Heed the warnings and laws if you buy a kerosene heater

Many consumers are warming to a new winter companion: the kerosene heater. Prompted by energy savings and new safety features, more than 6 million Americans have bought such heaters since 1974.

Kerosene heaters returned to American markets after a 30-year absence caused by their propensity for starting fires. Now, modern safety features have reassured consumers and regulators alike. These measures include wicks which are designed to shut off when the heater is jarred or overturned, a bottom-heavy design for maximum stability, and gas tanks designed to minimize spills.

Approval by Underwriters Laboratories has helped assuage concerns. And in July, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) gave kerosene heaters a general safety approval.

''I think that a clear trend has been established in the last two years on the part of the industry to gain recognition of the value and safety of the new models,'' says Jeff Parkin, counsel and product manager for Kerosun, the largest US importer of kerosene heaters.

Yet doubts linger. California and Massachusetts ban outright the use of kerosene heaters, and some areas in the West prohibit their use in residential homes. Concern persists about combusted gases given off from the heaters.

Any consumer considering buying a kerosene space heater should weigh safety precautions equally with the outstanding economic benefits.

Economics

High efficiency and low operating costs make kerosene space heaters a cost-saving supplement to central heating.

Depending on the size of the house and geographic location, the heaters could reduce heating costs from $100 to $600 this winter, according to Department of Energy projections.

These heaters are cheaper to operate than electric heaters. for example. Although kerosene units are more efficient than electric models (90 percent compared with 100 percent fuel efficiency), kerosene is a much cheaper fuel source than electricity. On average, kerosene heaters cost $70 less to operate per season than conventional electric models.

The main drawback to kerosene heaters is the initial investment. The units cost twice as much as comparable electric heaters, ranging in price between $100 and $350. Larger vented units start at around $850.

Rectangular models that heat by radiation are rated at 9,000 to 15,000 Btus. Cylindrical convection models are listed between 18,000 and 22,000 Btus; third-generation ventilated heaters put out up to 32,600 Btus.

Consult your local dealer for the heater appropriate to your heating specifications.

Safety

In October, 1982, Consumer Reports magazine concluded that kerosene heaters are a ''harzardous appliance'' due to carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other harmful gases that are produced by the combustion of kerosene.

A subsequent Consumer Product Safety Commission report, however, concluded that kerosene heaters, if properly used, pose no undue health hazard. Manufacturers recommend opening a window and doors to adjacent rooms to ensure adequate air circulation.

When used in newer, tightly insulated homes extra caution must be taken to guard against noxious gas buildup.

One tip is important: Heed every instruction when using a kerosene heater. As with any product, the consumer can be the most crucial safety factor in the use of kerosene heaters.

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