Propane heaters are compact and generate a lot of heat. When the fuel runs out, to return the heat, it is enough to disconnect the used cylinder and install a new one. However, portable propane heaters can be dangerous. With an increased risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning, propane heaters are not always the best option for portable car heater .

Using a propane heater in your vehicle is not recommended. Propane heaters that are safe for automotive use are usually developed for recreational vehicles.

Close up of a propane heater
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Radiant heating vs catalytic heating in portable propane heaters

There are two main types of portable propane heaters: radiant and catalytic.

Radiant heaters burn propane, creating a flame that heats either a metal tube or a ceramic object. A metal or ceramic object emits infrared heat. When other objects absorb this heat, they heat up and emit infrared radiation.

Catalytic heaters rely on the incomplete combustion of propane and oxygen in the presence of a catalyst, which generates heat.

Radiant heating uses a flame and a hot metal tube or ceramic surface. Catalytic heating includes an extremely hot catalyst. Because of this, both types of portable propane heaters pose a significant fire hazard.

Both types create carbon monoxide, which creates risk of carbon monoxide poisoning . According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, catalytic heaters pose a risk of hypoxia because incomplete combustion can reduce the amount of oxygen in a vehicle to dangerous levels.

Using a portable propane heater in a car

Because of the associated fire hazards and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or hypoxia, a portable propane heater is not the best option for a portable car heater.

However, if you are using a propane heater, it is important to choose one that:

  • Has no open flame.
  • Strong enough not to fall.
  • Has an oxygen depletion sensor (ODS).

These are the absolute, minimum safety measures that portable propane heaters must have before using them in an enclosed space such as a car, tent, or residence.

The dangers of carbon monoxide and hypoxia

Aside from fires, the biggest risk when using a portable propane heater is carbon monoxide poisoning. This is because both radiant and catalytic propane heaters create carbon monoxide as a by-product of their normal operation. While propane heaters are fairly safe to use in open vehicles such as golf carts, these types of heaters can pose problems in enclosed vehicles such as cars and trucks.

Carbon monoxide is dangerous because when you breathe it in, it binds to red blood cells like oxygen. But unlike oxygen, it cannot be used by the cells in your body. It also sticks to red blood cells so that these cells cannot carry oxygen. If enough red blood cells are affected, a person can die from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Another hazard when using a portable propane heater in a confined space is hypoxia. This is a condition that occurs when someone cannot get enough oxygen due to low levels of oxygen in the air. Incomplete combustion of oxygen and propane in a catalytic heater can potentially lead to dangerously low oxygen levels. Anyone in this enclosed space can suffer from hypoxia.

If you are in the car for a short time, it is unlikely that the carbon monoxide level will rise high enough to be dangerous. It is also unlikely that oxygen levels will drop enough to cause problems. Carbon monoxide and oxygen levels depend on factors such as the volume of air in the car, how well the car is insulated, and how efficient the heater is.

Alternative portable car heaters

Some of the alternatives to a propane car heater include:

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