Get ready for the quartz heater, which promises to be the hot item in houseware sales this fall and winter.

Introduced last year by a West Coast company and now in production by 20 to 30 additional, manufacturers, the quartz heater is a small, relatively-cheap-to-operate portable heater that warms its owner from head to toe even in patriotically cold rooms where the thermostat is set to an energy-efficient 68 degrees.

At a Chicago housewares exposition last week, more than 20 manufacturers showed the new heater. "It was the talk of the show," said Dick Hockman of the National Housewares Manufacturers Association.

The quartz heater basically takes a concept in use in business and industry for some time and introduces it to the living room. What it does is generate radiant heat, which warms whatever surface it strikes -- as does the sun or a fireplace -- rather than by warming the air, as most household heating does.

Until now, that type of heater has been used primarily for small work spaces in warehouses, to keep parking garage customers warm while they wait for their cars or for similar uses.

"It's just emerging. It was very popular last fall when only one manufacturer was making it," said Scott Huff of the electric environmental equipment section of the National Electric Manufacturers Association. "Now a number of other manufacturers are looking at the product."

"We believe it's the next Cuisinart," said Gary French, operations manager of Boekamp Inc. of San Diego, which introduced the quartz heater last year.

So do some of the other manufacturers jumping into production, but others cautioned that a more apt comparison might be with electric hamburger fryers, which appeared and disappeared more rapidly as a popular housewares item.

The heater that Boekamp manufactures is a cylinder about two feet high containing two quartz tubes that surround heating elements that operate at temperatures as high as 1,800 Farenheit. The cylinder is set on a broader conical base. The tubes heat up to temperatures of 1,500 Farenheit but are shielded by a grill about three inches in front of the tubes to prevent contact with the hot quartz.

"If you touched the grill, you'd pull your hand away, but it wouldn't burn," said French. There is also a protective wire guard in front of the heater to keep draperies and other items away from contact with the hot surfaces, he said.

Boekamp began work on a quartz heater for home use in about 1973, after the company's founder discovered the heaters in use in Europe and began to work on introducing them to the American market. The heaters were listed by Underwriters Laboratory in 1975 but didn't go into full production until 1979, French said.

After that, "We could sell as many as we could make," he said. The company doubled production every month and sold some 300,000 units, most of them in New England, he said.

The company plans expanded production this year and a full-scale advertising campaign.

"With the energy crunch, the luxury of being able to walk into your house or a certain room and have it 75 degrees is over," French said. "What you need is a heater that provides comfort to people. It's like a portable fireplace."

The heater uses about 1.5 kilowatts an hour, he said. On a typical charge for electricity of five cents an hour, it would cost about 7 1/2 cents an hour to operate, he said.

Boekamp's suggested retail price for the heater is $89, but others in the industry said that they expect by this fall such heaters may be selling for about $40.

Some of the same factors that may make the quartz heater attractive also appear to have encouraged sales of fans. In the past two years, sales have been growing at a rate of about 10 percent a year in contrast with the early 1970s when there was little growth.