Car Seat Warmers and Toasted Buns Syndrome

Are car seat heaters worth it?

A BWM i3 with factory heated car seat warmers built right in.

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Car seat warmers might seem like a frivolous luxury, but they can actually turn even the coldest winter trudge into work into a cozy commute. The idea behind this technology is that instead of heating the air inside your car, which then warms you up, the seats are capable of warming you up through direct contact. Some vehicles come with built-in car seat warmers, and you can also add seat warmers to older vehicles through aftermarket upgrades.

Are Car Seat Warmers Worth the Cost?

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. While this tends to be a somewhat pricey option when you’re buying a new car, often adding upwards of $400 to the price of a new vehicle, aftermarket kits are surprisingly affordable.

If you're comfortable with some basic wiring work, you may even be able to install an aftermarket seat warmer yourself.

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.

When a car comes from the factory with seat warmers already installed, they always fall into the first category. Some of the best aftermarket kits also fit this category.

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.

Beyond those two basic categories, there are a lot of other types of car seat warmers that add even more features to the mix:

  • Car seat warmers with intelligent temperature controls: Basic car seat warmers have an on and off switch, and maybe two or three temperature levels. For additional safety, look for a seat warmer that includes intelligent temperature controls. This feature allows the seat warmer to turn itself off when it reaches a specified temperature.
  • Massaging car seat warmers: These seat warmers add a massage function. They're more expensive, but you can find affordable over-seat versions if the in-seat models are too pricey for your budget.
  • Car seat warmers with a cooling function: The most advanced car seat warmers do more than just warm. They also cool. These are more expensive, but if you've ever sat on a hot leather seat in the middle of summer, then it's easy to appreciate the added comfort that this version brings to the table.

Internal Car Seat Heaters

Original equipment 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 seat back.

If you want a seamless, factory-installed 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 to sit on, and one for the seat back. 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 Warmer Style Amperage High/Low Setting Price
Dorman 628-040 Internal 1.5 - 4.5A Yes $70
Water Carbon (2 seats) Internal 3 - 5A Yes (5 settings) $65
Wagan IN9438 External Yes $20
AUDEW Universal External 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.