February 9, 2017

Helpful heater or energy vampire? As useful as they can be, space heaters don’t have the best reputation for energy efficiency. Many space heaters run on electric heat, and electric can’t top the energy performance of natural gas or heating oil. In fact, according to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, it takes 43% less fuel to heat a room with a gas-powered furnace than it does to use an electric space heater.

Meanwhile, many homeowners run space heaters along with their existing HVAC to warm poorly-heated rooms—instead of resolving the insulation and air sealing issues that cause chills and drafts. Twice the fuel to heat the same space? Not exactly what you’d call energy efficient.

Still, if you have an addition, garage, or other chilly area, a space heater offers an effective way to heat a single room, especially if you lower the heat in the rest of your home while you use it. Of course, you’ll get the best energy performance if you choose the most efficient models. Here’s what to look for when you’re shopping around.

Look for a heater with a digital interface

Bare bones space heaters simply have a “high” or “low” setting. However, these days, many heaters include a digital interface that allows you to set a precise temperature, and program your heater to turn off after a certain amount of time. That’s important, since leaving a space heater on is easy enough to do, and can waste energy. Not to mention that an unattended space heater can put your home at greater risk for fires.

Convection heaters earn extra efficiency points

Once upon a time, most electric space heaters were radiators. In this kind of heating unit, the system warms an internal component, and the heat wafts outward from there. The problem is that radiators don’t actually keep you all that warm, unless you happen to be standing right next to the unit. Move a few feet aside and the temperature falls fast, meaning you may be tempted to pump up the heat.

Convection heaters, on the other hand, use a fan to blow heated air across a room. That makes the heater more effective at warming up a wider area. Since the heating element is housed deep in the body of the unit, they’re usually safer, too.

Examining the energy efficiency of your home’s walls, windows, and doors

If your home is leaking heated air, an efficient heater may not be enough. You’ll need to look at the efficiency of your home’s outer envelope as well. That means re-caulking and sealing gaps around windows, adding foam tape and sweeps around the door, and sealing around openings that hold vents, heating equipment, and plumbing. An energy audit or blower door test can also help you detect leaks that may be lowering your home’s internal temperatures. With a few changes, your energy savings will be heating up!

Bryn Huntpalmer lives in Austin, Texas where she currently works as editor-in-chief of Modernize with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.