The price of kerosene heaters is down by as much as 50 percent at Washington-area stores as winter approaches, but safety experts say that's because the market is glutted with older models that don't have the latest safety features.
"What you are getting with this kind of liquidation price is a kerosene heater produced last year or possibly the year before -- and that is a heater that is far less likely to incorporate the several safety advances that have been included on heaters made since March 15 to make the kerosene heater less dangerous," said Stuart M. Statler, a member of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
That has happened, he said, because of the huge inventory of heaters left over from last year, when sales dropped because of warmer weather than was expected and questions about the safety of kerosene heaters. As a result, the industry, which had hoped to sell 4.5 million heaters, sold only about 3 million.
The CPSC has estimated that 1.5 million kerosene heaters were sitting in stores, warehouses and other parts of the supply pipeline when the new voluntary industry standard took effect in March.
Those heaters are less likely to contain the safety features called for in the voluntary standard, which says that heaters made after March 15 must have a manual shutoff switch for use in the event of a flare-up, improved grilles to protect against contact burns and fires and better labeling.
Because there are so many older heaters on the market, stores are having difficulty selling new, safer models for as much as they might otherwise get, store price surveys indicate.
Andrew Owens, sales manager of Lowe's of Vienna, a hardware store, said that there is no significant price difference in the old and the new models because "right now the market for kerosene heaters is pretty well saturated."
More kerosene heater safety features are to be added shortly, Statler said. Under the voluntary standard, those made after Friday must have a safety mechanism to prevent the wick from being set so that it could increase the amount of pollutants released into the home or heat the fuel to explosive temperatures. Some heaters already have this mechanism.
Statler said consumers should look for a model featuring all of the recommended safety devices.
An estimated 10 million kerosene heaters are now in use in the United States as supplemental and even primary heating, industry statistics indicate. But the consumers who own them have been cautioned to use them with care because of possible hazards from emissions, hot surfaces and fire.
The CPSC has issued special alerts in the past, explaining the risks and urging consumers never to use a kerosene heater in a tightly sealed room, never to go to sleep with the heater operating and never to add fuel when the heater is on or hot. The agency also advises consumers to use only 1-K grade kerosene in their heaters.
In addition, the commission has worked with the industry to find ways to make the heaters safer.
Consumers looking for heaters with the latest safety features may have trouble distinguishing the new models from the older models -- unless the store has both kinds and its clerks can explain the difference.
Donna Reynolds, a spokesman for Montgomery Ward & Co., which has seven stores in the Washington area, said clerks have been instructed about the differences between the 1983 and 1984 models. Also, she said, there is a slight price difference.
At present, the price at Ward stores for four 1983 models of various sizes range from $59.99 to $99.99, Reynolds said. That is slightly less than the price for 1984 models at Ward, which were recently on sale. Stores were selling one 19,600 BTU kerosene heater, for example, for $109.99, down $50 from the regular price.
Some other stores, however, are selling only the 1983 model kerosene heaters. For example, all of the units at Hechinger's stores are 1983 models, according to Joanne Barrett, merchandise manager.
Barrett said that her company decided to stock only the 1983 models because they were available from suppliers for substantially less than the 1984 models. Moreover, she said, the 1983 models purchased by Hechinger's have the manual shutoff switch that is required on 1984 models.
She said that Hechinger's basically carries four types of 1983 kerosene heaters, including one that sells for $45 during store promotions and three regular models that sell for $120 or less. Hechinger's has sufficient inventory to meet customer demand through this winter, Barrett said, and probably will not have any 1984 models until next August.
Some retailers say they are selling heaters older than the 1983 models. "We have about one dozen heaters, which we have had for about two years," said Dan Miller, assistant manager at Bill's Hardware in Arlington. "There is nothing wrong with them, but they haven't sold."
The kerosene heaters at Strosnider's Hardware in Bethesda also are about two years old, according to owner Bill Hart, who said, "We got them on a special buy. I think that when they started talking about putting new safety features on them, they the suppliers wanted to get rid of them, and we bought some."