Space heaters are one of the most popular ways of helping to heat your home or office, but there is also a lot of confusion which surrounds them. This is hardly surprising given the vast array of heater types, the different fuels they use, and the other variables such as upfront and ongoing costs.
In this comprehensive space heater buying guide, we are going to cover as many topics that relate to space heaters as we can, from what they are, how they are fueled, the features they have and highlight the advantages and disadvantages they all have.
Our aim is to give you as much information as possible so that when it comes time for you to choose which space heater you are going to buy, you can do so with confidence, knowing that your decision is fully informed. Let's get started.
What Is a Space Heater?
The definition of what space heaters are is more straightforward than you might think, as the answer is in the name. A space heater is designed to heat a small space or area and in practical terms that means a specific room. This is different to central heating systems which are primarily designed to heat entire homes, or buildings in the case of large commercial central heating installations.
Most, though not all, space heaters are portable, they are inexpensive to purchase in comparison to central heating systems, and they require minimal installation too.
Space heaters can be fueled in several ways including gas, propane and electricity which is the most common fuel. They also heat the room they in using different heating techniques. The most common is convection heat, and another popular method is radiant heat. The third is micathermic, and don’t worry if you've never heard of these strange sounding words before, as we will explain further on in this buying guide.
Reasons for Choosing a Space Heater
We could probably create a whole article on the reasons for buying a space heater, but we want to make this buying guide as easy to read as possible so here are 7 simple reasons for choosing a space heater.
1. Minimal Installation
While there are one or two types of space heater that are fixed and therefore require some installation in terms of mounting them to a wall, the vast majority do not. All you need to do is plug them into an electrical power socket and they are ready to start heating your room straight away.
2. Low Purchase Price
In comparison to many heating systems, the cost of space heaters is low. There are some heaters which cost little more than a take away from your local fast food restaurant, and even the space heaters at the higher end of the scale are still a fraction of what a central heating system would cost.
3. Easy to Use
Space heaters are very simple to operate with many having a single dial on them for you to adjust the heat level. There are even some which come with a remote control, so you can adjust them without even getting out of your chair.
4. Ideal for Small Areas
One of the main benefits of a space heater is that it can heat up rooms and other confined areas that it may not be possible or cost efficient to include within your central heating system. This is why they are very popular for use in bedrooms, small lounges, offices, and workshops.
Following on from using them in small spaces is the fact that because most of them are portable, the heater can be taken from room to room. So, if you have been using it to heat your home office you can then take into your lounge and have it warm you in there too.
6. Backs Up Your Central Heating
While we have been making comparisons to central heating systems, one of the great advantages of a space heater is that it can supplement your main heating system. Often users will turn off the central heating in a particular room, and use the space heater instead, which in some circumstances can be more cost-effective.
7. Heats Up Quickly
Many heating systems can take quite a while to reach the desired temperature which leaves you shivering on very cold days. Some space heaters can produce heat almost immediately and get the room warmed up within minutes.
Three Ways a Space Heater Can Heat Your Home
When you use a space heater it will heat the room it is in using one of the three main heating methods. These are convection heating, infrared, and micathermic. Below we outline the principles of how these heating methods work and the pros and cons of each.
This is the most common method that you will find space heaters using. It works on the basis that the air which passes over the heating element or heat source within the heater is warmed, and then circulates into the room to heat it. Often, a fan will be used to blow the warm air out into the room.
Radiant is produced when the heat source provides heat directly to the subject, person or area it is designed to heat. Many space heaters heat up quartz at their core which then uses infrared heat to warm the area in front of it. Others use oil filled pipes which radiate heat when the oil is heated.
This type of heating could be described as a hybrid of the two previous heating methods, as it uses a combination of them both. A heating element heats up thin layers of mica stone which radiates heat. However, there is also a degree of convection heat as the air passes over the mica layer heats up and passes into the room to help warm it.
While space heaters come in all shapes and sizes, there are basically six main types of space heater which exist. In this section, we will briefly explain what they are and the advantages and disadvantages of each one.
Infrared heaters operate using the same principle by which the sun heats the earth where the objects absorb the heat they produce in front of them. This can be furniture in the room or it can be your skin and clothing which is why you feel warm when sitting in front of one. Heating elements, which are often made from tungsten, are used to heat a core. This core is often made from quartz which then radiates the heat.
Infrared heaters are normally easy to control, and some have remote controllers which let you change the settings without having to get out of your seat. Infrared heaters can come in a variety of stylish designs, with some having a wooden surround which makes them appear almost like items of furniture.
As the name suggests, this heater is one which sits low down and normally runs along the baseboard. They come as standalone units which can either be portable or fixed to a wall. Electric baseboard heaters normally work using convection heat whereby they heat the air, which then proceeds to warm up the room. Some use fans to facilitate this process quicker although these can be annoyingly loud, depending on the model.
Electric baseboard heaters are not particularly stylish, although you can purchase baseboard covers which are a very popular way of hiding them behind something a lot more stylish and decorative.
Hydronic baseboard heaters are either prefilled with oil or water, or they are integrated with your central heating system to use the water from that. The latter means there can be a fair amount of installation work, and the associated costs required before they are ready to be used.
Electricity is used to heat the interior liquid and as it gets hotter, heat is radiated into the room. They are usually situated in the same places that electrical baseboard heaters would be, which is on the floor, and normally under windows.
As with the electric versions, hydronic baseboard heaters are not the most stylish of items, so a decorative cover is often used to hide them.
It could be claimed that most space heaters are electric, which is true, but what this specifically refers to is an electric heater which is set within a fireplace. The fireplace can either be an existing one where the heater unit is set within it or one where the fireplace is purchased for use with the heater. Sometimes these come as combinations, or you can buy the heater and fireplace separately.
In scenarios where a fireplace would take up too much room, or you simply don't want a fireplace, these heaters can also be wall mounted.
Many electric fireplace heaters add to the atmosphere in the room by recreating flames. These are not real flames obviously but are produced by LED lights and mirrors which can look very realistic. Some of the more advanced heaters have options where you can program the flames you can see.
It is also possible to turn on the flame effects without turning on the heating to create a homely atmosphere in the room, during the warmer months
Most electric fireplace heaters use convection heat whereby a heated coil works in conjunction with a fan to blow hot air into the room. Some electric fireplaces use infrared instead.
This is another heater where the name tells you what they are. Oil filled heaters operate on the basis that the liquid inside them is heated and as it does so it radiates that heat to raise the temperature of the surrounding area. This is why these heaters are often referred to as 'oil-filled radiators'.
As they take longer to warm up they are not really suited for getting a quick heat but are better if you want to switch on a heater and leave it on in a room for longer periods of time.
Some care is required for this type of heater especially where there are children or animals in the home. The outer shell of an oil filled heater can become hot to the touch so there is a danger of skin burns.
Ceramic heaters are some of the simplest, smallest and least expensive space heaters available, which are some of the reasons why they are extremely popular.
They tend to be standalone units which are easily portable, with some of them small enough to sit on desks and worktops for close-up heat.
Their principle set up is they have heating elements housed within ceramic plates. As these elements heat up, they warm the air around them, and a fan inside the heater then blows this warm air into the room. The controls that you will find on a ceramic heater include the temperature level and fan speed.
Some ceramic heaters will also have an oscillation feature which allows the heater to move from side to side in order to distribute the warm air across the room.
Most space heaters will be fueled by one of three different fuels, which are electricity, natural gas, and propane gas. In this section, we'll briefly explain where you would use each one and what heaters use which fuel.
This is by far the most widely used fuel for space heaters with infrared, ceramic, baseboard, oil filled heaters all relying on electricity as the means to heat them. Essentially these heaters use the electricity to heat metal elements or filaments, and the heat from these is then transferred to other materials such as quartz, oil, or ceramics, depending on the type of heater they are.
In most cases, the electrical supply is acquired simply by plugging the heater into the wall socket, with the obvious benefit being that these heaters are portable.
Others, such as some baseboard heaters, need to be permanently connected to the supply. These hardwired heaters will use either the 120 volts or 220 volts electrical supply, so it is important you ensure you know what you are doing when installing these. Employing the services of a qualified electrician is likely to be the safest and most practical course of action.
It shouldn't be too much of a surprise if we tell you that natural gas fueled space heaters will always be fixed rather than portable. They will often be mounted on the wall, although there are some floor-mounted natural gas heaters available.
These heaters require installation and given that they are being connected to your gas supply, this is something which you should have done by a qualified gas installation engineer. Depending on your existing gas heating system, aspects such as the location of the heater and venting of the heater will need to be considered.
With regards to venting, there are some natural gas space heaters which do not require it, as they have an advanced cut off feature if it detects an issue.
Propane gas heaters operate by connecting the heater to a portable tank of propane gas. These tanks come in several sizes and you should use the one that both suits the heater you are using and the amount of use you expect it to have.
Space heaters that use propane gas are lit either with a naked flame, such as a match or with use of battery powered electronic ignition.
While propane gas space heaters could be used in your home, they are more commonly used in rooms and locations which are not connected to your central heating system. This includes workshops, garages, remote offices, and large basements.
Because of their portability, some of the smaller space heaters fueled by propane gas are very popular with those who go camping or caravanning and want to have a source of heat when they arrive at their location.
Space Heater Sizes
When we say size, we are talking about the physical size of the space heater rather than the area size which it can heat. We’ll discuss that in a later section.
Space heater sizes can range from a small, portable ceramic heater which can sit on a desk, to large electric fireplaces, so you'll appreciate there is quite a range.
Portable Space Heaters
Thankfully, most space heaters are portable, therefore the need to measure the space where you are going to install one doesn't exist, for the simple reason that it doesn't need to be installed. Having said that you should still take account of the dimensions of any portable space heater you are considering and ensure that the room you plan to use in it has enough floor space for it to sit on.
What you don't want is a scenario where the amount of furniture etc. in a small room, is such that regardless of where you place the space heater, it is going to be very close to curtains or a piece of furniture.
The other aspect to think of is the weight of any portable space heater. Some oil-filled heaters can be quite heavy and may not be suitable for anyone who is frail, or unable to lift heavy items.
Where the space heater you are considering requires to be installed then you need to ensure that its dimensions are compatible with where it is going to be located.
For example, with baseboard heaters, you need to take account of how much space there is around the heater as it requires 12 inches clearance in front, 1 inch below it, 12 inches above it, and 6 inches either side.
Space Heater Features
Just as there are multiple types of space heaters, there is an equally broad array of features that you will find on them. Some features will be common to more than one type of space heater, whilst others will only apply to one of them.
In this section, we will highlight most of the main features you are likely to come across in space heaters and we will point out the type of space heaters which each feature applies to.
1. Heat Temperature Control
We've started with this one because it is the one feature which applies to virtually every space heater, although it will work in different ways depending on the heater type and model.
For most of the electrical heaters, there will be a control dial which can adjust the heat level up or down. Many of them have no specific temperature indication so it is often a case of trial and error until you find the optimum level.
On those heaters which use fans to blow warm air the speed of the fan is often part of the process. With these, you can increase the heat level and adjust the fan speed so that the hot air is blown out at a faster rate.
While the controls we have mentioned so far tend to be basic dials, some space heaters have more advanced means of control. Here you will find digital displays which indicate the temperature levels and the controls for them are normally push button. Infrared space heaters are the most likely to have these although you may also find them on more advanced ceramic and electric fireplace heaters.
Gas heaters, whether natural or propane also have adjustable heat settings which invariably alter the rate of gas which is flowing and thus increases or decreases the heat output accordingly.
2. Timers / Auto Switch Off
Some space heaters give you the ability to set a timer for when it switches itself off. This is usually in scenarios where you want the heater to continue to heat the room for a short period while you are in another room.
The setting is normally in terms of the number of minutes you want it to switch off after, rather than setting a specific time, as you would with an alarm clock.
3. Remote Control
The idea that you can stay seated in your nice comfortable armchair and adjust your space heater appeals to a lot of people, so they will love those space heaters where you can do exactly that.
They are more commonly found with infrared heaters whereby you can adjust the heat settings and set timers for when the heater switches off. Some baseboard heaters are also remote control compatible.
For both infrared, and electric fireplace heaters where there are imitation flames, the remote controller can also be used to program the flame display.
4. Fan Only Mode
Some of the heaters with fans, have an option where you can have the fan running but the heating elements remain switched off. This can be useful during warmer periods of the year when you need cooling down, rather than warming up.
While they can never be as effective as air conditioning at cooling an entire home, they are still useful for providing you with a cool flow of air in a small area.
5. Electrical Cord Length
As most space heaters are portable and powered by electricity it stands to reason that they will have an electric cord. However, the reason we are mentioning it here is that these cords are likely to be of varying lengths.
When you are selecting your space heater, if it has an electric cord, check to see what its length is. The reason for this is the longer the cord, the more options you will have in terms of where it can be placed in the room in relation to where the power socket is.
Obviously, this applies to those space heaters which can be moved. There are a couple of features to look for with portability in mind.
The first is the carrying handles which unfortunately are not always ideal for lifting and carrying the heater. Some handles are merely insets on the sides and sometimes these are very narrow. This can be particularly troublesome for the elderly or those who have difficulty lifting, as getting a grip with these isn't always easy. If you have any concerns here, always chose a heater which has proper handles.
The second feature which can help with portability is wheels. Lots of space heaters including oil filled radiators, infrared heaters, propane gas heaters, and ceramic heaters have models which have wheels to help make moving them from location to location easier.
Some ceramic space heaters have this function which is activated by simply pressing a switch or button. When active the heater will oscillate from side to side so that the warm air which is being blown out is distributed over as large an area as possible. When being used in fan-only mode this is also a welcome feature as it sends the cold air across a larger area.
8. Energy Saving Mode
This is present in some heaters and is an option which you can select to reduce the amount of energy which the heater is using, and thus it should follow that you will reduce your energy costs.
The way it does this will be to reduce the amount of heat slightly or for those heaters with fans, to slow down the fan speed.
9. Space Heater Safety Features
The features we have looked at thus far have been those features which relate to ease of use, and control of your space heater. More important than those, are the features which a space heater has, to ensure that it operates safely.
Again, some of these features will be found on several space heaters, and others will be applicable to a specific type.
10. Cool to The Touch
This feature is exactly as it sounds whereby the heater's outer casing or cabinet is heat resistant therefore it can be touched safely, which is not the case with all heaters. This feature is particularly welcome in households with young children and eliminates the risk of them being burned should they touch the heater when it is on.
11. Child Lock
Having mentioned children, we all know that their inquisitive mind means if they see a button, switch or dial they are going to press it or turn it to see what happens. When those buttons or dials are on heater there is a risk that they could turn the thermostat up to its maximum level.
To prevent this from happening some heaters are equipped with a child lock feature which means that even if they do press anything the heater will remain at its current setting.
12. Tip Over Cutoff
Portable space heaters are likely to be moved often, so they will not always be in the same location. They are also low down, and relatively light in terms of their weight.
All these factors mean that these space heaters are prime candidates to be knocked over because of someone bumping into it or tripping over it. Even more serious is when it is a child or a pet pushing it over accidentally.
In all these scenarios, if the heater were to remain on, it could burn whatever it falls against with the even more dangerous risk of a fire starting, if what it fell on was flammable.
To reduce these risks as much as possible most portable space heaters have a cutoff switch which activates if the heater is knocked over. This switch cuts off the power, and thus the heater turns off immediately.
13. Overheating Cutoff
This is a sensor found in many space heaters which can detect if the temperature inside is reaching too high a level. The danger is obviously that the high temperature melts something or causes something to ignite.
It has a pre-set temperature which if it is reached, will automatically shut off the heater.
14. Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS)
When you have a vent free natural gas space heater, it will have an ODS built into it. This tamper-proof device is designed to recognize when oxygen levels reach a certain low-level limit, (normally 18%) and if it does, it will shut off the heater. This safety feature is to prevent the risk of dangerous levels of CO2 in the room where the heater is operating.
Which Heater Suits Each Room in the House?
OIL FILLED RADIATOR
Whilst theoretically you could use any of these space heaters in any room, this is neither practical nor in some cases is it safe, such as having a propane heater in your bedroom, for example
Below we have listed the main rooms that you may have in your home and listed which of the heaters should be suitable for each one but bear in mind this is a suggested guide and not hard and fast rules.
Noise Levels of Space Heaters
Most space heaters have very few moving parts, therefore, the amount of noise they are going to create is minimal. However, there is one big exception to that rule, and that is those convection space heaters which use fans to blow out hot air.
Space heaters which will normally have fans include propane heaters, ceramic heaters, and electric baseboard heaters. With each of these, the amount of noise they generate can be difficult to predict, given that you wouldn’t normally see or hear one in operation before you buy it.
One option is to read the reviews for each product to see what those who are already using one are saying about the noise levels. One caveat here though is that what might be loud to one person, may not be loud to another, so even this is not a perfect way to assess it.
Overall, the fans in ceramic and baseboard heaters not going to be that loud that you cannot carry on a conversation while sitting next to one. The fans on propane gas heaters can be a bit louder but bear in mind these are not normally designed for use in the home, but rather they are mostly for heating garages and for outdoor use.
Space Heater Capacity and Output
When considering which space heater you wish to purchase, one of the most important aspects to consider is whether a heater can heat the room which you plan to use it.
To determine this, we need to first measure the length and width of the room and then use those measurements to determine its size in square feet. For example, a room which is 15 feet long and 12 feet wide is 180 square feet.
Now it gets a bit more complicated because the way in which the heat output from gas heaters is measured is different from that of electric heaters. With gas, the measurement is in British Thermal Units (BTUs) and for electrically powered heaters the output is given as wattage.
If you ever want to convert a heater's wattage to BTUs you simply multiply it by 3.41, so a 1000 watt heater has the equivalent heat output of 3410 BTUs.
To save you having to crunch numbers the table below gives you a selection of room sizes with the wattage and BTU ratings your electric or gas powered space heater would require to heat it properly.
Room Size (Sq. Feet)
In this section, we are going to look at the upfront costs associated with space heaters, however, what we are not going to do is specify exact prices for any particular heater type. The reason for this is that prices may have changed between the time we publish this and when you read it.
Instead what we will do is grade each price as very low, low, high or very high. Less than $50 is very low, $50 - $100 is low, $100 - $500 high, and $500+ very high. Where a heater of a certain type can be found in more than one price range, we will allocate the price grade as to what most products in that category would cost to buy.
As well as looking at the actual purchasing price of the product we will also grade the possible installation costs, if any, of each heater type as this also needs to be considered as part of the upfront costs. With a lot of space heaters being portable this will be zero, but for those that may need installation we will grade them in the same way as the product costs.
Space Heater Energy Efficiency
Space heaters are neither designed to replace your central heating system nor are they generally more energy efficient than your central heating. By design, they are for use in small areas, so to try to heat large rooms or an entire home with just space heaters could cause your energy bills to soar upwards.
Unfortunately, space heaters do not come with energy efficiency ratings so there is not a standardized way of comparing them. Also, if we try to compare the energy efficiency of each type of space heater, there is a difficulty as there are so many variables which can impact any single heater and increase or decrease its efficiency.
The size of the room, how high its temperature is set, how well insulated the room is, and what the background temperature is in the room are just four out of dozens of things which can influence a heater's efficiency.
To make whichever space heater you have as energy efficient as possible, here are some simple tips which can help.
- Keep doors and windows closed as much as possible to reduce drafts and thus limit how much heat is escaping from the room
- Keep any vents which your heater has, clear of dust and other debris
- Adjust the temperature control to the lowest level which keeps you comfortable rather than keeping it at the highest setting all the time.
- Position your space heater so that the direction of heat is towards where it is needed. This reduces the temptation or desire to turn up the heat level.
Space Heater Safety Tips and Advice
Space heaters are normally safe to use, and many of them even have some safety cut-off features. Nevertheless, when you are using any appliance that generates heat there are additional safety measures you can take.
- Always read the manufacturer's product manual and if applicable, follow the installation guidelines before using your space heater.
- Never leave a space heater unattended for long periods of time, and when not in use switch it off.
- Do not place a portable space heater where they are likely to be a trip hazard.
- Do not place a space heater too close to flammable items such as curtains, or furniture.
- Every few months open your heater and vacuum the interior to remove excess dust and other debris which has collected inside.
- Do not use an extension cord to power your space heater.
- Ensure that any surface upon which you place a space heater is level.
- Regularly inspect the power cord for any signs of damage such as fraying
- Do not place an electrically powered space heater near water, and never use it in the bathroom
We hope that by reading our buying guide you have gained further knowledge and understanding of the many benefits that space heaters can give you. Hopefully, you've also gained some insight into the differences between the various types and in doing so managed to identify which ones are more likely to suit your needs.
If you would like to learn more about a particular type of space heater then read our buying guides on each one by clicking on the links below