During winter, for many of us, comfort at home means heat. When central heating is unavailable or inadequate, consumers often turn to space heaters for additional warmth. Experts warn their widespread use, over extended periods, can boost winter heating bills.
“In some cases, small space heaters can be less expensive to use if you only want to heat one room or supplement inadequate heating in one room,” according to analysts at the U.S. Department of Energy. “However, a space heater is not necessarily an economical source of long-term warmth.”
Right type for the job
Two types of space heaters are generally available for the residential market. Convective heating circulates air within an enclosed space, while radiant heating transfers warming energy directly to objects or people within close proximity to its source. Most can deliver between 10,000 Btu and 40,000 Btu of heat per hour and commonly run on electricity, propane, natural gas or kerosene. Wood and pellet stoves are also increasingly available for many applications.
A convective heating unit can distribute heat relatively evenly throughout enclosed spaces like garages, workshops or laundry areas, used for a few hours. Many convective electric heaters contain some type of sealed heat transfer liquid. Store energy as heat, so they cycle less while providing consistent performance.
Radiant electric heaters typically include infrared heating elements. Nearby surfaces, including people, absorb the heat. Air in immediate proximity to the unit’s enclosure or cabinetry also aids in the transfer of conductive warmth.
Be safe, not sorry
Space heaters are responsible for 25,000 residential fires a year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which pegs the annual mortality rate at 300 a year. Burn injuries associated with surface contacts with room heaters send about 6,000 people to emergency rooms every year, and most of those incidents don’t result in fires.
Because the devices are designed to give off heat, set them in locations clear of all flammable materials and out of reach of small children, pets or anyone with impaired mobility. Recent developments include tip-over safety features, which automatically shut off the power source if the unit tilts beyond its upright position. They should be plugged directly into a wall whenever possible. If an extension cord is used, it should be heavy-duty, and made of 14-gauge wire or larger.
An adjustable thermostat is the smartest choice. A unit that heats your space to the desired temperature will cycle less, saving you energy, and never overheat the room. Always buy the right size heater for the space –– too small and the warming results could be disappointing, too large or powerful and you’ll be uncomfortable. Opening doors or windows to vent away warm air wastes energy you’ve already consumed to produce heat.
Getting more for less
“Space heaters are not the ideal solution for heating homes,” said Brian Sloboda, a senior program manager for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “For every unit of electricity that is consumed by these devices, they produce one unit of heat.”
According to analysts at the Environmental Protection Agency, the key is using space heaters in smaller rooms that are occupied infrequently, in conjunction with lower thermostat settings on your central system. Lowering thermostat settings from 70 to 65 degrees and using a thermostat-controlled space heater to heat 10 percent of a home’s conditioned floor space will save a heat pump user $67 a year. Notably, there are currently no space heaters among the EPA’s list of ENERGY STAR®-rated products. Agency officials said they have evaluated several models, but have no plans to include such products in the labeling program in the near future.
An energy expert at your electric co-op can help determine if a space heater is right for your home.
“They may suggest other alternatives, like sealing air leaks, adding insulation or tuning up your heating system so it operates more efficiently,” said Sloboda. “Those are a few of the options that won’t increase your overall energy use.”
Derrill Holly writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.