Whither the Unvented Heater?
The Z21.11.2 subcommittee could not ignore these developments. More than once, the subcommittee addressed the same existential question: Should Z21.11.2 exist? The answer was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Within the AGA, sentiment at large was (and still is) divided over the unvented heater. AGA represents the distributors of gas. These companies have different interests because some are "gas-only," while others sell gas and electricity. Some do a great deal of marketing; others do not. Their interest in protecting a product such as the unvented heater varies accordingly.
Privately, some manufacturers were also less than enthusiastic about the appliance, leading one CPSC commissioner to conclude that the industry "didn't really care" about whether the heaters were banned. Some of the engineers at the AGA Labs even supported the notion of a ban. Not surprisingly, however, the committee's position has always been in favor of the gas space heater.
The stated reasons have been less than compelling. The standard should exist, the subcommittee has stated on several occasions, because without it space heaters will continue to be sold, but not necessarily with the safety levels maintained by Z21.11.2. In other words, economically speaking, the standard creates a marginal benefit. This benefit is real, however, only if the product would still be marketed without AGA approval. This is a critical and dubious assumption. AGA approval is practically a prerequisite to marketing a gas appliance. There are strong reasons to believe that the lack of an AGA standard would eliminate the product from the market, and that if it did not, manufacturers would continue to satisfy the requirements in the current standard.
The forces that motivate AGA certification would not disappear with the enactment of a limited government standard. There is no reason to think that utilities who refuse to install or service appliances without AGA certification would change their behavior in light of a federal requirement that does not even address some of their most serious
concerns (explosions, fire hazards). Moreover, pressures created by product liability law would remain unchanged. A manufacturer who chose to forgo AGA certification would run serious liability risks in relation to those hazards covered only by the AGA standard.
Relying on the distinction between product standards and installation standards, AGA Labs took the position that the existential question should be answered by someone else. Accordingly, the preface to Z21.11.2 warns: "Safe operation of a gas-fired unvented room heater depends to a great extent upon its proper installation, and it should be installed in accordance with the National Fuel Gas Code, ANSI Z223.1, manufacturers' installation instructions, and local municipal building codes." In short, AGA Labs took the same position UL often does with respect to "banning" a product: it claimed to defer to use and installation codes. If NFPA will not allow an appliance, then AGA will not list it. This is the case with a cousin of the gas space heater, the so-called cabinet heater. Cabinet heaters are unvented heaters without a gas line connection. They use a gas cylinder instead. These heaters are not permitted under NFPA 58, so AGA Labs does not list them.
With the space heater, however, the most important installation code—the National Fuel Gas Code—is written by AGA Labs, further complicating the symbiotic relationship between installation codes and product standards. The Fuel Gas Code recognizes the seriousness of the hazards connected with the space heater but takes the ineffectual position of "prohibiting" the appliance in sleeping quarters, sanitariums, and certain other institutions. Although an unqualified prohibition would probably keep the product off the market, the use restriction leaves enforcement largely in the hands of the consumer, who has probably never heard of the National Fuel Gas Code. The code notwithstanding, most carbon monoxide deaths apparently occur in sleeping quarters.
In reality, the existential question caused the subcommittee no existential distress. They were committed to the unvented heater. This assured certification business for AGA Labs and an imprimatur for manufacturers. As an AGA engineer remarked in response to suggestions that space heaters be redesigned to lower surface temperatures: "There is no point in pricing them out of the market if your intent is to keep them in the market." Utility representatives did not object to this unofficial intention, because even if the heaters were on the market, they could keep them out of specific gas distribution networks by refusing to hook them up and service them. Those who objected to the gas space
heater politely abstained from the discussion. A representative from Peoples Natural Gas Company, for example, responded to a proposed change in Z21.11.2 by commenting: "Peoples does not approve the installation or use of unvented heaters by our customers. I am sure that you will understand that the decision to abstain [on these revisions] was dictated by these factors and does not reflect on the fine work of the Subcommittee."