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a bedroom space heater

Buying Guide: Space heaters for your home

What to know before buying an electric space heater for your home.

When the cold weather strikes in Ontario, many of us might want to consider using electric space heaters to stay warm and use less energy in our homes. If you’re in the market for one, here’s what to keep in mind about saving energy.

Do space heaters really save energy?

Electric space heaters may help you save energy. The catch? Only if you’re turning the heat down elsewhere in your home and using the heaters just to heat the rooms you’re using.

Whether your home uses a gas furnace or electric heating, if you set your thermostats to a lower temperature and use a space heater to keep one room at a time warmer, such as a home office, you may be able to save energy overall. Many home furnaces in Ontario use natural gas for heating, but since they also still require electricity to keep the motor running, keeping the temperature lower saves both.

However, if you’re keeping your home’s electric baseboards or furnace running as you normally would, and using an electric space heater for additional warmth, you’ll just be using more energy, and this will cost you more money.

Which space heater is most energy efficient?

Unlike many other appliances and electronics, space heaters are not certified under the ENERGY STAR program. This is because any electric heater is 100% efficient at converting electricity to heat. The good news is that from an energy-efficiency standpoint, you can compare which models use more or less power simply by looking at the watts on the package. If two models offer the same watts, they will use the same amount of energy, assuming they’re used under the same circumstances and for the same amount of time. You should therefore use the lowest wattage that meets your needs to avoid overheating your space and incurring unnecessary electricity costs.

How much space heat do I need?

So, how do you choose how many watts you need?

Many heaters marketed as “whole room” heaters are about 1,500 watts, since that’s as much as you can plug into a residential wall safely. It’s a good idea to avoid plugging anything else into the same outlet to avoid overwhelming the circuit (see more on safety below).

Manufacturers and retailers often suggest 10 watts of heating capacity per square foot of a room. So, a 1,500-watt heater would work well for a 150 square-foot room.

Smaller, personal heaters may be about half that wattage. If you simply want to stay warm in one area, say at your desk, a personal heater, such as those designed for a tabletop, may be best. A larger heater may be a better choice if you want to keep a whole room warmer.

What type of space heater should I choose?

Along with choosing the right size, you’ll need to decide what type of space heater best meets your needs. Most model types come in a variety of sizes, apart from oil-filled heaters, which tend to be larger. Many models also have multiple heat settings, so you can use fewer watts (and less energy) at lower settings.

Here are the common types of space heaters available in the marketplace:

fan-forced space heater

Fan-forced convection heaters

Convection heaters come in a variety of sizes and heat up quickly, making them a good option for warming up a room fast. These heaters use different types of heating elements internally, such as ceramic, to heat the air around them. Warm air rises (either naturally or aided by a fan) and cooler air is pushed down, where the space heater warms it.

Many convection space heaters will use a fan or may have oscillation features to distribute warm air. Some models have a fan-only setting as well, which means you can also use your space heater in the warmer months.

However, allergy or asthma sufferers may want to avoid a model that uses a fan, which would blow dust and allergens around. Models with fans may also be noisier, so take this into consideration if you plan to use your heater during the workday or while you sleep.

infrared space heater

Radiant or infrared heaters

Radiant heaters, including infrared heaters, provide direct heat to an object – in this case, a person – not to the ambient air. Think of this as similar to sitting in the sun or near a campfire. If you tend to stay in one place and want direct heat to stay warm, a radiant heater is a good option. However, these models can be more expensive.

oil-filled space heater

Oil-filled heaters

Oil-filled heaters are typically larger and a good option for heating a whole room. The diathermic oil inside the heating element of these space heaters warms up, offering radiant heat when you’re near them, but also warming the air through natural convection (without a fan). Oil-filled heaters are slower to warm up and cool down after being turned off. This moderated rate of temperature change may help you feel more comfortable than space heaters that blast warm air but cool off immediately. Oil-filled options also retain their heat well, offering residual warmth after they’re turned off. This may allow you to feel warmer without using energy.

These models tend to be larger, so not as easily portable from room-to-room as other options. They also tend to be more expensive than some other types of heaters.

micathermic space heater

Micathermic heaters

These fanless, panel-style heaters use a combination of convection and radiant heat. The panels are made from mica sheets, a type of mineral. Heat radiates from the panel and natural convection takes over to heat the room. This option may be a good investment for you if you’re looking to heat a space for a long period of time.

Choose the right features for you

While space heaters with the same wattage will be equally energy efficient, you can still look for features that will help you conserve energy and get more out of your purchase. Here are some features to consider:

  • Programmable thermostat. An adjustable thermostat will let you select the ideal temperature you want your space heater to maintain, so it won’t waste energy running when it doesn’t have to.
  • Multiple heat settings. Some space heater models come with different settings, including an “eco mode” to give you options for using less wattage during times you need less heat.
  • Timer. A timer with an automatic shut-off will help you make sure you’re only running your heater for a certain period of time if you forget to turn it off when you leave a room.
  • Lighting. Some space heaters have lights which emulate warmth and can add to the ambience of a space, so you may opt for a design that radiates a warm-looking glow. However, keep in mind that this doesn’t make the unit physically heat up more effectively or work more efficiently, so if a unit costs more because of lighting features, the extra cost may not be worth it to you.
  • Portability. Think about whether you might want to use your space heater in more than one place during different parts of the day. Some models come with wheels to make them easier to move around. Many space heaters also come with remote controls, so you can adjust their temperature from across the room.

Don’t forget about space heater safety

While electric space heaters can make you more comfortable, they can also pose fire risks if you aren’t careful. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Before you buy, look at the label for safety certification.Look for a model that is approved by a recognized standards agency, such as the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
  • Look for safety features. When shopping, choose a model with “tip over” and automatic shut-off features that will turn the unit off if it falls over or begins to overheat.
  • Always plug heaters directly in to the wall. Power bars are often a good idea to conserve energy, but not with space heaters. Power bars aren’t equipped to handle the wattage space heaters require, so they may overheat and catch fire. Also, never use an extension cord with a space heater for the same reason. Finally, don’t place the heater cord under a rug, as it can overheat and create a fire risk.
  • Keep space heaters away from furniture, curtains and water. Never drape anything, such as clothing, over a space heater. And do not let the heater come into contact with water as it could short circuit.

Rethink your heating needs

If you’re in the market for a space heater, it may also be a good time to rethink your home heating overall.

“If you’re simply looking to turn down your central heating and heat one smaller space at a time, then space heaters are a good option,” Dixon says. “But if you find your home is generally drafty or not as warm as it should be even with the furnace running, it may be time for other upgrades.”

Renovations such as upgrading insulation, replacing windows, or replacing your furnace or primary heating source, may be in order. However, there are also simple, relatively inexpensive upgrades that can help. During colder months, for example, you can change the direction of a ceiling fan to redistribute warm air that rises to the ceiling. Weather stripping around doors and windows to seal air leaks is also a good way to keep your home more comfortable and conserve energy.

Remember: small steps can make a big difference. Get more tips for saving energy at home.

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