Do energy efficient electric heaters really exist?

Some will tell you that energy efficient portable heaters are the most efficient form of heating around – that they’re 100% efficient, even 300% or 400% efficient for heat pump electric heaters.

But most non-renewable electricity sources (coal, natural gas, nuclear) involve burning a fuel, and converting at best 45% of the heat produced into electricity. So even with a 100% energy efficient electric heater you are getting only 35-45% efficiency from the heater when total energy consumption is factored in.

Even geothermal electricity only converts about 35% of its heat source into electricity. So unless your electricity comes from solar, wind, or hydropower, you can’t come close to the efficiency of a typical modern forced air furnace.

What’s the truth? The truth is that electrical heat is almost always the most expensive and least efficient form of heating (unless your electrical rates are heavily subsidized), and that people who are stuck with electrical heating systems are some of the most motivated at finding other ways to conserve energy, for example by improving sealing and insulation, in order to offset the higher cost.

As for energy efficient electric heater ratings (for example ENERGY STAR or the Canadian EnerGuide ratings), there aren’t any. Why? Because all resistance based electrical heater elements are 100% efficient at converting electricity to heat. There’s no point in rating them. It’s the the poor energy conversion at source that’s the problem.

So if you’re looking for the most efficient electric heater, you can stop now. Instead, read on to find out what can make an electric heater effective for your needs.

How do electric heaters work?

Here’s how most heaters work: a current passes through a wire that provides electrical resistance. This resistance converts all of the electrical energy into heat. That’s why energy efficient electric heaters are all 100% efficient.

But wait, you say – don’t some of them have fans blowing the air around, so at least the energy to power the fan doesn’t turn into heat?

Actually, it does turn into heat, eventually. The fan moves air molecules, and the increased friction between the air molecules turns into heat. It’s the law of entropy – all forms of energy tend to move to a more disorganized state, and heat is the most disorganized form of energy there is.

It’s important to consider how energy efficient electric heaters stack up against the competition. Yes, some energy is lost in generation – at least 55% of it in the case of coal fired plants. Transmission losses add another 2-6%. So a 100% energy efficient electric heater powered by coal is at most 43% efficient.

Meanwhile, an 80% efficient natural gas furnace really does convert 80% of the source energy into heat to warm your home.

The exception to this 100% efficiency rule for electric heaters is a heat pump, which I briefly describe at the end of this article. Heat pumps provide more heat output per unit of electrical energy input than resistance-based heaters, so this leads some heat pump marketers to refer to them as more than 100% efficient, but this is somewhat misleading, as we’ll see.

Types of electric heaters

Strictly speaking, any resistance-based electric heater is an energy efficient electric heater. But different electric heaters spread the heat in different ways, which can be more or less effective for the job at hand. So rather than speak of energy efficient electric heaters, we should perhaps speak of the effectiveness with which these heaters meet your needs.

A central electric heating system usually involves a forced-air electric furnace with ductwork and room vents, or a forced-air electric boiler with radiators in each room.

For a forced-air electric furnace, a heating element heats air that is forced through the furnace by a fan, and the hot air is then pumped through ducts throughout the house, much as in a forced air natural gas furnace.

For a forced-air boiler, the boiler contains a heating element that heats water which then circulates, either on its own or with the help of an electric pump, through radiators through the home.

If you have one of these units you may be paying a lot for your heating. Such units are often installed in houses that previously had a forced-air oil or natural gas furnace or boiler, and the switch can usually be attributed to a time period when, or state/province where, electricity was substantially cheaper, per unit of heat available from it, than natural gas or oil.

The bad news for central electric systems is that you may be spending a lot more to heat your home than if you used natural gas, since electricity rates in most jurisdictions have been going up as state-owned utilities begin to apply more market pricing to electricity.

The good news is that converting to a natural gas furnace or boiler isn’t hard – if there’s a gas main nearby. You already have the ductwork or rads you need. Do a payback analysis to see how soon the savings will earn back the furnace purchase price. Chances are the payback will be under ten years.

You may be able to turn your central electric system into a more energy efficient electric heater by adjusting the fan to start blowing at a lower initial temperature, and to stop blowing after the heating elements stop receiving power, again at a lower temperature.

These adjustments are recommended by heating experts. The adjustments let heat flow through the house sooner, and more heat to be extracted from the furnace and delivered to the house after the heating elements go off.

A baseboard heater spreads heat using both conduction and convection. Conduction is the transfer of heat from a heated surface to a gas, in this case from the heating element to the air. Convection happens when the heated air, which expands and becomes lighter, rises out of the heater and draws colder air in from below. Air currents from this convection draw the heat up into and around the room.

Baseboard heating is more common than central electric heating, for houses originally built with the entire house being heated by electric heating. Baseboard heaters are inexpensive, unobtrusive, and require no ducting. They do of course require additional electrical work but it is usually easier to run a few extra wires than add an entire ducting system when building a new home.

Note that one drawback of a house entirely heated with baseboard heat is the tendency of moisture to build up on windows, as there is less circulation of the air within the house compared to forced air systems, and combustion-based heating systems (natural gas, oil) sometimes use internal air to feed the furnace or boiler, which draws out moisture. (See my article Energy efficient dehumidifiers for tips on moisture control.)

Movable energy saving space heaters can operate by convection or radiation. Note that movable space heaters are a major cause of home fires, causing up to 25,000 residential fires each year in the US according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. So if you go with a movable space heater, be very careful to keep a close eye on it, and follow the product documentation to minimize risks.

Also, note that energy saving space heaters plugged into ordinary outlets can draw a considerable amount of power – 1,000 to 2,500 watts depending on the model – so make sure your wiring and fuse or circuit breaker for that circuit is up to the task!

The common types of movable space heaters are convection and radiative. As you already know, both are 100% energy efficient electrical heaters.

A movable convection heater is much like a baseboard convection heater, except that it may be enhanced with a fan to propel the heated air in a particular direction and improve distribution of the heat through the enclosed space. And of course you can move it to provide the heat wherever it’s needed.

A movable radiative heater has a very hot heating element, usually enclosed in a glass tube much like an incandescent light bulb. Behind the tube is a reflective strip of metal which directs most of the radiative energy from the element out the front of the heater.

This energy is in the form of infrared radiation (don’t worry – it’s perfectly safe!). Some of this infrared radiation is converted to heat when it strikes a solid object (a chair, a wall, a person), and some is reflected further. Eventually all of it is converted to heat.

Cold air passing by a radiative heater does not get heated by it. Only the solid objects that absorb the infrared radiation are heated. For this reason, a radiative heater may be a good choice for a cold room such as a garage or outdoor workshop, where you only want to heat the specific area of the room you are working in, and where insulation and weatherproofing may be poor or nonexistent.

But be aware of the risks – a radiative heater can set an object on fire if the object is too close, is exposed for too long, and is flammable.

Efficiency of passive and active electric heaters

Although all resistance-based electrical heaters are 100% energy efficient electric heaters at converting electricity to heat, we can think in terms of how effective they are at getting that heat to where it’s needed, and not sending it where it isn’t.

The more passive an electric heater is – the more it depends on heat rising, or natural airflows, to spread its heat – the more its effectiveness is subject to its placement within, and the properties of, the room or house it is in.

For instance, if a baseboard (a passive source of electric heat) is located on an outside wall with poor insulation, that wall will get hotter than the ambient air of the room, and some of the heat will escape through the wall.

In the same room, an active convection heater such as an energy saving space heater with fan, would not heat the outside walls as much, because it propels its heat forward. The lower heat differential between the inside of the wall and the outside would produce less heat loss.

A floor vent for a forced air electric furnace would also result in less heat escaping from the walls, because the heating element is centrally located in a well-insulated furnace, and the floor vent is (probably) not running hot air against an outside wall.

Of course none of this would matter much if the walls were very well insulated – little heat would escape out the back of a baseboard heater, so nearly 100% of it would be available to heat the room itself, as with a floor vent or movable heater.

The most energy efficient electric heaters for keeping one person warm are active heaters, either radiative or convection. For example, if you get cold feet when working in a poorly insulated den, a ceramic heater at your feet may be all you need. (That and a sweater.)

Time-of-use billing: meet the storage heater

If your electricity rate depends on time-of-use (e.g. you pay more for electricity at peak, such as during the weekday when industry is a big user, or on cold winter nights when many homes are using electric heat), then the most energy efficient electric heaters, at least from a cost perspective, may be storage heaters that let you save up the heat produced during low-cost times, and broadcast that heat during high-cost times.

Storage heaters use clay bricks, or other ceramic material, as a heat sink. These heaters can direct the heat from the heating element to the air (if heat is required, electricity is cheap, and no heat is stored in the bricks) or to the bricks (if no heat is required, the bricks still have heat storage capacity, and electricity is cheap). When electricity is expensive, louvers open so heat from the bricks can transfer into the air.

Storage heaters can have automatic or manual controls. Automatic controls allow you to set a thermostat and have the room heated at all times to the desired temperature, with the heater determining when to store heat, when to emit stored heat, and when to heat the room directly with electricity.

On cheaper, manual models (which are less energy efficient unless you can master the controls and have the time to keep tweaking them), the heater determines when to charge up the ceramic material with heat, based on time of day rates, and you control when and how much heat is emitted.

Automatic models are typically 15-20% more efficient than manual models, unless the person using the manual control is very good at controlling it!

Energy efficient electrical heaters with heeat storage can save you up to 30% if your utility offers lower rates at night, and if you heat your house to a typical comfort temperature during the day. These heaters can store up enough energy for the higher-priced peak periods in as little as 8 hours of off-peak operation.

Since the cheapest electricity rates tend to be at night (except on very cold winter nights, when rates spike), there is less of a benefit to your using storage heaters if you don’t require much heat during the day.

For example, if the house is vacant all day on weekdays, you can use regular energy efficient electric heaters and a setback thermostat to keep the temperature considerably lower during the day, in which case there is less value in having storage heaters that emit heat during the day when little heat is needed.

Still considering the low cost of individual storage heaters (as low as $200 for a one-room unit), the speed with which they can charge up at night, and the fact that few people set their programmable thermostats to a large gap between vacant and occupied temperatures, these units are a sensible investment for anyone adding or upgrading electrical heaters in their home.

Pretend you have time-of-use billing!

Even if you don’t pay for electricity on a time-of-use basis, acting as if you did is a good way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases you contribute to the atmosphere. Why? Because the times of highest demand for electricity in winter, when electric heat is used, tend to be:

  • During regular work hours, because industrial and commercial operations use a large amount of electricity
  • During extremely cold nights, when everyone using electric heat has their heaters running hard to keep their houses warm.

During these peak times, the percentage of electricity added to the grid that comes from fossil fuels is high, because electricity from coal and natural gas can be brought online quickly to meet short-term demand. If you heat your house a little warmer during off-peak hours, and let it coast down below the ideal temperature during peak hours, you’ll reduce demand for fossil-fuel-based electricity.

Of course this depends on your having an energy-efficient storage system for your heat. At the very least, this would be a well-insulated house. There’s no point in overheating a house to take advantage of off-peak electricity, only to have that heat escape within the hour because the home is poorly insulated.

Do-it-yourself storage heating for time-of-use scenarios

While I wouldn’t recommend that you try to create your own full-fledged heat storage system based on the above principles – unless you’re an engineer and an electrician – there are ways you can take advantage of the ability of masonry or water to absorb and then emanate heat. The two key points are to heat when it’s cheap, and to build thermal inertia into your home.

Heat when it’s cheap: set your thermostat higher when electricity is cheap, and lower when it’s expensive. You can do this using a setback thermostat and a knowledge of the time-of-use periods from your utility.

Thermal inertia; give your home thermal inertia, by (A) insulating to the hilt to keep heat inside, and (B) including lots of masonry or sealed liquid in its construction.

For example, if you incorporate a large masonry fireplace with a sealed wood-burning or gas stove into your living room, the masonry will help stabilize your indoor temperature by soaking up heat when it is cooler than the interior air temperature, and by heating the living room when the living room is cooler.

You don’t ever have to have a fire burning to take advantage of the fireplace’s heat absorbing and emanating properties, but obviously fireplaces tend to be big partly so that the extremes of hot and cold that come from burning a fire and letting it burn down are evened out by the masonry.

Or, if you have to rebuild or add an interior wall, you can add to its thermal inertia by putting bricks, or 2-liter plastic drink bottles filled with sand in between the studs. (I don’t recommend water, although it’s easier to come by from sand, because you might drill or nail through those walls later to hang a picture, and you don’t want a 2-liter water bottle popping on you behind drywall!)

You can also fill plastic bottles with water and leave them under your bed or in other out of the way areas.

One benefit of building thermal sinks into your home – whether formal ones such as a masonry wall or fireplace, or simple ones such as plastic bottles – is that they work both for heating and cooling. In summer you can run the AC on high when electricity is cheap, and heat will be drawn out of the thermal sinks. Then during pricier times the thermal sinks will absorb heat and this will cool your home.

And don’t forget to leave the bathtub full after you’re done your bath in winter – until the water has fallen to room temperature. There’s no point in letting all that expensive heat go down the drain, especially if you heat with electricity.

Choosing the right addition to your home

If you want to add new energy efficient electric heaters to your home you first need to determine whether you’re going for built-in baseboard heaters, or portable electric heaters.

Built-in baseboard heaters

If your house is heated with electric baseboard heaters and you want to upgrade to more energy efficient ones, I suggest you look instead at other energy efficiency upgrades that can reduce the amount of heat escaping from your home – your baseboard heaters should already be at 100% efficiency (in terms of converting electricity into heat).

If you definitely want to buy new heaters (for example, if the old ones stopped working), then go for a storage heater. Even if you aren’t paying time-of-day usage now, the chances are very high that you will be within the next five years. And the gap between peak and off-peak electricity rates will only get worse in the future.

Depending on the model, baseboard heaters can be controlled by a built-in dial and perhaps a timer control, or by a wall-mounted thermostat.

If you buy baseboard heaters make sure you get the timer control or a wall-mounted programmable thermostat. Electric heat is too expensive to heat each room the same temperature all the time. With a timer control or programmable thermostat you can drop the temperature when the room is sure to be unoccupied.

Wall mounted electric heaters

We keep our heat down at 66F – and stay comfortable with sweaters and slippers. But taking a shower can be a chilly process, at least until the hot water has fully kicked in. This Stiebel electric wall heater helps: it can heat a bathroom or bedroom in under 5 minutes and it is a solidly built, German-manufacturered heater that takes no floor space and very little wall space.

The Stiebel wall heater can be installed with less effort than a baseboard heater and its fan helps spread the heat very quickly. It also comes with a 60-minute timer so that if you just want to heat the bathroom during your bath, or the bedroom long enough that you can warm up under the comforter, you can let it run a short period and have it shut off by itself.

Portable electric heaters

You can’t just look for the highest-rated portable energy efficient electric heater for that chilly basement room, back porch office, or spare bedroom over the garage. Why? Because, as we discussed, all electric resistance heaters operate at the same efficiency level. Instead, I recommend you decide (A) whether you can switch to a different form of heat, and if not, (B) what use of the room is driving the need for heat.

Switching to a different heat source: If your house is heated by a forced-air oil or natural gas furnace, and there is one poorly heated room, consider having an HVAC specialist improve the ducting to that room.

For example, the previous owners of our house added a kitchen extension with a crawl-space below. They installed baseboard heaters to heat the extension. After we moved in (and got our first winter electricity bill), we removed the baseboard heaters and had an HVAC company branch a circular duct pipe off the main basement duct, to direct heat up from a floor vent.

This cost only about $200 at the time and based on the drop in our electricity bills after that first winter I would guess the renovation paid for itself in under three years. We also added as much extra insulation in the crawl space as we could to reduce the amount of heat escaping out the kitchen extension floor.

Another option is to improve airflow between the cold area and warmer areas of your house, so that you can draw warmer air into the cold room. Strategically placed fans can be useful in this case. For an unheated back porch that has been enclosed and converted into an ‘indoor’ room, there may be an old window between the main area of the house and the porch; opening this window when the room is in use will improve airflow.

How will the room be used? Decide if the entire room needs to be heated, or if you only need to heat a single area, based on how the room is used. Also decide whether the room needs to be heated a large portion of the time, or only occasionally. To heat a single area, a radiative heater or a small convection heater with a fan is the best bet.

If you’re heating the room only occasionally, then an energy efficient electric heater is less of a concern than if you’re heating it all the time. For continuous heat, you will save the most on your electricity bill if you focus on making the room as well-sealed and well-insulated as possible.

Heat pumps

A heat pump does not so much produce heat as move it from a colder (outside) location to a warmer (inside) location. A heat pump can be 3-4 times more efficient than an electric resistance heater in terms of how much heat you get for the electricity the unit consumes.

Manufacturers may refer to their heat pumps as 300% or even 450% efficient, which is misleading. Compared to an electric baseboard heater, the same amount of electricity used by a heat pump, under ideal conditions, produces 3 to 4.5 times as much heat indoors.

But heat pumps are not converting energy from electricity to heat – they are converting electrical energy to mechanical energy, and using this mechanical energy to move heat from a colder to a warmer location.

Another way to put this is that electric resistance heaters are 100% efficient all of the time at converting their electricity to heat, while heat pumps can appear to be 300% to 400% efficient, when compared to electric resistance heaters, provided the heat pump is operating under ideal conditions.

The “ideal conditions” that lead to a heat pump reaching 4 times as much heat output per unit of electrical input as an electric resistance heater, usually involve an atypically small differential between the indoor and outdoor temperature. Heating to 18C when the outdoor temperature is 12C (64F indoors and 54F outdoors) can get you to this level of efficiency.

But if you heat your home to 18C (64F) when the outside temperature is -18C (zero Fahrenheit) you will not do any better in terms of heat output for electricity input than with an electric resistance heater.

In fact, because of condensation that occurs on the heat pump at these low temperatures, the heat pump must sometimes switch to cooling mode, cooling the indoor air so it can warm the coils and melt frozen condensed water from them.

For colder climates, you also need a backup heating source to go with your heat pump, so that when the outdoor temperature falls low enough that the heat pump can no longer supply adequate heat, or can no longer do so as efficiently as the backup source, the backup kicks in.

Obviously, the climate in many areas, or through the heating season for even moderately cold areas, falls between the two extremes of minimal heat differential (high coefficient of performance for an air source heat pump), and extreme outdoor cold (performance no better than electric resistance heating), so the relative apparent efficiency of heat pumps versus energy efficient electric heaters will vary.

Energy saving geothermal heat pumps avoid this high-differential problem, by extracting heat from deep underground, where temperatures never fall much below 12C. Thus they can reliably deliver 3+ times more energy output in the form of heat, per unit of electric energy input, because the ground temperature, being very close to the desired indoor temperature, reduces this differential.

While air-source heat pumps might not be suitable as your only heating option in a cold climate, they are a sensible investment if you also need air conditioning. For example, some portable AC units, and some ductless minisplit air conditioners, operate as air conditioners in hot weather, and as air-source heat pumps in cool weather. Some can also act as dehumidifers, so you get three appliances in one!

56 replies
  1. Mike
    Mike says:

    I was hoping to find information about the various types of electric heaters and which would provide the best heat source but for the most part this was a discussion about replacing an existing electrical heating system.

    • Scott
      Scott says:

      All electric portable heaters put out the same heat per watt used and about 1400-1500w is all you can get on a 110v household circuit/plug. Fans are the only main difference – blow the heat around or keep it in one place.

      If you put both (fan/fanless) heaters in closed identical rooms and leave them for a set period (say an hour), both rooms will attain the same temperature.

  2. Evelyn
    Evelyn says:

    Great primer – thank you. With heat pumps, for the handful of super cold nights & days each year, what alternative heating would you advise for a house with solar energy, no gas, and very open floor plan?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I would recommend an energy efficient wood stove or fireplace insert if you have access to firewood; if not, a couple of portable electric heaters. I assume your house with solar energy is very well insulated, so two 1500 watt heaters would at least provide some protection against super cold days with no sunlight (mind you, the coldest days also tend to be sunny ones).

  3. Celia
    Celia says:

    This is the most comprehensive article I have read so far on electric heating. It is too bad the air-to-air heat pump products have yet to mature in North America, in terms of options, pricing, and technology (in my humble understanding). I could surely use it now.

    • Tim Forcey
      Tim Forcey says:

      Here in Australia, we are buying Japanese (e.g. Daikin) air source heat pumps that are rated down to minus 20 C (minus 4 F), not that it ever gets that cold in most places in Australia!

  4. Deanna
    Deanna says:

    I rent. I can’t do any of these options except the electric heaters. So while this article was interesting, it was mostly not useful to me.

  5. Sojourner
    Sojourner says:

    Yes, could you write an in-depth article like this for renters? Assume we know about wearing at least three layers of clothing and only heating a small area, but an analysis of heating options (and maybe insulation that doesn’t involve changing the building structure) would be amazing.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      In fact I already provide some information on this in my article Renters staying warm. Unfortunately I don’t know many ways of insulating walls that don’t involve changing the building structure, or at least spending a lot of money on something like foam insulation that you’ll wind up having to throw out if you move. But for example a 2×8″ sheet of 1.5″ foam insulation (R.75) is about $24 (Canadian) at my local home depot, and I could imagine putting a board of this behind a coach or the head of the bed if the furniture is against an outside wall, for instance, to give a tiny bit more insulation.

  6. Doug Davenport
    Doug Davenport says:

    I’ve used space heaters for decades to heat the room where I’m at while keeping the thermostat low but I’ve always been very alert to the fire risk. A few years back I discovered the fan forced infrared heaters. They won’t tip over and are cool to the touch. I can keep my thermostat at 64 and my I-heater at 68 in the den and be really comfortable. The best feature is most of these heaters have a timer so I can set it to come on an hour before I get home.

  7. Tammy
    Tammy says:

    thanks for this article. What do you think of LED fireplace heaters? (we are stuck with electric heat) efficient? worth it?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      An LED fireplace heater is pretty much exactly the same efficiency as any other electric heater (100% efficient at converting electricity to heat). I expect they are actually slightly less effective in that they will be directly against an outside wall in the fireplace, so a tiny fraction of the heat will just naturally conduct outside, but that’s probably only 1-2% of the total since these heaters are designed to blow their heat out the front. And given how realistic some of the flames look, it seems like a good alternative to regular electric heaters. I would go for it in a home where electric heat is the main heating source – you have nothing to lose from making that part of your electric heat source.

  8. Marko
    Marko says:

    Looking to heat a renovated finished garage- a neighbor who did something similar used electric 8′ baseboards, but it was recommended I look into mini-splits to pump heat.
    Problem is, since I divided the space into 2 rooms ( one 100 sq feet, the other 130), I need either 2 units or one unit with 2 heads. Installation is cheaper with a dual-head unit, but either way the units are far more expensive (average $4000+ installed) compared to a simple electric baseboard, which only costs in the hundreds as opposed to thousands.

    I know electric heat is not efficient, but how long would I have to use the mini-split to break even on the cost to install? Its exponentially more expensive… while I really like the dehumidification and AC in the warmer months, is really cost effective to install?
    I’m figuring, if it takes 10 years to break even on cost to run + installation versus electric heat, by then won’t units costs less and/or have some new technology around anyway? Trying to figure this out ASAP as I have guys coming to run wiring this week if I’m going to go ahead with this!

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      Calculating the payback period on a heat pump vs. baseboards is a fairly complicated process. You’d need to know how much money you expect to pay on electric baseboard heat first, or else calculate that based on insulation levels, outdoor average temperatures, desired indoor temperature…. A garage is probably something you won’t keep heated to comfort level all the time, so you might have to factor in how many hours a week you want it heated to comfort level and what the economy temperature will be. I gather you live in a colder area (New York State?) so may occasionally be dealing with a fairly big temperature gap between outdoor air and indoor comfort level, and on super cold days you’ll have to deal with the fact that a heat pump just can’t pump much heat out of the outdoor air (heat pump efficiency declines precipitously in very cold temperatures). But let’s say for argument’s sake that you’re spending $150 a month on heat from mid November to mid April. That’s $750 a year. Assuming the baseboards cost $500 installed, you have a $3500 differential between the two heating systems. If you’re lucky you’ll cut your bill by 3/4 with a heat pump, so you’re saving $525 a year, which means it should pay for itself in around 7 years. That’s within the 10 year payback period you’re looking for.

  9. John B
    John B says:

    Excellent article! Question though: I live in South Carolina where it’s not too cold in the winter. I have a propane furnace and hot water heater which uses about $300 a month to heat a 2800 square foot home! (A ranch style with high ceilings) My previous home was larger, had natural gas and much much cheaper, but it is not available here. Everything else in the house is electric so I still have that bill too! My furnace is in the attic. Could I put a portable a/c unit up there and run the exhaust into the house? It’s always warm up there so the temperature spread would be much smaller than a heat pump outside (for better efficiency). I even have a drain line already in place for the condensation. Makes sense to me. What do you think?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I wouldn’t recommend this, air conditioning units are not designed to work on an indoor-indoor basis. As well, you say your attic is always warm even in winter – that suggests part of your problem may be inadequate insulation between your home and the attic. It would be cheaper and probably much more efficient to just put R50 or higher insulation in your attic than to install an air conditioner inside the attic and vent the heat exhaust into the house. Finally, your attic may be warm now but as soon as you start running an air conditioner in there it is going to cool down, and air conditioners are not designed to operate at ‘indoor’ temperatures below about 70F. Since you don’t need the attic to be warm you might be planning on drawing the heat down a lot (in order to pump that heat into the living space) but my hunch is that as soon as you go below about 70F the air conditioner isn’t going to work very well. And you’ll almost certainly void any warranty on the AC for a use like that.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      As I explain, electric heaters, whether baseboard or free-standing, are already 100% efficient at converting electricity to heat. There’s no way to make them more efficient, so replacing 40-year-old baseboard heaters to 2017 models will not do anything to save you money. It may increase comfort if you choose the right kind of heater for the purpose, as discussed in this article.

      • kip
        kip says:

        I agree with Robin. Short answer is NO!!! Don’t waste your money on new ones. They are probably made in China and not as safe as the 40 year old made in USA versions you already have. (The Chinese ones all have cheap plastic knobs. The old ones will last almost forever. If they are rusty, try this: 1. Sand off rust. 2. Paint with orange tinted shellac — real shellac is the secret ingredient in Rustoleum btw). 3. After shellacking, paint with any paint you like, although a good alkyd based paint makes the radiator easier to scrub. If you plan to run 220 volt radiators on high heat, you might want to use a high heat appliance or auto paint though. The shellac method is amazing! It will prevent new rust even if you have oceanfront property!

  10. Gary Roth
    Gary Roth says:

    We just bought a log house in north-western PA. Has a propane unit in the kitchen, and wood-burner in the living room. It sounds to me like you are saying that, if I take out the wood burner and put in a fireplace with a pellet-burning insert, it might be better – with the stone absorbing some of the heat? In our current home, we have a pellet stove that seems to work quite well – better than a wood-burning insert? It certainly has been less expensive than either propane or electric! (Went from $3500 per yr with propane/electric to $800 per yr with the pellet). The other advantage of the pellet is that it is thermostatically controlled.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I’m not clear on what you mean by ‘wood burner’, but in general a pellet-burning insert should be somewhat more efficient than a wood-burning insert, because the former is engineered solely for efficiency whereas the later is engineered for a combination of efficiency and aesthetics. And yes you’ll save a lot using either pellet stove or wood burning insert compared to propane or electric, which are the two most costly options.

  11. Suzi Cook
    Suzi Cook says:

    I recently helped my mom purchase some ceiling carbon crystal panel heaters, but I couldn’t find a ton of information on them and didn’t know if they were the same as all the portable electric heaters you’ve discussed.

    Have you done any research on these? I personally love the type of heat from them and there is zero noise.

    Are these any different for energy efficiency than the above?

    They were purchased online at Deelat.

    Thanks in advance for your time.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      Carbon crystal panel heaters are infrared heaters, meaning they use radiant heat to heat solid objects directly, rather than the air in the room. This means they’re more effective in situations where they are aimed at the people in the room, especially if there is a lot of airflow in and out of the room (from other rooms or from outside) or poor insulation. But they are essentially the same ‘efficiency’ as all electric heaters – 100% – since all the electricity they consume turns into heat one way or another.

  12. kip
    kip says:

    Tesla is working on glass solar roof tiles. This will make electric baseboard heating cheap. So if you decide to switch to a gas furnace/forced air, you still might want to hang on to your electric baseboards and the (very expensive) copper wiring attached to them. Good to keep options open don’t you think?

  13. ok
    ok says:

    I was searching for the cheapest way to heat a 3 seasons sunroom and ended here.

    I wish there was a way to heat for free or for cheap… so what I understand is that there is no such thing… only in sci-fi movies right?

    But for some reason I still believe there is a method to heat for cheap… we just haven’t found…maybe NASA did.

    if someone know how to heat 3 seasons sunroom during deep freezing winter season, feel free to post.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      A sunroom does heat itself for free – that is part of the point of having a sunroom. Solar energy is free.

      Have good insulated window coverings on the windows of your sunroom (blinds, full length drapes etc.) so that when it’s dark you are preventing heat from escaping the sunroom.

      Make sure the glass of the sunroom windows is at least double-glazed, low-E, high R value. ENERGY-STAR rated windows are at least R-5. You can do better than that.

      It’s possible to build a home in a climate such as Vancouver or Germany where the entire heating needs of the home can be met by a 1500 watt blow-dryer. Such ‘zero energy homes’ are built with very high R-value wall and ceiling insulation (even plenty of foamboard insulation underneath the foundation slab) and the most energy efficient windows available. They leverage solar energy to provide some of the heat. Light streams through the windows and becomes heat once inside; the high R value windows prevent the heat from escaping.

      In general, you can heat ‘for cheap’ by making your home as well insulated as possible, getting rid of drafts, and choosing cheap heating sources. The sun, of course, is the cheapest of all.

  14. Lisa lisk
    Lisa lisk says:

    I was wandering about the old boiler heating systems. To me it seems very efficient. I have propane. It would just be a small fire to heat the water or oil. That then heats each room with the cast iron boiler that is full of water or oil. I live in a small house that is well insulated. I would like to hear what you think of this old way of heating?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      It really depends on the design and age of the boiler. My parents had a gigantic old boiler furnace in their basement (covered with about 4 inches of asbestos!) and the flame came out of a 12-inch-wide disk and rose 12 inches in the air. They kept it for years even though I insisted it was really inefficient. Eventually they replaced the boiler with a brand new one rated at around 80% efficiency, and noticed their gas bill (the boiler was a natural gas one) dropped dramatically. The only downside was that the old boiler used a gravity based water circulation system to the rads, and the new one required an electric water pump to circulate the water, so electricity costs went up marginally, but overall they still saved a lot of money.

  15. Mackie
    Mackie says:

    Hello, I live in a studio condo in a historic building with several large windows, concrete floors, and 3 exterior walls that are uninsulated concrete/brick. I live in MN so the winters get pretty cold. The condo is 550 square feet with 10′ ceilings. I am in the process of insulating the outside walls. What type/quantity heaters would you recommend? Thanks in advance!

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I suspect you are going to face a pretty hefty electricity bill given the lack of insulation and the Minnesota winters. Hopefully the windows are well insulated.

      I would suggest a combination of some convection heaters to keep the entire area reasonably warm, and possibly a radiant heater that you can point toward yourself if you’re staying in one area of the condo for longer periods; that will allow you to stay warmer than the surrounding air.

      One option that will be more aesthetically pleasing is to use a wall mounted electric fireplace heater if you have some free wall space. We have one of these in each of our own and our son’s bedroom and they are a great way to heat up a smaller space, or as part of the heat source for a larger space.

  16. Sheryl Lock
    Sheryl Lock says:

    We have solar electric and are tied to the grid for banking our extra during the summer. We want to install electric heating so it runs off the solar. 3 stories with the basement office but only 1500 square feet total. Currently all we have for heat is 4 envi heaters (one in each room) but we need something more. What do you suggest? We would like to have something on the wall due to space.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      Your Envi heaters are somewhere between 400 and 475 watts. With 4 of them running off solar you’d need around 1600-2000 watts of solar generation capacity while heating. With a standard panel in 2017 around 250 watts capacity in full sun you’d need 7-8 panels just to run the Envi heaters. If you switched to 4 regular electric heaters, which are typically 1500 watts, you’d need 6000 watts of solar generation capacity (assuming no other current draws in your house) or 24 panels in full sun in ideal conditions.

      It’s far more efficient to devote a portion of your roof space to solar heating than to convert sunshine to electricity at roughly 20% efficiency, then convert that electricity back to heat indoors.

      Determining what capacity heater you need is hard to do without knowing insulation levels and your local climate. As for type, you can buy 120V 1500 watt baseboard heaters, for instance.

  17. Julie Joynt
    Julie Joynt says:

    Very helpful article as I’m always hoping to solve the heating issue in my home and work-space. Do you have any ideas about using a heat pump system of some type to help – our workspace is two storey, with electric space heaters as heat source in both areas. In summer the upstairs can get very warm from sunlight (so warm that windows have to be opened), while the downstairs still feels cold. I would love to transfer the heat from the upper eaves of upstairs and circulate to lower cold room….. any ideas? I have thought of adding vent/fan, but maybe there is heat-pump technology that could be modified and used in our situation. The rooms are not so big, about 400 square feet each. Your input greatly appreciated.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      It feels to me like a heat pump would be over-engineering the problem. If you had a couple of vents connecting the two rooms, and a fan in each vent – one fan drawing air down and one drawing air up – as well as a ceiling fan upstairs to push the warm upper air down so it would get drawn into the downward blowing vent – you’d be drawing warm air down and pushing cool air up. If there’s already an opening between the rooms such as a stairwell, a ceiling fan in each room might even be sufficient. I run the furnace fan in our house in the summer even when our AC is not on because it circulates basement air upstairs and vice versa, balancing temperatures between the different floors.

      Most heat pumps are designed to connect an indoor to an outdoor space. The cool side tends to cause condensation. If you set something like this up in your workspace you’d need a way to address the condensation.

  18. john
    john says:

    Would not some space heaters have better btu output ,making them more energy efficient.
    In that for the same wattage 1 space heater will produce 400 btus while another produces 450 btu,both at 1500 watts.
    As well ceramic maintains heat and when unit is shut off will still radiate heat.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      Ceramic heaters take longer to heat up because you have to heat up the ceramic bricks. So while they radiate heat after they’re shut off, they radiate less heat when you first turn them on.

      There’s no way to get around the basic laws of physics – conservation of mass and (in this case) energy. Electric heaters are 100% efficient so every watt of electricity is converted into 3.412142 BTU/hr of heat. Not only is it impossible to make a heater more efficient than that, it’s also impossible to make one less efficient.

  19. Elena
    Elena says:

    We have a pellet stove installed in the outer corner of the living room. There is a short wall only about 5 ft between living and dining. This wall is also higher as we have a sloped ceiling. I am thinking of moving our pellet stove to this inside wall and incorporating with masonry as you write in your article. Can you suggest any ideas on the design for this project?

  20. Becky
    Becky says:

    I have a small garden shed that I need to heat at night in the winter because my cat stays in there at night. I only need to heat it to about 45-50 degrees. Any suggestions?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      Rather than heat the entire shed, which will cost a lot (since it’s presumably uninsulated), have you thought of getting a heated mat for cats? You could build a small enclosure over that with an entrance at one end, this would give your cat a warm bed to lie on and the enclosure around it would keep much of the heat from the mat in the air within the enclosure. Or consider buying a heated cat house which already has the enclosure.

  21. john
    john says:

    Down sized moved into a 1092 sq ft condo on slab all brick built in 1995. This is a all electric, base board heating. Will be replacing the AC unit this spring. Looking at heat pump, Will have to change out air handler in attic. but looking at total price. Would it make sense to change out the ac unit and change out the base board heaters? Or go with the heat pump? We live in northeast Ohio. And what rating should we go with on the heat pump?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I would definitely recommend going with the heat pump option. Northwest Ohio tends to have more heating months than cooling months, and you’ll find a heat pump at least 3-4 times more energy efficient than electric heating except at the very coldest outdoor temperatures (even then, it’s at least as efficient as electric baseboard).

      Heat pumps measure efficiency in two ways: SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) for cooling, and HSPF (Heating Seasonal Performance Factor). For a situation like yours where the heating efficiency matters more, I would focus on finding a unit with high HSPF. The MINIMUM HSPF rating is currently 7.7, while there are a number of units at 10.0. Since achieving 10.0 efficiency means the manufacturer is focusing on energy efficiency overall these units also tend to have a higher SEER. I would target an HSPF of 9 or higher.

  22. Susie
    Susie says:

    Help! My first floor full bathroom is over a slab. It is very cold in that room and I don’t know what type of heater to put in there that will be safe and efficient.

  23. Carol
    Carol says:

    My crawl is encapsulated but also below sunroom that has no heat. Crawl is cold at 40 degrees and humidity 66 but higher in summer. I can run dehumidifier but only above 50 dehrees. Any suggestion for a crawl heater to use in winter to get crawl warm enough to run dehumidifier? Crawl is 4’ high. Thanks

  24. Nicki
    Nicki says:

    Hi, great article. I found these convection heaters online recently and wanted to get your opinion. We don’t have a furnace in our home, only wall mounted Cadet heaters which cause allergies with the hot air blowing during the winter. So we liked the idea of convection. Have you seen these before? For example the EconoHome Wall Mount Space Heater Panel – that’s what we are interested in installing. Would love your feedback on those. thanks!

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      It’s not clear to me why hot air blowing from your convection heater would cause allergies, unless they are stirring up dust or other particulates (e.g. pet dander) that has settled on them. But the panel heater will not stir up dust so it sounds like it might be better for your concern. On the other hand, panel heaters are very rarely above about 600 watts, meaning they will provide little heat – enough for under a desk or for a small bathroom, or enough to heat a bedroom in a very mild climate, but they won’t see you through a cold winter. As an example I have a 1500 watt LED fireplace heater in my bedroom and on cold nights it can bring the temperature up from the low 60’s Fahrenheit to the low 70’s in 30 minutes. A 600 watt panel heater would take hours to do that.

  25. Jonah
    Jonah says:

    I enjoyed your article, Robin, informative even these many years! We just bought a 1600 sq ft 12-th floor condo on the Jersey shore, electric-only and well insulated. It’s our permanent residence. There are three GE Zoneline AC/Heat units, which turned out NOT to be the heat pumps that I thought they were. They are ~3,000 watt electric heaters, and boy did I get a shock at December’s electric bill (4x that of November)! So I’m motivated to do something. I’ve started by buying Nest thermostats and hooking them to the units so I can shut them down as often as possible, and also get more precise control. The largest open space is the ~700 sq ft living/dining room and kitchen, which has two long outside walls (one of which is a sliding door) and is serviced by only one of the Zonelines. This of course is the one that runs the most, by far. I’m thinking that it would be worth the ~$1800 to replace it with a new heat pump model, leaving the other two to handle their inside rooms. Do you like that plan? Any other ideas for keeping that space comfortable as economically as possible? There is also a 750/1500 watt fake fireplace in the living room (at the far end away from the Zoneline), which I suspect would help reduce Zoneline runtime by adding some heat to that end of the room more efficiently…? How about thermostat placement? I’m planning to mount the Nests directly on the Zoneline return grilles, but maybe a strategic location choice might yield benefits?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      That’s a disappointment that the heat/AC units don’t incorporate a heat pump. I strongly recommend saving up to replace at least one of the Zonelines with a true heat pump unit, probably the one in the living/dining room and kitchen area as you propose. I know several people who installed ductless minisplit air conditioners that also came with a heat pump and they are all very happy with them.
      Anything you can do to avoid heating a space you don’t need to heat is going to help. For the sliding door, a drape or blind over it will add a bit more of a barrier to heat escape. For bedrooms, if you’re not in them during the day close them up and set the heat low. Using the electric fireplace might reduce your use of the Zoneline, but it’s the same level of efficiency as the Zoneline (100% of the energy in the electricity will get converted to heat) so there’s no real advantage, unless it’s to heat the area right by the fireplace to a nice cozy temperature while you are sitting in front of it. For thermostat placement try to put them in an area with average temperature. I don’t know if there’s any advantage to mounting directly on the Zoneline return, and there’s a risk that if you have them too close to a source of heat (not sure how close the return is to the heat source) there’s a risk you’ll trigger rapid cycling.

  26. Julia Stuhlmiller
    Julia Stuhlmiller says:

    This was a great article, but overwhelming for me to comprehend. I have a fairly insulated 400 sqft crawl/unfinished basement, Baseboard 6ft heater is raising my electric bill approximately 100.00 a month plus when I run it on low. That’s just when I run it, not including the normal day to day electricity.
    I need to keep some kind of heat running during the winter months which can run outside 5 below. so the pipes which have insulation and Hot Water tank already on a timmer won’t freeze. What is the best heating system or is a crawl space heater advisable as in a pump house. Or do i get a timer programable

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      The challenge with heating a crawl space or unfinished basement with a standard electric heater is that most such heaters don’t make it easy to set the thermostat to a low level. What you need is a heater that is set to 5 degress C so that it keeps the crawl space or unfinished basement just warm enough to prevent pipes from freezing (assuming you’re okay with that cool temperature). The other option is to have a pipe heater cable that runs inside the pipe insulation, and is plugged into a thermostatically controlled outlet. For example, the Thermo Cube TC-3 is a plug that switches off when the ambient temperature reaches about 50F or 10C. Plugging an electric heater into that, or a pipe-heating cable, will keep the space, or the pipe, only as warm as it needs to be.

  27. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    I’m trying to help someone who is living in a mobile/rv home without a heating system. I believe it was originally an RV that has had additions added. It has never had any sort of furnace or heating system – there is no duct work. This person is using electric space heaters to heat the entire unit (unsure of size) during our cold Canadian winters. Their electricity bill was understandably very high last winter. I am trying to help them find a better way to heat their home. I’ve had companies go out to quote for a propane furnace but it is more than this person can afford. They are on a extremely limited budget. I am starting to wonder if it might be best if they were to install electric wall heaters in each room. It would still be pricey but take up less space, and maybe a safer option? If you have any other suggestions please let me know.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      There are challenges in any solution for this situation. RVs tend not to be designed for cold weather. I would start with reducing the RV’s heat loss. See this video for some tips one couple used – they insulated the windows of their RV with Reflectix, and found several openings (for outdoor shower, storage space, etc.) that they insulated with foamboard. There may also be opportunity to attach 2″ foam board to the underside of the RV, if the underside is relatively flat. These changes can at least reduce the amount of heat loss so that the current heating arrangement doesn’t have to work as hard to keep things warm. (Of course, you do lose the view on any window you cover with Reflectix!)
      Installing heaters in each room, and only using a heater when you’re in that room, is a great way to economize – there’s no point heating the entire space all night if you’re sleeping in one small part of it. (If you get up to use the facilities in the dead of night, you might disagree with this upon sitting on your throne – but that’s a small sacrifice for the savings!)
      A ductless minisplit air conditioner / heat pump system may be worth looking into. You can buy ones that are 115 volts – they will extract heat out of the outdoor air and pump it into the RV during cold months, and do the opposite (draw hot air out of the RV and pump it outside) in hot months. Heat pumps are typically 2-3x or even 4x more effective at using electrical energy to produce heat, because unlike a standard electric heater, which converts 100% of the electrical energy on the wire into heat energy, a heat pump uses 100% of its electrical energy to pump 2-4 times that much heat from outdoors to indoors. However I can’t say whether one of these will be doable on a particular RV, and ‘extremely limited budget’ might mean the $1000 or so these systems cost is out of that person’s reach.


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