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The Pros and Cons of Electric Space Heaters

Space heaters can save the day if your central heating system fails, but they’ll only save energy in certain situations.
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Space Heater

As energy supply costs climb across New England, consumers are looking for ways to save money while maintaining the comfort of their living area. Electric space heaters, which are readily available at department and home improvement stores, require little more than a suitable electric receptacle. But there are other considerations to take into account in determining whether a space heater is right for you.

Pros

Almost all of the electricity consumed by a space heater is converted to heat, so the units themselves are nearly 100% efficient. However, the only scenario in which a space heater is eco-friendly or energy efficient is when it’s used to reduce the amount of energy a central heating system uses. For example, if you work from home, using a space heater can be a good way to keep your office comfortable without heating the unused rooms in the rest of the house.

Cons

Government regulations limit space heater output to 1,500 watts, which is not nearly enough to heat an entire home. In general, one square foot of space requires about 10 watts of electricity to heat, which means that a space heater operating at its maximum output can heat a room no larger than 150 square feet.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 25,000 house fires are started by space heaters every year. More than 300 deaths and 6,000 burn-related emergency room visits can be attributed at least in part to space heaters each year.

Half of all home heating fires happen in December, January, and February, and most are caused when a heater (typically an electric one) is placed too close to curtains, bedding, or upholstered furniture.

Safety First

Observing safety practices can greatly reduce the risk of injury and property damage. Here are some of the most important considerations.

  • DO choose a space heater with built-in safety features (more on this later).
  • DON’T leave a space heater running when you aren’t in the room, and never leave it on overnight.
  • DO read the manufacturer’s instructions before using.
  • DON’T use an extension cord or power strip with an electric space heater. It can cause the unit to overheat and presents a tripping hazard.
  • DO keep the space heater away from flammable objects (three feet is a good rule of thumb).
  • DON’T run a space heater’s cord under carpeting or furniture, which can increase the risk of fire.
  • DO exercise caution if you share your home with children, pets, or elderly members of the family who may be unsteady on their feet.
  • DON’T use a space heater if the cord appears to be damaged or is hot to the touch.
  • DO place the space heater on a hard, level, nonflammable surface.

What to Look for When Purchasing an Electric Space Heater

While it’s important to only operate space heaters at a time and in a place where they can be monitored by a responsible adult, there are a number of safety features that can give you additional peace of mind. Features to look for include:

  • A tip-over switch that will automatically turn off the unit if it’s not in an upright position.
  • Automatic shut-off in the event of overheating.
  • A thermostat that monitors the indoor temperature.
  • Independent certification (such as UL) that indicates that the product has been tested and meets certain scientific safety, quality, or security standards.
  • Cool-touch housing, to prevent accidental contact burns.
  • Multiple temperature settings will enable you to select the lowest temperature for your needs, so you’re not paying more to overheat your space.

Key Takeaways

  • Some experts argue that improved weatherization is a better investment – and safer alternative – than purchasing an electric space heater.
  • It goes without saying that you should ensure your smoke detectors are in good working order before using any alternative heat source.
  • Only heaters with GFCI plugs that are rated for use in damp areas should be used in bathrooms.