Electric space heater guidelines

Beware claims of huge energy savings from using electric space heaters. You can save a few bucks if you follow these guidelines.


A few years ago, it was all the rage to promote electric space heaters as the way to cut seasonal heating bills. These heaters were beautiful rather than utilitarian; sporting fine-looking wooden cases and a raft of bells and whistles such as timers, remote controls, UV air treatment to kill bacteria and other airborne nasties, and digital displays.

Then, there were the energy-saving claims. The advice was to turn your central heating system to 58o and save 60% by using the space heater 24 hours per day, seven days per week. All this goodness was yours for the low price of $1.00/day energy cost and $399.00 for the heater.

Debunking the marketing claims

I was working for an electric co-op at the time and smelled a rat in these claims. So, I contacted our national research group for an analysis of the energy savings claims. They responded with a more realistic savings of 10% if you turned your central heat back to 60o and only used the space heater when you were in the room with it.

Next up was a bit of sleuthing around the purported "advanced quartz" technology and its three power levels of 750, 1000 and 1500 watts. By reading the copy, you'd think these features were uncommon. Au contraire, mon ami; it turns out quartz heating elements are pretty common. They did receive a plus in their favor for having three heat settings. However, the majority of residential electric space heaters have at least two, usually 750 and 1500 watts.

Next up were the claims that these heaters consumed less power than a coffee maker. Okay, a typical coffee maker is rated for 1600 watts. That is more than the top output of 1500 watts for the miracle heater. The big difference is that the coffee maker only runs for a few minutes then turns off. Besides, coffee makers are terrible space heaters.

Liars, liars pants heaters on fire

The most egregious claim was that it cost a dollar a day to operate. That was patently untrue. There was no place in the United States at the time where this was possible. Our rates were about $.115/kWh (kilowatt-hour) back then. Running the heater as recommended would cost $4.00 per day or $120 per month. Even today, there is no place in the US where that is possible. As a marketing and customer service guy, deceptive sales pitches like this infuriate me.

Safety first

Space heaters can be dangerous when connected and placed improperly. The path to safety is short and sweet. Here's what you need to do:

  1. Read and follow the instructions that came with the heater, seriously you need to do this.
  2. Never plug your heater in using an extension cord unless it is a heavy-duty model.
  3. Check the heater's plug and cord for signs of wear, fraying and damage. Replace damaged cords.
  4. Keep the heater three (3) feet away from flammable material like drapes, magazines, newspapers, and so forth. See item 1 for more.

Using an electric space heater to save on heating costs

As my researchers found, electric space heaters can save money when use correctly. In fact, it is simple to enjoy some savings with only two steps, no tools needed.

Step 1: Reduce your central heating system temperature. To realize a 10% savings, my R&D folks suggested a setting of 60o. Now, I do prefer cool and cold weather to hot, but this setting is too low even for my taste. Consider something between 64o and 68o.

The logic behind this step is to only heat occupied areas to a preferred temperature versus heating the entire home or apartment. Your furnishings don't care much about temperature, so you can let them chill out.

Step 2: Use the portable space heater to warm the area you currently occupy. When you leave, turn it off. In fact, as I write this post, I have my electric space heater sitting next to me. My work area temperature is nearly 68o while the surrounding space is closer to 64o.  When I leave for more than 15 minutes, I will turn the heater off, along with my LED task light and PC monitors.

Tip: Where possible, consider closing the door to the room where you are using your heater. Why? ​  Laws of thermodynamics time - heat flows to cold. The output of the heater will naturally gravitate towards cooler areas. This is why leaks around doors and windows can create drafts and increase energy use and why not closing doors to cooler spaces can cause the heater in a different area to run longer.

Toting a space heater not your thing?

Some energy-saving guidelines include taking your electric space heater with you as you move around your domicile. Well, that can quickly become a pain, especially when you have to scrunch down and around to find an open electric outlet. I suppose you could use some yoga moves to plug the heater in, but that's just silly.

There are two options to resolve this dilemma; have multiple space heaters or add layers of clothing for the spaces without the heater. Given the low price point for utilitarian heaters, having multiple units in commonly used spaces can be a good solution. I personally prefer the layer-up approach, leaving the space heater next to my desk. Another unit sits in the corner of the master bedroom for use when MN winter temps dip below 0o.

Your results will vary

You will save money using this two-step method. How much you save depends on so many variables any number I give will be a WAG (aka, wild a*# guess). I am expecting to save around 5% on my heating bill. With my new Sense whole-house energy monitor and its data, I aim to prove the savings before Winter's end.

Wattage or BTUs - which measure of heat output should I look for?

You'll see two different ways of describing the output of a space heater, wattage consumed and British Thermal Units (BTUs) of heat produced. Frankly, BTUs aren't as useful in my decision-making as the power consumption expressed in wattage. My rationale is this, I can calculate the cost of operation faster with a wattage rating than with one for BTUs.

In both cases, larger numbers mean more heat production and more energy consumption. For use in selecting an electric space heater, stick with watts and look for models with a top end of 1500 watts.

What heating method should I choose?

When looking into space heaters, you'll see several options for heating. Broadly speaking, these heaters use either a radiant or convection technique to deliver heat. Radiant is like those outdoor heaters at sidewalk cafes. When you sit under one on a chilly evening, you feel the warmth but the air around you remains cool. Convection, on the other hand, warms the air and delivers the heat through circulation.

Is one better than another? I suppose that depends upon who you ask. I've always had the radiant variety because I use them to warm me rather than a whole room.

The heating elements are another area where you'll have options. Those include quartz, ceramic, metal and oil. There are probably more, but these are the ones you'll see most often.

Again, one is not necessarily better than another. Lower cost heaters will generally have a coil of wire embedded in a ceramic matrix. Electricity passing through the wire makes it glow red hot. The ceramic absorbs and radiates the heat. Bingo, simple electric space heating.

Oil and electricity can mix

Two of my three space heaters are oil-filled. Don't worry, in this case, the oil and a hot element can peacefully coexist. These tend to resemble the old-timey hot water radiators you see on programs like This Old House. We like them because there are no visible heating elements and the oil will continue to radiate heat after they are turned off.

The manufacturers of these units often pitch them as more energy efficient. My research folks told me that is only marginally true. Like every other electric space heater, they use up to 1500 watts. While in operation, every heater will use the same amount of power. The slight boost in efficiency comes when you turn the heater off and the oil provides heat as it cools down.

The heater shown below is made by DeLonghi, one of the most respected manufacturers of this type of space heater and the company both my heaters are from.

DeLonghi Oil-Filled Space Heater on Amazon - $96

How much does an electric space heater cost?

That's the $64 question, isn't it? Head on over to https://www.amazon.com and type in "electric space heaters for indoor use," and feast your eyes on the choices. My search resulted in 87 pages with 35 - 40 products on each page. Yikes! To thin the herd, use the extensive filter list provided on the left side of the page.

For most residential applications, a top output of 1500 watts is plenty. Using that filter I got seven pages. Still, a lot to sort through, so I entered a price range filter to arrive at an answer to this question. The range I chose was $25 - $260. Naturally, the low end is basic while at the upper end, you can score some cool options like wall-mounting capability, convection heating, remote control, and so forth. This is still a lot less than the $399 monsters I encountered years ago.

Bells and whistles increase the cost

As you'd expect, additional features will increase the price. But hey, if you are a gadget person, like me, that isn't such a bad thing. Saying that there are three things you need at a minimum:

  • Enclosed/protected heating elements - Make certain your heater prevents people and animals from touching the heating elements, or setting paper airplanes on fire by sticking them into the heater then flying them.
  • Tip-over protection - The heater must turn itself off if it falls or is knocked over. This feature significantly reduces the chance of fire.
  • At least two power settings - It is nice to at least have a high and low setting.

Other nice-to-have features

There are a couple of other features that are nice to have. Among those on my list are the following:

  • Remote control - Because it is such an imposition to reach over and flip a switch. I mean really, are these the Dark Ages.
  • Thermostatically controlled fan - This capability can aid in distributing the heat generated, making the heater better at warming larger spaces.
  • Ability to set a specific temperature - Low, medium and high settings are okay, but being able to set your desired temperature is convenient.
  • Oscillating - This is useful when you want to distribute your heat around a room.

Up the Aesthetics

You can also go for a totally different look like the Plow and Hearth model shown below. With so many options, you can find something to match your style and budget.

Electric baseboard heat and space heaters

If your home is equipped with electric baseboard heat, you can benefit from electric space heaters like folks with a central heating system. Here's the technique, and once again, no tools are required.

Step 1 - Turn down the baseboard heaters in every room, then close the door. Most of these units have a low or minimum setting. Choose that rather than turning it completely off. This is especially useful for interior rooms that are infrequently used. Closing the door of each room compartmentalizes your home and prevents baseboard heaters in one room from trying to heat a cooler nearby area. When this happens, you miss a large part of your energy savings.

Cautionary Note: In your bathrooms and kitchens, be very careful with this approach, especially if your water pipes are in an outer wall. You need it warm enough so that your pipes don't freeze!

Step 2 - Use your space heater exactly as described in this article. Easy peezy!

The bottom line

Well, there you have it for this article. You can save energy using electric space heaters if you use them properly. The tips and recommendations will help you do that. Have fun shopping for your perfect heater and remember, the ugly duckling generates the same amount of heat as the white swan; the packaging is just prettier.