.
Electrical heaters designed to be permanently wall mounted are a better choice. Typically designed with heating element and a powerful fan, many models can be either wall or ceiling mounted and the best options swivel so that heated air flow can be directed where it is needed. Mounting one of these units above a workbench is a particularly effective choice. Where there is any chance of airflow being restricted, the wall mount electrical heater should have a built in cut off switch as a standard option.
It is possible to use the existing forced air heating of your home to provide heat to your garage; however it is not merely a matter of extending ducts from the existing system into the garage. It is imperative to avoid drawing car exhaust, carbon monoxide and any dust or fumes from chemicals used in the garage into your interior living space. A good solution to avoid these hazards is the use of a sealed combustion space heater. These heaters come in both floor and wall mount models; a wall mount is probably the safer option, keeping the unit out of vehicle and foot traffic flow. If your house is already supplied with natural gas or propane, these units can be a viable option. Keep in mind that any heater operating on combustion must be vented for safety as well as efficient operation, the process of combustion requires a steady supply of fresh air.
A vent free heating option is available in infrared, so called “zone” heaters. Infrared heaters radiate heat utilizing the same principle of physics as the sun– that is they heat objects and people rather than the air around them. Infrared heaters are considered safe and economical and have become a preferred option in many applications, and can be either fuel or electrically powered. Because infrared units heat objects as opposed to air, warmth is maintained even when cold air (from an opened garage door for example) is introduced into the space being heated, warmth is retained for a longer period and is more easily renewed once the cold air source is eliminated, resulting in an lower overall energy expenditure.
These are just a few of the options for heating a garage, there are others including passive solar heat; portable kerosene heaters, freestanding gas fireplaces, wood and pellet stoves. With the exception of the passive solar heat these are not generally highly recommended methods and in some cases may be prohibited by local fire codes.