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Heated jacket: how does it work

January 26, 2021
2 min

How does a heated jacket work?

There are many elements of apparel and other everyday objects which utilize some kind of heating technology — blankets, seat covers, socks, trousers, gloves, and, finally, jackets. Although it’s not a particularly new invention, it’s only starting to get some popular attention. Designed not only for sportsmen and workers, a good heated jacket can be a big relief during long, cold winters for everybody — especially with thoughtful design and a set of additional, useful functions.

But what are its origins? How did we get from quite primitive heating blankets to full-scale apparel which can sustain high temperature during frosty winters? It turns out that the technology was around almost since the beginning of the twentieth century — waiting to be used more widely.

The modest beginnings of heated apparel

The first everyday objects which utilized heating technology were electric blankets, invented in 1912 by Sidney Russell. The concept did not gain much popularity at the time, but later was extended to the form of the blanket controlled by a set of thermostats. This was done in 1930 by George C. Crowley, and developed further over the course of the century. In 2001, the first heated jackets were produced by MET5. This has set a landmark in further evolution of heating apparel, although was not exactly popular among the wide customer base due to its high price — over $500 at the time. And it’s worth knowing that back in the beginning of the twenty-first century it was a lot more money than today.

How does the heating technology work?

Most jackets and vests mostly use electricity for heating. But it’s not the only technology available on the market — there are also chemical and “stored heat” versions. Let’s flip through them all.

Chemically heated apparel — cheap and not very effective

This is the simplest method of heating clothes. The vest or jacket has small containers with chemicals inside. They might contain various elements or compounds like charcoal, water, cellulose of small portions of activated carbon. When these substances are exposed to the air, a chain of heat-producing chemical reactions starts. Typically, this method provides several hours of permanent warmth which is, unfortunately, not very high and can be insufficient in harsh winter conditions.

Stored heat — an energy-intensive method

It’s usually quite effective, but demands some effort from the user in order to work properly. It relies on a special gel contained in packages made of plastic. Before going outdoors, the packages must be put in a microwave and properly heated for a few minutes, and then inserted inside the jacket. This method provides up to 3-4 hours of warmth, which is cooling a lot slower than the above-mentioned, chemical method. The main con is in this case quite high energy consumption due to the fact that it requires regular use of a microwave.

Electrically heated jacket — best of both worlds

This is by far the most efficient and energy-saving method of heating your gear, developed as a result of popularization of George C. Crowley’s 1930 invention. It uses rechargeable batteries (mostly 12-volt ones, Li-Polymer or Li-Ion) and various methods of warmth distribution. The most popular of them are:

  • copper wires,
  • nichrome wires,
  • carbon fibers,
  • fabric embedded with carbon,
  • ultra-thin flexible heating layers.

Most of the popular models tend to utilize very thin, carbon-based solutions. Li-Ion and Li-Polymer batteries can power them for up to 8-9 hours. This allows not only for proper warmth distribution, but also does not restrain body movement. Thus, its target audience is not limited to physical workers or sportsmen during the winter season — it can be used by almost everybody who is fond of new technology and likes to use comfortable and well-designed apparel.

Most of the jackets and vests are connected to the batteries by the USB cable. This makes recharging a lot easier — you don’t need any adapters, dongles and special connectors. Usually, there are a few modes of heat distribution and temperature regulation. More advanced models have built-in external temperature sensors which adjust the clothing warmth automatically. This feature is usually provided in more expensive vests.

Types of electrically heated jackets. Which one is the best for you?

The answer to this question depends on the form of activity which you’re planning to perform. In every sport, one of the most important aspects is free and comfortable body movement. In this case, it’s best to choose light clothing with thin carbon layers. These can be also worn under coats as an additional, protective layer.

However, if you’re to deal with constant, lower temperatures, it’s worth considering another option: a puffed jacket. They weigh more than the light ones, but are much warmer by themselves, even without the heating system turned on.

Additionally, it’s always worth checking out the materials which the jackets are made from. The most popular of them is softshell due to its flexibility and water resistance. Another one is polar fleece, which is very lightweight and suitable for various athletic activities. Unfortunately, it’s not waterproof.

Another good option is a natural material — cotton or its variant, poly-cotton. They both have pros and cons. Pure cotton is usually quite expensive, but breathable and at the same time not insulating so well. Poly-cotton might be a good alternative due to the addition of polyester. Other variants include polyester ripstop and ripstop nylon. All of them have slightly different advantages in cold and windy weather.

Safety concerns. The best heated jacket is a safe one

Every electrically powered object must be properly isolated from external factors like air humidity, rain, snow. In the case of heated jackets an important factor is also the wearer's body moisture, especially during sport activities like running, cycling, skiing or trekking. In every jacket and vest, the wires are completely separated from your body and air environment with specially designed, waterproof membranes. This renders any possibility of short circuit to be practically impossible.

Usually, the carbon wires are designed to be very flexible and quite impact resistant. Of course, these characteristics have their physical limits, but normal everyday usage cannot damage not only the most expensive, best heated vests and jackets, but also cheaper ones in any way. Despite that it’s worth remembering that such clothes, despite being waterproof, sometimes should not be submerged in any liquid, as it may severely damage the battery. It depends on the particular model — some of them are dryer safe, while others should always be washed by hand.

Additional functions and useful features

We’re living in a “smart” era. A mobile phone now can control home lighting, humidity, air conditioning and a multitude of various devices including heated jackets. Some manufacturers have developed dedicated applications which connect with the clothing via Bluetooth. These apps typically can set the warmth distribution, temperature and read the battery usage. Moreover, some batteries have the wireless charging option — just put your smartphone in a special pocket, and the charging process will start immediately. It’s convenient and can come in handy when you leave your charger at home during outdoor sport activities.

Not all the jackets and vests come with batteries in the box — sometimes it’s necessary to purchase one separately. In such situations it‘s best to rely on the original manufacturer’s batteries, and not third-party replacements.

Conclusion — the best heated jacket just for you

In order to choose a proper heated apparel, it’s best to carefully examine the outdoor temperature of areas where you plan to perform your sport or work activities. If you’re planning to ski or jog, remember about a lightweight material — your body should be completely unrestrained. On the other hand, if you intend to stay outdoors for longer periods of time, polycotton and ripstop may be very good alternatives. In the end, it’s better to purchase a heated jacket that’s going to help you to perform your tasks, rather than a clothing which will not do so due to being unfit.

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