Exploring inner space – How to use space heaters efficiently


Question: It’s cold this winter! Instead of turning up my central heat, I’m considering purchasing a space heater to help warm my living room. I saw one in the store that is 100 percent efficient! What should I consider when choosing a space heater?

Answer: It can be more cost-effective to run a space heater than to turn up your central heating, but if you’re not careful, you may increase your electric bill.

Generally, it is best to run a space heater when you need to heat just one or two rooms, or if you need temporary heat in a normally unheated area like a garage or shed. If you have a particularly cold-sensitive person in the home, it can be more efficient to use a space heater in the room they most often occupy rather than overheating the whole house.

However, be mindful of the costs that these little heaters can add to your electric bill. Nick Rusnell, an energy adviser with HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative in Portland, Michigan, shared, “During an energy audit, I found three 1,500-watt heaters in the house of a co-op consumer with a high bill complaint. I did a cost analysis for him and he was shocked.”

Do your own calculations for how much running one, two or three in your home would cost. And beware the efficiency hype around space heaters: electric space heaters are all 100 percent efficient at turning electricity into heat, but an ENERGY STAR air-source heat pump can be 300 percent efficient!

If a space heater is right for you, remember a few things to save energy and money: 

  • If you’re using a space heater to heat the one or two rooms you use most, turn down your central heating so you don’t heat up rooms you aren’t using.
  • Close doors to rooms that are being heated to avoid heat loss.
  • Turn off the heater when not in use or get a space heater with a timer.
  • Purchase a heater with thermostat settings and use the lowest setting that you are comfortable with.
  • Select a space heater that is the right size for the space you need to heat; most will have a sizing table on the box.

Electric heaters

There are two main types of electric heaters. They are:

Infrared electric heater.

  • Infrared heaters radiate heat to the objects and people directly in front of it, rather than the air in the room. If you are often sitting in one place, such as at a desk, this can be a good option. Note that the surface of these heaters can get very hot.
  • Convection heaters use convection to warm and cycle the air in a room. These heaters are relatively quiet and can be warm to the touch, but not so hot as to burn you. Some models use fans to push the air over warm

    Fan-forced convection electric heater.

    coils. These heaters can warm a room faster, but are usually noisier.

If you need a space heater to keep your home comfortable, this may be a sign that your home needs insulation or air sealing, both of which can be great investments that significantly reduce your energy bills. You can consider simple short-term measures, such as:

  • Putting in weather stripping around drafty doors and windows.
  • Hanging thermal curtains or blankets or installing window film.
  • Using rugs to cover uncarpeted floors.

In the longer term, increasing your home’s insulation or switching to a more efficient heating system, such as a ductless heat pump, can be a more cost-effective solution. A home energy audit can help you see what measures you need to take. Check with your local electric co-op for more information.

 Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.