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Equipment Hub: Portable heating options

Andy Overbay for Progressive Dairy Published on 27 November 2019

Farmers are problem-solvers; we have to be. Often, when the chips are truly down, there are few if any options in the way of assistance we can call in time to make a difference.

Winter weather can bring all kinds of challenges – frozen pipes, protecting livestock from the elements or simply being able to physically traverse to our tasks. These all tax our available energy and time.



Being cold just adds to the misery, so we resort to all means of generating heat for our families, our livestock and ourselves. Portable heating units can bring needed warmth, but they can also carry a good bit of risk, so it is wise to do one’s homework before settling on purchasing portable heaters for your use.

One of the more common heaters found on farms is what we have always called “space heaters.” Space heaters are also known as torpedo heaters, barrel heaters or salamander heaters. Regardless of what name you use, these units can generate a tremendous amount of heat and lend themselves to all kinds of uses on the farm, where shelter isn’t always available. These units burn fuel to generate heat directly; therefore, they are very efficient. They also utilize an open flame, so they need to be handled with safety in mind.

The number one consideration you need to be mindful of with the use of a space heater is abundant fresh air. Because of its open-flame and blower design, these heaters usually can’t be used with ductwork. So when they are used to heat a building or enclosure, you will find them placed fully inside the structure. To minimize the buildup of dangerous carbon monoxide and moisture, these units must be placed in well-ventilated spaces.

Though many sites where these units are operated are also usually ventilated, there’s a big difference between passive ventilation and proactive, well-designed air flow. Ventilation simply means outside air can get into an enclosure. Air seeping in through tarp openings, temporary doors and other gaps do little to circulate fresh air and distribute heat.

Another consideration is the amount of heat produced. When placed in an open bay of an equipment shed, you might feel you were making as much headway as holding a match to an iceberg. Use a tarp or plywood to make a tunnel to focus the heat, and soon you may get whatever you are heating too hot. Even putting items close to the exhaust of these units without any means to focus the air flow can soon lead to overheating.


Our heater used to always find a cinderblock placed near the output that served as a makeshift clothesline for wet gloves or coats. In times of desperation, even socks and boots might be placed nearby to dry out. Soon the steam would be rolling and, if we weren’t very careful, we soon found a sizable hole burned in our coats … not good.

Of course, because of their heat output and open flame, these heaters also pose a problem with other flammables that might be in the shop. Even among the more careful operators, sometimes there are lapses. I can’t tell you what year it was, but I was in grade school when Dad decided a winter day was going to be a great day to touch up some equipment and freshen their paint.

I’m not really sure why, when it was that cold, we should have been painting anyway, but Dad fired up the space heater and placed a can of enamel paint nearby to warm. For some reason, we stepped out of the shop to put another project to bed when a fairly loud boom was emitted from the shop. We stepped back in to find we indeed had painted that day – but not so much in the way we intended.

A good portion of the shop wall, floor, some tools and even the heater itself had a fresh coat of warm paint. Luckily, no one was hurt, and today it is a source of amusement, but it is also a reminder open-flame space heaters can be dangerous.

Indirect-fired heaters might be a consideration for you. These units can be placed inside a structure. The exhaust will be directed outside through ductwork. But this produces negative pressurization (pulling air from openings in the structure) as it heats inside air.

Usually indirect-fired units are placed outside a structure so they can draw on fresh, outside air. Instead of re-heating the air inside a structure, indirect-fired heaters in this configuration draw outside air through intake vents. The air is passed over the burn chamber and heated. Blowers force the hot air into a building through ductwork. Safety concerns about carbon monoxide and moisture are greatly reduced and are the reason these units are considered “clean.”


But there’s a price you pay for clean: Fuel efficiency drops to 75% for these heaters. You have to burn more fuel to get the same result. Of course, because of their design, their portability is limited as well.

One type of direct-fired temporary heater provides both fuel efficiency and safety. Concealed-flame, direct-fired units are unique. Since the flame on these units is concealed (not an open flame) and the blowers have enough horsepower to force air into a building, they can be used with ductwork. So you get the benefit of placing the unit outside and accessing clean, fresh air.

Regardless of the heater you choose, you need to handle your heater and its fuel much as you would any piece of equipment. Just as you would treat a small engine used seasonably, heaters demand you purchase clean fuel, fill the heater with care and maintain a clean fuel supply during operation and storage.

Stay warm and stay safe.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

Andy Overbay