"New" Space Heaters - A cozy, thrifty alternative or NOT?

We've all seen the advertisements for new, "revolutionary" electric space heaters on television. The ads are ripe with phrases like "Cut your heating bills in half," "Efficient and even heat distribution!" or my personal favorite, "Real Amish Craftsmanship!"

What's all the hype about? Is it justified? Are these heaters revolutionary, and if so, in what ways? Before you spend your hard-earned money on this equipment and the electricity needed to power them, let me offer my opinion on them.

These "new" heaters are based on electrical resistance heating and are NOT more efficient or much more effective than the radiant heaters of the past. Claims that they will save the consumer large amounts on their heating bills are based on one often ignored fact: To save any money, you must purchase the heater and then turn down the thermostat in your home drastically. In other words, their suggestion is for you to stop heating your entire home and just heat a small portion of it with your new radiant heater. Obviously, that means much of your home will be uncomfortably cold.

Will that save you money? Not unless you are willing to sacrifice your comfort. Turning your thermostat down will make your home's central heating system run less but you are going to have to buy a lot of expensive electricity to run your space heater. How much expensive electricity? Well, it could cost $3.50 per day per space heater. If you need 2 of them to make your home livable, during a cold month you could use a couple hundred dollars' worth of power to run those heaters to keep just a couple of spots in your home warm. That doesn't sound like savings.

Electric resistance heat is normally the most expensive way to try to heat anything and these heaters point out why. Electric rates in our service territory are 3 to 4 times as high as natural gas rates on a direct comparison. In our example situation, the 2 electric space heaters running flat out will supply about 1/10th the amount of useful heat as a normal gas furnace and your cost per unit for that heat will be 3 to 4 times as high. The claims made to the contrary by the equipment manufacturers don't make sense.

What about situations where gas heat is not available? Do these heaters make sense when compared to other forms of electric heat? In a word, "no." If electric heat is your only option, you would be MUCH better off going with a high efficiency heat pump rather than one of these heaters. A heat pump would be much more economical to operate. Sure, when it gets cold enough, even a heat pump has to revert to electrical resistance heaters that do use many times more energy, like any resistance electrical heater. But that period of really high power consumption may only last for several days or at most a few weeks until the outside temperature warms back up.

In my opinion, these "new" electric heaters are being overly hyped as the answer to your heating needs when they simply aren't. If you were in the market for an electric space heater, you could buy one at any local retail store that is just as powerful and efficient as the ones being hyped on television for $25 to $50. Why would you pay more? If you buy a $50 1500W space heater or a $500 1500W space heater the efficiency is the same. But, if you run either all month you can look forward to a very high electricity bill. This is because electricity costs 3 to 4 times as much as natural gas when directly compared.

We had a customer come in recently who had bought into the hype about "cheap electric heat" and was bemoaning the fact that her electric bill had gone through the roof when she tried to use her new, expensive, electric heater. The sad thing is she would have been much better off if she would have spent the money she wasted on effective, proven methods to control her heating costs. Instead, the hucksters on television talked her into a "magic beans" solution and she is out the cost of the heater and did not get the benefit she could have gotten by using that money to buy some insulation, a storm door, replace a couple of old windows, get her central heating system serviced properly, or any other of a number of possible ways she could have saved real money on her heating bills.

So that, in a nutshell, is my take on the issue. Avoid electrical resistance heat any time you can. While it is normally the cheapest equipment, it will cost much more to operate in almost every situation.

If you disagree with my take on this, have comments about this editorial, or have a story about your misadventures with one of these heaters, please take the time to send me a message.

Phil Ross

General Manager, Indiana Natural Gas