Car Seat Warmers and Toasted Buns Syndrome

Are Car Seat Heaters Worth It?

car seat warmer toasted buns
Car seat warmers are the leading cause of toasted buns, but all joking aside, "toasted skin syndrome" is a real issue you have to watch out for. Muammer Mujdat Uzel / E+ / Getty

 Question: Should I get a car seat warmer?

My car was in the shop recently, and the loaner they gave me had car seat warmers. I always thought it was sort of a silly thing, but it turned out to be surprisingly effective at warming me up on my cold morning commute.

Now that I have my car back, and I’ve said farewell to nicely toasted buns on the way to work every morning, I’m wondering if it might be worth it to get some kind of seat warmer or heater for my car. Do the seat heaters you can buy work as well as the ones that come with new cars? And is there anything I should look for or be aware of?

Answer:

If you live in a chilly climate, and you spend any amount of time on the road in the winter, then a car seat warmer can definitely be worth the investment. It tends to be a somewhat pricey option when you’re buying a new car, upwards of $400 in some cases, but aftermarket kits are actually surprisingly affordable. You may even be able to do the installation yourself if you're comfortable with some basic wiring work.

There are a few different kinds of car seat warmers, so it is a good idea to check out what's available and find the best option for your budget and situation before you pull the trigger.

Types of Car Seat Warmers

There are two main types of car seat warmers: heating pads that are installed underneath the upholstery, and devices that rest on top of the surface of the seat. All OEM seat warmers fall into the first category, and so do some of the best aftermarket options. Seat warmers that rest on top of the seat are easier to install, and can be moved from one vehicle to another, but they don’t always look that great and can suffer from longevity issues.

Internal Car Seat Heaters

OEM car seat warmers use heating pads that are installed inside the seats. In most instances, one pad is installed in the seat itself, and another is placed in the seatback. If you want a seamless, OEM-like experience, then you should look at aftermarket products that conform to this basic definition.

Some aftermarket heating pad kits come with a single pad for the seat, and some provide you with two.

In order to install an internal car seat heater, the seat has to be removed, and the upholstery has to be pulled back. This is a relatively simple operation, but it is fairly labor intensive. So this is the type of job you can do yourself at home, if you have some basic knowledge of automotive wiring, but many people will prefer to pay a professional shop.

Another option is to pay an upholsterer to pull off the seat fabric, slide in the heating pads, and then reinstall the fabric. At that point, the only thing left to do yourself is to wire the heating pads up to power and ground.

External Car Seat Heaters

External seat warmers fall into two basic categories: basic seat cushions and full seat covers. The basic seat cushions only cover the seat area, and they typically don’t look that great. They do tend to be inexpensive and easy to install, though.

Full seat slipcovers typically have two heating elements (one that you sit on, and one for the seatback). If your upholstery has seen better days, and you aren't interested in repairing it, then one of these might actually be a better fit than an internal seat warmer.

Of course, full seat slipcover heaters are also easy to install. Both types of external car seat heaters are typically designed to be plugged into your cigarette lighter socket, which means they can be moved from one car to another with ease.

Features to Look For

The most important feature to look for in a car seat warmer or heater is a temperature selector. At the very minimum, you should look for a seat warmer to come with a switch that provides both a high and low setting. Automatic shutoff is another nice feature that will save you from literally toasting your buns.

Car Seat Warmer Options

Seat WarmerStyleAmperageHigh/Low SettingPrice
Dorman 628-040Internal1.5 - 4.5AYes$70
Water Carbon (2 seats)Internal3 - 5AYes (5 settings)$65
Wagan IN9438External Yes$20
AUDEW UniversalExternal Yes$26

Dangers of Car Seat Warmers

Since car seat warmers are electronic, they pose many of the same potential hazards that you can see from any electronic device. For instance, it’s important to make sure that your seat warmer is wired and fused properly to avoid an electrical fire. Some seat warmers are also waterproof, which provides an extra degree of protection in case you ever get into your car sopping wet or spill a drink in your lap.

One danger that is pretty unique to car seat heaters is called “toasted skin syndrome,” and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. According to research done in the last few years, prolonged contact with high temperature surfaces can lead to skin discoloration. Since some car seat heaters get as hot as 120 degrees fahrenheit, it’s easy to see how sitting on one every day could lead to “toasted skin syndrome.” 

The good news is that you can pretty much prevent toasted skin syndrome by simply shutting off your seat warmer after it has done its job. If your seat warmer has a low setting, you can also reduce the likelihood of damaging your skin by using it. Seat warmers that have an automatic shutoff function can also be helpful.