Torpedo Heaters: Standing the Test of Time
There are some designs that are so well conceived right out of the gate, they go a generation or more without being substantially updated. And the Torpedo heater (or "Salamander," as it's often called) is one of those items.
But how did it come to be? What were the circumstances that led to the creation of something we now recognize as indispensable for everything from heating construction sites and warehouses to drying concrete?
(And where did the name "Salamander" come from, anyway?)
Well, let’s start at the beginning.
It all began in an orchard
Anyone who's ever benefitted from the warmth of a forced-air kerosene or gas heater owes a debt of gratitude to the Scheu family of Upland, California.
It was in 1907 that a young inventor by the name of W.C. Scheu, then living in Grand Junction, Colorado, developed an oil-burning stack heater, or "smudge pot," that was more effective than open fires for protecting crops against frost.
Hoping to put it to the test, he moved to the Golden State in 1911 to open a small "orchard heater" company. And he didn't have to wait long for Mother Nature to lend a hand in his success. Because just two years later, in 1913, a devastating freeze wiped out citrus crops up and down the state.
The effect on his business was both immediate and considerable. Soon, he was selling over 50 different heaters – including what became known as the "HYLO Smokeless Orchard Heater" – to citrus growers all over the western United States through his Scheu Manufacturing Company.
But his orchard heaters grabbed the attention of those in other industries as well.
And not long after World War II, W.C.'s son, W.L. Scheu, learned they were being used on construction sites to help keep workers warm. W.L. recognized that the "smudge pot" design meant to protect against frost on trees was too inefficient and smoky to be effective around people. So he developed a modified heater design that was cleaner, more portable, and more efficient.
And in doing so, he gave birth to an industry.
W.L.'s design featured a new horizontal shape, and used a fan to pull cold air through the flame in the combustion chamber. Not only was this "salamander" far more easy to transport than a smudge pot, it was also able to heat a designated area far more quickly and efficiently for construction crews.
(Now, as for that name… well, no one's entirely sure how that came about. But a common theory says that it came from Spanish and Portuguese tradition, in which a wood-burning stove is known as a "salamandra." Where did that name originate, you ask? Good question. Apparently, it stems from a legend that says a salamander can withstand fire – a legend that can trace its roots to instances where a species of salamander that lived in dead logs would emerge when that log was thrown on a fire.)
A wave of fresh thinking
W.L.'s design served the construction industry well for a few years, until a man name Arthur C. Baumann actually turned things around – by developing a bladed fan that pushed the air through the heater, rather than pulling it through. This was the first of two major renovations to the design over the space of just a few years.
The second came in 1953, when the Master Vibrator Company began looking at construction heaters as a way to supplement the other facets of their growing equipment business. As one of their modifications to the existing torpedo design, they revised the combustion chamber to recirculate the products of combustion before they left the heater. They also integrated both the forced air and combustion processes to function off the airflow from a single rear-mounted fan – whereas in W.L.’s design, the air for combustion was drawn in through a separate process.
These updates made the Master forced air heater far cleaner and more efficient than previous models. In fact, this basic design is essentially the same one used to this day.
But that's not to say there weren't still improvements to be made. And it was Master once again who made the next substantial leap in the early 1960s with their lineup of B-Series heaters.
The Master B-Series revolutionized portable job site heating. Because not only were they more portable and efficient than any previous forced air heaters had been, they were also far easier to operate – which made them immensely popular. The success of the B-Series gave Master a commanding share of the industry. In fact, by the 1980s, they comprised as much as 90% of the country’s portable job site heater market.
A new era
Most modern torpedo heaters use the same design innovations – such as the rotary fuel pump – first found in the Master B-Series. And it’s a credit to the design that fairly little changed over the next 50 years.
But now, new technologies – and new competitors – are improving on the designs that have served as mainstays for so long.
Once limited to only kerosene, newer models can run on anything from natural gas, to propane, to fuel oil, to electricity.
And new safety features, such as flame safety shut-off and high temperature limit switches are helping make jobsites safer than ever.
New models are also far quieter – which not only adds another degree of safety, it also allows for a degree of peace and quiet on-site.
But some of the most exciting innovations are happening in the area of energy efficiency – with new models cutting energy use by as much as 50% over models that were available just a few years ago – thanks in part to their ability to combine multiple methods of heating.
All in all, it’s an exciting time in the portable heating industry. Because after decades of fairly little change, there are now more options than ever before.
So whether your needs are large or small, if you need fast, efficient, temporary heat, there’s a forced-air heater that’s perfect for the job.