Hey, It - Engine Builder Magazine

Wherever two or more shall gather… Somebody is bound to be too hot or too cold! It seems to be a fact of life, people can never agree about the temperature inside. This one says it’s too hot, while that one says it’s too cold.

One thing we can all agree on is that we want to be comfortable when we’re working. Turning wrenches for a living comes with plenty of built in aggravations and difficulties, the last thing anybody needs is to be too hot or too cold.

The good news is there are a lot of solutions for climate control. You can heat or cool the shop, improve circulation and even improve the quality of the air you breathe.


Since it’s already getting cooler in many parts of the country, maybe a good place to start is heating. I want to mention something to you shop owners: Providing a warm shop is not just something you need to do because you are a good person and genuinely care about your techs being comfortable. You need to heat your shop because it will make you money in the winter! Ha! Got your attention didn’t I?

Shop employees who have to work in cold conditions are not as productive as those who are comfortable and warm. I know that heating a shop is expensive, but not heating a shop may be more expensive! Shop employees who have to work in heavy shop coats and gloves are slower than techs who can wear regular work clothes. Fingers don’t work as well; there’s a lot of lost time chasing dropped fasteners. Not to mention that we as humans get kind of cranky when we’re cold for long periods of time. And everybody knows that cranky techs are just no fun!

The question we care about is how can we heat a cold shop – where large doors are continually opening and closing letting in freezing cold air? A critical part of this equation is how can we do it safely, quickly and cost-effectively?

There are several types of heat sources for shops. Below I will outline a few choices to consider.

Ceiling-Mounted Radiant Heaters

 Suspended from the ceiling, radiant heaters are designed to overcome the challenging conditions often present in automotive service facilities. Radiant heaters generate infrared energy that is absorbed by objects such as the floor, tools and equipment. This method of heating restores the service bay to an acceptable working level in a shortened period of time.

If you are wondering how these units operate, radiant heaters are fueled by either natural or propane gas and powered by a 120-volt outlet. When heat is required, a burner control box ignites a gas/air mixture and combustion gases are pushed through steel radiant tubing by an internal fan. The tubing is then warmed and it emits infrared energy, which is absorbed by objects in the room that then re-radiate secondary heat to create a comfortable working area.

Another benefit of using infrared heat is that radiant heaters can be positioned over top the active work areas to keep the technicians warm. Highly polished reflectors on the heater can be rotated to direct heat to where it is most needed.

Radiant heaters can be controlled with thermostats to allow for reduced heat in the evening and then automatically turned back up prior to technicians arriving for work. This helps reduce fuel costs by not having the heaters run continuously throughout the night. Further advantages can be realized by installing a two-stage radiant heater. Two-stage provides faster recoveries in high fire and the fuel-saving benefits of long periods in low-fire operation.

Most auto service garages have vehicle lifts that must be taken into consideration, as vehicles raised on the lifts could be damaged by infrared heaters placed in close proximity. It is very important to maintain minimum clearance to combustibles from any vehicle on the floor or on a lift. Also, care must be taken to maintain these clearances from hose reels, exhaust collection systems, etc.

Used Waste Oil Heaters

This is a logical solution for medium- to high-volume shops that are located in cold climates in the northern parts of the country. These systems, as the name suggest, run on used waste oil from the customers’ cars! How cool is that? From a fuel supply point of view, these systems are obviously less expensive to run. And as fuel prices continue to rise, a used waste oil heater makes more sense from an economics point of view.

Not only does waste oil heat reduce your heating bills, it also eliminates the cost to haul used oil off-site.

According to one waste oil heater manufacturer, burning waste oil to obtain “free” heat is an environmentally friendly way to deal with one of the industry’s major pollution problems. “By turning a waste product into a valuable fuel, you help to conserve natural energy sources and protect water and soil resources from oil pollution. Emissions are similar to burning standard fuel oil, plus on-site recycling reduces the chance of accidental spills, improper disposal, and vehicle emissions generated during transport of the used oil off-site,” according the manufacturer’s website.

These systems are one of the most complex to specify and install. There are a number of variables that have to be addressed for the system to be successful. The building has to be evaluated for cubic volume, heat loss, number of bays and employees, average temperature, and several other factors. There are usually some very stringent local regulations regarding the installation of these systems as well. But the benefits outweigh these initial inconveniences.

These systems are normally permanently installed; however, there are some small waste oil heaters that can be moved around.

Portable Fuel/Oil Heaters

Portable fuel/oil heaters are commonly known in the industry as “torpedo heaters” because of their distinctive shape. These are probably one of the best values in portable heating for efficiency. These units, which will run on various fuels including kerosene or certain oils, create an amazing amount of heat or BTUs.

These heaters have basically been unchanged for many years, but there are some exciting new developments in this grouping of products. Although effective in quick heating of relative large areas, these heaters have always been a bit intimidating in terms of the sheer noise they produce. Their small jet engine-like roar can be a bit unnerving and tiresome for the tech that has to listen to it for many hours in a small enclosed work area.

One of the largest manufacturers of this product has recently introduced a new series of heaters with a 20 percent reduction in operating noise. By using a centrifugal fan, the unit is still able to move large amounts of heated air with less noise. This alone will cause many owners to reconsider this type of heat.

In addition, the company has developed a model that can operate on eight different types of fuel. No more scrambling trying to source kerosene. These new units can burn kerosene, #1 & 2 diesel, bio-diesel, #1 & 2 fuel oil, JP8 and jet fuel. Wow! Talk about flexibility. Add to this high-tech ignition systems for greater ease and reliability in starting and you have a good option for heat. Finally, the company has redesigned the carriage of these heaters, now looking like high-tech wheelbarrows, the units are easier to move and feature semi-pneumatic run-flat tires. All of these improvements add up to ease of use for the shop owner and technician, and that will result in greater productivity and work place comfort.

Electric Space Heaters

The least expensive and least effective type of heaters are personal space heaters combined with blowers. These small electric fans are designed to heat a very small area of the shop for the comfort of one technician.

Space heaters are affordable for the technician, and are highly portable, limited only by access to a good source of electricity. But I offer a word of caution to shop owners: these heaters can be deceptive in their operating costs, and not the right solution for a shop with poor electric service or a large number of bays.

Portable Propane Heaters

Portable propane heaters are somewhat better in their effectiveness and efficiency for spot heating. These heaters generally run off of propane tanks much like the one on your barbeque grill in the back yard. These use radiant heat from the gas elements to heat with, and are available in several different BTU ratings. These units are also very portable and not tied to an electric cord or outlet so they can be used in “the field.”


Cooling is really not adding coolness, but the removal of heat. Seems wrong, but there you have it! Like heating, there are several ways to cool a shop.


Fans are generally the least expensive and also least effective method of cooling a shop. Fans improve on our natural system of sweating. Sweat serves to cool us through a process called evaporative cooling. As the sweat on our bodies dries and evaporates, it leaves us feeling cooler. Fans actually take this one step further by accelerating the process.

Fans come in all shapes and sizes, and costs, for that matter. There are heavy-duty, wall-mounted permanent fans. There are small portable fans. There are pedestal fans that have wheels on them so they can be moved around. There are even industrial fans used in large warehouses and garages that have blade diameters ranging from 10 ft. to 18 ft. across! These huge ceiling fans are effective at moving incredible amounts of air. The newest and best-designed monster ceiling fans have borrowed some aero dynamics design elements from aircraft.

These huge blades have a bent section at the tip called an airfoil. This tip causes a swirling of the air as it leaves the ends of the blades resulting in greater movement and ultimately more cooling. The immense fans are so well balanced and employ sophisticated electronic controls to allow them to be very energy efficient. The fans actually have controllers on board to control their start up and shut down speeds. This assures that the fan motors last a long time and don’t consume large amounts of energy trying to spin up the blades immediately.

The trick to using fans effectively is to position them so that they actually enhance the natural air flow of the shop. Most buildings are designed for air to flow in a set direction. If you can determine what that pattern is and place the fans accordingly, they can be helpful. One problem with fans is when people constantly move them or place two or more fans in opposition to one another, and then the fans are basically “fighting” each other.

Evaporative Coolers

Also known as “swamp coolers,” evaporative coolers employ an old technology that was originally only used and known in the southwest part of the United States. They use water to cool air that is then blown into a work area or toward a technician.

Evaporative coolers draw in hot air through wet pads using a fan or blower. As the water evaporates, it takes heat from the air with it creating cooler air. These coolers, which are relatively inexpensive and very portable, have been growing in popularity in the last few years as a low-cost solution to technician comfort in the shop. There are models that will cool off hundreds of square feet all the way down to personal units designed to literally cool one person at a time.

These evaporative units are completely dependent on the atmospheric conditions of the area in which they are used. The higher the relative humidity of the area, the lower the effectiveness will be. In the Southwest where the humidity might be 20% or less, these units have been able to lower air temp by 15-20° F. In southeastern states and parts of the Northeast where humidity can range as high as 95%, the effectiveness will be less. Evaporative coolers may well be the very best bang for the buck in terms of both initial cost and long-term operational costs. They, however, are not the solution for every shop and certainly not for every part of the country.

So as you can see, there are many choices to be considered when talking about shop climate control. The most important thing to remember is that by providing a comfortable environment for the technician, the shop will ensure better productivity and a higher quality of work, which is the goal at the end of the day.

Mike DuBois, is a frequent contributor to Engine Builder sister publication Tech Shop.

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