Most electric heaters are relatively cheap to buy, but relatively expensive to run.
When are electric heaters a good option?
Electric heaters can be suitable for:
- smaller rooms that only get used occasionally, for short periods of time
- using instead of portable LPG heaters or open fires - electric heaters are much safer and cheaper to run if you have no other options e.g. in many rental houses.
The heating capacity of electric plug-in heaters is typically no more than 2.4 kW. This means in larger and/or poorly insulated rooms you may need to run more than one heater to reach comfortable and healthy temperatures. Only use one heater per power outlet to avoid overloading problems.
Are some electric heaters more efficient than others?
With the exception of heat pumps, all electric heaters are equally efficient. They convert all the electricity they consume into useful heat - so don't believe claims that any one type is more efficient than the other.
Different types of heaters for different heating needs
Different kinds of electric heaters, such as radiant, fan, convection and night store heaters, distribute heat differently. Choosing the right type of heater is important to get the full benefit of all of the heat you're paying for.
See the heater sizing calculator to work out how much heat you need.
The bar heater with glowing elements and a reflector is a radiant heater. These mainly heat objects and people rather than the air in a room. They are commonly available as either free-standing, wall or high-wall mounted models.
They can be useful:
- in rooms with high ceilings.
- in large rooms where you only need the heat in one area, or
- where you want to feel instant heat without waiting until the air in the room has warmed up, e.g. in large bathrooms (only use high wall mounted models here), while standing at the kitchen sink or for that quick early morning breakfast in a cold house.
Radiant heaters can be a fire risk if in close proximity to flammable materials and are dangerous to children. High-wall mounted models (available from electrical supply stores) can be installed out of reach from children and away from flammable materials.
There are more modern versions of the radiant heater, often called a panel, marble or stonestore heater, where the elements are behind, or inside a panel or other mass made of metal, brick, stone or something more expensive like marble. These heaters give a more even, lower temperature heat, but still cost the same to run for a set amount of heat. They are not any more efficient than any other type of electric heater.
Fan heaters, sometimes also called ceramic heaters, can be noisy but distribute heated air around the room rather than letting it form a layer of hot air below the ceiling.
They are good for:
- boosting a convection heater while heating up a room by providing additional heating capacity and helping with better distributing heated air, so the room feels warm quicker.
- quick warmth in smaller rooms which require heating for very short periods of time, for instance in the kitchen or bathroom in the morning
- keeping children safe - high-wall mounted models can be installed out of reach from children for their and your home's safety.
A convection heater mainly heats the air rather than surfaces. These include column heaters (oil and 'oil-free') and convection heaters with a heating element inside a casing which has grilles at the top and bottom to allow air to flow through.
These are a good choice for medium-sized rooms that require heating for longer periods of time, such as living rooms and bedrooms. They steadily warm the air by convection - the hot air rising and then slowly circulating around the room - and provide background warmth.
Some have a built-in fan to better mix the air while warming up a room to achieve a more even room temperature quicker.
Their surface temperatures are lower than radiant heaters, so they are somewhat safer, but they still get hot enough to burn skin.
Note that they can easily be tipped over unless fixed in place - the weight and sharp fins of oil column heaters can be particularly dangerous to children.
Flat-panel heaters are often promoted as "eco" or cheap to run. They have very low heat output, which is usually insufficient to heat up a room to comfortable and healthy temperatures. So while they may cost less to run, they also produce very little heat. One advantage of low-wattage panel heaters is that they typically don't get hot enough for children or pets to burn themselves.
A higher wattage, thermostatically controlled heater is usually a better alternative to panel heaters as the higher heat capacity allows heating up a room quickly, then the thermostat can cycle the heater on and off to maintain a comfortable temperature without wasting energy unnecessarily.
Night store heaters
Night store heaters use mass like bricks to store heat from cheaper off-peak electricity at night and slowly release it during the day. They can be more economical than common electric heaters for houses that are occupied during the day, and where a cheaper night rate tariff for electricity is available.
However, if your house is empty during the day, these are not a good heating option for you as a lot of the heat will be released when it is not needed.
Electric underfloor heating
Electric underfloor heating goes between the floorboard and any floor covering like carpet or thin timber flooring. Any covering that goes on top of the electric underfloor heating makes it harder for the heat to get into the room. It is very important that the floor is well insulated underneath, otherwise a lot of the heat you pay for will be lost downwards. Although electric underfloor heating can heat large areas well, it can be expensive to run.
Features to look for
Thermostats: help maintain an even temperature for your comfort and conserve electricity. Some electric heaters have a temperature dial, but most don't and require a lot more trial and error until the desired thermostat setting is found.
Unfortunately the thermostats in most electric heaters aren't very accurate, resulting in large temperature fluctuations. The heater itself often interferes with the temperature sensor of it's own thermostat.
To work well the temperature sensor should be located as far away as possible from the heated parts of the heater, e.g. at the bottom of the heater where the unheated room air is drawn in. Also check whether the heater specifications provide any claimed thermostat accuracy.
If the thermostat of your heater doesn't work well, a separate plug-in thermostat that goes between the wall socket and your heater plug can be useful. You can buy them online, just search the internet for "plug-in thermostat". Alternatively you can get an electrician to install a separate, hard-wired room thermostat to control the heater. These are usually wall-mounted and, if installed correctly, will better sense the actual room temperature.
Timers: allow you to turn a heater on to warm up the kitchen half an hour before you get up, or to turn a heater off after you have gone to bed.
Fans: help a room warm up faster by distributing the air more evenly rather than letting heat build-up near the ceiling.
Thermal cutout: Some heaters have a built-in thermal cutout which turn the heater off if it overheats - this is an important safety feature to look for.
Tilt switch: Some portable heaters have a built-in tilt switch which turns the heater off if the heater overturns - another important safety feature to look for.
How much do they cost to run?
The page on calculating appliance running costs shows you how to calculate the running costs for your specific heaters. If your heater has a few different heat settings, then it will often say somewhere on the heater the Wattage of each setting. You need to know this to calculate the running costs.
Use your electric heaters wisely
- Safety first. Risks associated with using electric heaters include electrocution, burns and fire. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- Only heat the areas you're using, and only while you're using them.
- Keep the heat in by shutting doors and curtains.
- Set the thermostat for healthy indoor temperatures. World Health Organisation guidelines recommend at least 18˚C in any rooms you're using (or at least 20˚C if you have vulnerable people in the home, like children, the elderly or the ill), and at least 16˚C in bedrooms overnight.
This calculator helps you work out what size heater you need for different rooms in your house.