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A Guide to Using Space Heaters Effectively and Safely

Space heaters can keep you warm and cozy during the winter months. But they can also be a hazard if used incorrectly.

Many families use space heaters in their homes during the winter to add a bit more warmth to certain areas of their homes. Using a space heater may or may not be the best way to keep cozy this winter. So, we wanted to offer some guidelines about types of space heaters, heating efficiency, and space heater safety. 

Types of Space Heaters

Before you decide to use a space heater, familiarize yourself with your options. Space heaters fall into the following six categories.  

Fan-Forced Space Heaters

Fan space heaters generate their heat from a metal coil, which transfers the heat to the air. The heated air is pushed into the room by the fan.

PROS: Fan space heaters tend to be inexpensive, and they’re compact, lightweight, and cool to the touch of their housing. All these features make them easy to move around, plus they provide instant heat when turned on. 

CONS: The instant heat provided also instantly stops being transferred the moment the heater is switched off. So, they must run – and use your electricity – constantly in order to provide warmth. That also means you can’t set a specific temperature for the space you’re heating. Finally, they aren’t powerful enough to heat anything beyond a small room, and physical objects can block the heat.

Ceramic Space Heaters

These space heaters also use electricity to heat up metal coils. The difference is the coils are attached to ceramic plates which heat up and radiate heat. Some have a fan, which will push the heat into the room faster, and some do not. 

PROS: Ceramic space heaters are among the most efficient electric heaters available, heating up quickly and generating heat for a while after they’ve been turned off. That’s because it takes some time for the ceramic plates to cool back down after being heated. They’re also small, lightweight, and easy to move from place to place. Some also include a thermometer, allowing them to turn off and on, as needed, to regulate the temperature.

CONS: Like fan space heaters, they’re only good for small spaces, and most have to be running continuously to keep you warm. Plus, those without fans take a while to heat up a room, reducing their efficiency. Finally, physical items will block the warmed air emitted from these heaters.  

Infrared Space Heaters

Infrared space heaters also run on electricity, but they otherwise operate differently from fan and ceramic heaters. These space heaters emit electromagnetic waves into the air and heat up nearby physical objects, which is similar to how the sun’s radiation heats up the earth. Rather than heat the air, an infrared heater warms up flooring, furniture, walls, and even human bodies in its environment! 

PROS: Because infrared space heaters warm objects, those objects don’t block the heat. Plus, the heat generated lasts in those heated objects after the heater has been turned off. They’re not as compact and easy to move, but they’re often on wheels or have handles for moving them from place to place. Also, infrared heaters are capable of heating larger spaces like basements and some have thermostats to automatically adjust the temperature. Finally, some are built to look like fire places, making them a more décor-friendly option. 

CONS: They’re more expensive than fan or ceramic heaters and harder to move around, as they can be quite heavy. And although they’re better for warming up larger spaces, they are not good at heating up larger, empty spaces. They need to have objects to heat up, so they won’t work efficiently in large spaces with few furnishings or other items.

Oil-Filled Space Heaters

People often call these “radiator” heaters, as they tend to look like the radiators found in old homes. These heaters are portable and – surprise! – also run on electricity, rather than oil. Electricity heats up the oil contained in the heater, which circulates through the heater’s “fins.” The fins provide a lot of surface area, which gets hot and then the heat gets released into the air. They heat a space through the process of convection, rather than pushing warm air (e.g., with a fan).

Note: There are also water-filled versions of this type of heater. 

PROS: Oil-filled heaters continue to warm a room when they’re turned off, and some models come with a thermostat to automatically turn them on/off, as needed. Models on wheels are easy to move from room to room.

CONS: They’re heavier than the other heaters we’ve described, and how quickly the room is heated cannot be controlled. Plus, the housing gets and stays hot, which can create a safety hazard. 

Propane Space Heaters

These heaters use liquid propane to generate heat and are the only ones that don’t require electricity for power. They create heat differently than the other heaters but warm up a space by emitting electromagnetic waves to heat up nearby objects, as infrared heaters do.

PROS: They’re inexpensive, get the hottest, and they cost about 20% less to run than electric options do. They’re also the most portable, as they don’t need to be near an electrical outlet, so they can even be used outdoors. Because electricity isn’t needed to create heat, they’re helpful to have during a power outage.

CONS: They require keeping fuel on hand to keep them running. Plus, there’s more risk of fire or even explosion. Not every type can be used safely indoors. In addition to the fire hazard, some types emit carbon dioxide and, therefore, can only be used in well-ventilated spaces. If you’re considering a propane space heater for a room in your home, make sure you select one that’s designed for indoor use.

Panel Space Heaters

These space heaters are the new, and increasingly popular, kids on the block. Electric currents create heat that radiates off of the panel, somewhat like how heat radiates off the fins of oil-filled heaters. The panels can be wall-mounted or can sit on the floor in a stand.

PROS: The option to place them on the floor or mount them on the wall makes them flexible. Also, their simple design makes them more sleek, stylish, and modern than most other options. Finally, they simply need to be plugged in, making them simple to use. 

CONS: They’re fixed in place, at least if they’re wall-mounted. Plus, they tend not to generate as much heat as the alternatives. Therefore, they’re better for keeping a chill out of a room, rather than for use to heat up a room. 

Using Space Heaters Safely

Now that we know what our options are, let’s consider the safe use of all kinds of space heaters. Here’s our list of tips.

  • Make sure you buy a recent model Underwriters Laboratories label. 
  • Buy a heater that’s designed to heat the size of the room you need to warm up. 
  • Look for models that include a tip-over switch, which will automatically shut the unit down if it’s not in its proper, upright position. 
  • Similarly, select a model that includes an automatic shut-off or overheat protection, which will shut down the heater if it gets hotter than it’s designed to. 
  • Choosing a model with a thermostat will also prevent overheating. (Plus, it will heat your room more efficiently by shutting off when the desired temperature is reached.)
  • Plug space heaters directly into wall outlets, rather than into extension cords or power strips. 
  • Review instructions and warning labels to ensure safe operation. 
  • Routinely inspect your heater for damage. 
  • Place space heaters on low, flat surfaces and away from high-traffic areas or doorways. 
  • Allow at least three feet between the space heater and objects in the room – especially anything flammable (e.g., paper, curtains). 
  • Don’t leave your space heater unattended, especially for a long period of time, and unplug them when not in use.

When to Use a Space Heater

When the temperature drops, using a space heater is one way to create additional warmth and comfort in a chilly spot in your home. For example, if your home office is directly over your garage, flipping on a space heater from time to time near your feet can help prevent cold tootsies.

However, space heaters do come with some safety risks and have led to house fires, injuries, and even deaths over the years. Although newer space heaters are much safer than they used to be, strict adherence to safety guidelines is a must. And you should be particularly careful when selecting a type and model if you have pets or young children, who could accidentally touch a hot surface or tip one over.

In addition, space heaters will never replace your HVAC system in terms of heating efficiency. If you have one or more rooms that never seem to be warm enough for comfort, there may be more effective alternatives than space heaters for turning up in heat in those spaces. For example, that area of your home may simply need additional insulation to keep heat from your furnace from escaping or another weatherproofing solution.

Finally, if you have one or more areas in your home where it’s hard to maintain a comfortable temperature, a multi-zone HVAC system may be the best solution for your home. Not only will a multi-zone system ensure that every room in your home is as cozy as possible, but it also will save you money in the process.  

We Can Help

If you have questions about the best way to keep every room in your home warm and cozy this winter, give us a call today.

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