Is There a Real Alternative Car Heater?

Taking a look at car heater alternatives

Car heaters aren't complicated systems. They take hot coolant from the engine, pass it through a small radiator called a heater core, and then use a blower motor to extract heat into the passenger compartment. The problem is that when this simple system breaks down, it can cost hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars to fix.

If you find yourself staring down the barrel of a thousand-dollar repair bill, you may wonder if there's a real alternative car heater out there that works. The simple answer is that there are alternatives, but none of them can actually replace your car heater.

The Problem of Broken Car Heaters

Some heater cores cost well in excess of a thousand dollars to replace, while simply bypassing the heater core altogether is a simple operation that a mechanic may perform for as little as a half hours labor. The problem is that if you don't fix your car heater, and winter rolls around, there is the small problem of driving a vehicle that is ice cold inside.

The easy solution is to install a 12 V car heater, wire it directly into the electrical system, and call it good. The problem with that is that electric heaters just can't hold a candle to heaters that use hot engine coolant as a source of heat.

The hard truth is that there really is no such thing as a car heater alternative that’s both cheaper than fixing a broken heater core and as easy to install and use as a 12 V car heater.

If you want to replicate the actual heat output of your car heater without actually fixing it, the only solution is a replacement car heater that works the same way your factory heater used to, and that means cutting into the cooling system.

replacement car heater needed
Most car heater alternatives are going to leave you cold, but there is one viable option. RunPhoto / Taxi Japan / Getty

Replacement Car Heaters

The trouble with most car heater alternatives is that the heat contained in engine coolant, which is the heat source behind factory heating systems, is essentially free. Since hot coolant is a byproduct of normal engine operation, and the heat has to be shed via a radiator anyway, pulling it out through a heater core involves no extra expenditure of energy other than the small amount it takes to run a blower motor.

Most car heater alternatives are electric, and electric heaters are tremendously power-hungry. If you’re driving around with a portable electric car heater, then you’re already painfully familiar with how anemic most of them are. In fact, the vast majority of electric car heaters are significantly less powerful than a hairdryer.

So the solution to a broken car heater — and specifically a bad heater core — is predictably not an electric heater. Unfortunately, for anyone hoping for an especially cheap or easy fix, that means the only real solution, absent fixing the broken heater the right way, is a replacement car heater that makes use of hot coolant just like the factory system did.

Universal Car Heaters That Use Engine Coolant

The way factory car heaters work is that they pass hot engine coolant through a tiny radiator called a heater core. A fan called a blower motor pushes air through the heater core, and heat is extracted. The warm air then passes into the passenger compartment.

Aftermarket units working on this same principle can be used as direct car heater replacements without the need to actually replace a bad heater core, which may be prohibitively expensive to replace, or impossible to find due to obsolescence.

These devices consist of a heater core and a blower motor in a combined package that can be installed in any vehicle that has enough space. The hitch is that you have to find some way to bring heater hoses into the vehicle from the engine compartment.

Since the main reason to use one of these units is how labor-intensive it is to access and replace some heater cores, using the existing heater hoses is typically a no-go.

The upshot is that you can install this type of replacement heater pretty much wherever you want to since you already have to route new heater hoses. If there’s enough space, you can install one under the dash or in place of the center console. If there isn’t enough space, you can install one in the rear of the vehicle or wherever else you want.

You can even use this type of replacement heater as an auxiliary heater with a factory system that is still in working order.

How Well Do Replacement Car Heaters Work?

Electric car heaters don’t work so great. There’s a huge gap between weak battery-powered heaterscigarette lighter heaters, and more powerful units that need to be wired directly to a car battery, but even the more powerful units pale in comparison to the heat output from a factory heater.

Replacement car heaters that use hot engine coolant instead of electricity are a different matter. Some of these units are still weak compared to a factory system, and others have blower motors that aren’t nearly as strong as factory blowers. However, top-end replacement car heaters can put out a tremendous amount of heat.

Typical wattages for different types of replacement car heaters include:

  • Cigarette lighter heater: 150W
  • Dual mode electric heater: 150/280W
  • Direct-wired electric heater: 300W

By way of comparison, a replacement heater that relies on hot coolant puts out between 12,000 and 40,000 BTU/hr, which is the equivalent of a 3,500- to 11,000-watt heater. The numbers don’t lie, and they aren’t even close.

Is a Replacement Heater Really Cheaper Than Fixing the Heater Core?

While it’s true that replacement car heaters that rely on hot coolant instead of electricity can put out a lot of heat, they aren’t cheap. A typical unit costs in the neighborhood of $200 and really powerful ones cost significantly more. In comparison, some heater cores cost less than $50 for the part.

The issue is labor or time, depending on whether you’re paying for the job or doing it yourself. Some heater cores are dead simple to replace, in which case there’s absolutely no reason to buy a replacement heater system instead of just replacing the bad heater core. However, other heater cores are ridiculously complicated or time-consuming to replace. In some cases, you have to pull the entire dash to get to the heater core.

In situations where the dash has to come out, a replacement car heater unit is sometimes the cheaper way to go. Labor is still involved in installing this type of heater, and not a trivial amount either.

Getting new heater hoses into a passenger compartment, by any means necessary, is typically going to be easier — or less expensive — than pulling and reinstalling the entire dash, so your mileage may vary depending on the exact vehicle that you drive.

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