If you're searching for a quick and easy way to add more warmth to your house or apartment this winter, space heaters can be a worthwhile investment. This is particularly true if you live with roommates and have different temperature preferences, or if your home's central heating system is on the fritz. “Those who have problematic heating issues with an isolated room in their house [can benefit from space heaters],” Christopher Haas, a licensed master electrician at Haas & Sons Electric in Pasadena, Maryland, explains to Mental Floss in an email.
There are hundreds of options to choose from when you’re shopping for a space heater. However, before going out and buying the first one you can find, there are a few important things to consider. To get a better understanding of how space heaters work and how to operate them safely, we spoke with three electricians over email to get their expert tips on how to use them and which models are the best to try this winter as the frost sets in.
What is a space heater?
Space heaters are devices that can be used to heat a single room or space. Most don’t need to be installed and can be plugged into an outlet, which is why many people consider using them. “Space heaters typically use less energy than powering your central heating system, but they are not as efficient with that energy use. So, determining what is best for your unique situation will have to be taken into consideration,” Haas says.
Jeff Brandlin, owner of Assurance Electrical Services in Prescott, Arizona, and a licensed electrician with 20 years of experience, explains that to warm up a room properly with a space heater, you’ll need a device that supplies 10 watts per square foot in a room. For example, if you have a 150 square-foot room, a 1500-watt space heater is likely your best option. British thermal units (BTUs)—a form of measurement that calculates the amount of energy (in this case, heat) required to increase the temperature of a pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit—can also be good to keep in mind as you're shopping. BTUs differ from wattage, which measures the rate that energy is transferred. However, you can easily convert watts into BTUs per hour, and vice versa, with this tool. Brandlin encourages you to consult a master electrician to ensure you get the correct wattage output, too.
Types of space heaters
There are six main types of space heaters: ceramic, fan, infrared, oil-filled, panel, and propane.
Ceramic heaters use ceramic plates to generate heat quickly. According to Haas, these heaters cool down rapidly, are usually cool to the touch, and are more portable than other types. Brandlin notes that ceramic heaters are considered to be the safest and most effective option for people who live in apartments due to their low energy consumption and heat output. “While they produce less heat than gas-powered heaters, ceramic heaters are still efficient and can be used at a fraction of the price of fuel,” Brandlin says.
Fan heaters are similar to ceramic, but they use a metal coil instead of ceramic plates to deliver heat. According to Brandlin, the fan blows air on the coil, which in turn helps to distribute warmth within a room. “Fan space heaters are a good choice for apartment-renters and those who are looking for affordable, compact, and lightweight heaters,” Brandlin says.
If you’re looking for a versatile space heater that can work well in smaller, concentrated spaces, Haas recommends an infrared space heater. Unlike other space heaters that push out hot air, infrared units emit electromagnetic waves to heat objects. Think of infrared heat like the warmth you feel from sitting on a chair that’s been in the sun all day. Both Haas and Brandlin note that this type of space heater is good for areas such as basements.
For space heaters that are best for large areas, oil-filled and panel models are the types experts recommend. Oil-filled units tend to be larger and look like old-fashioned radiators. Haas notes that, unlike other models, they don’t use fans, which can be an advantage for those who are prone to allergies. Brandlin says that because they quietly generate more heat output than other units and stay warm even after they’ve been turned off, you can heat a room for longer periods of time. “Oil-filled options can heat larger rooms or areas of your home ... but I would be cautious to rely on them as a full-time heating solution without having a designated circuit for their use,” Haas says. Panel heaters look similar to oil-filled units but use electricity instead of oil and can be mounted to a wall, which means they may be ideal for a child’s bedroom, as kids will be less likely to touch them.
For patios or other outdoor spaces, propane heaters that run on liquid propane are the best choice. Because this type of heater is portable and doesn’t require electricity to operate, they can be a great option to have if the electricity goes out.
What to know about space heater safety
Even though most space heaters don’t need to be installed, these devices can be dangerous if used incorrectly. Often, Haas finds that emergency issues such as a sudden loss of power in a home during the winter can be due to improper usage. To keep a space heater from blowing a fuse, Haas typically recommends permanent solutions such as installing baseboards, wall heaters, or circuits specifically for the space heater. Understanding a unit’s power settings and keeping the front plate or guard away from flammable items like clothing, toys, or furniture can also be an important safety measure.
Thomas Hawkins, a master electrician at Glencore and the CEO and founder of Electrician Apprentice HQ, recommends keeping a portable space heater at least three feet away from other objects (especially anything containing liquid) and only operating one when it's on the floor. Panel heaters, which other experts say can be mounted to the wall, are considered safe to operate when not on the floor. And you should never use a space heater while you're sleeping or not in a room. According to both Hawkins and Haas, this is crucial.
Some space heaters have an automatic shut-off function and thermostat, which experts say can be essential safety features. Brandlin especially advocates for getting a unit with a tip-over switch, so the heater will stop running if it's no longer upright, and a plastic or nonmetal guard if you have children or pets, so the unit is less likely to cause burn injuries if touched. Companies like Intertek and Underwriters Laboratory, which are dedicated to testing and scientifically certifying the safety and quality of consumer products, can be a good resource when trying to research space heaters.
If you smell burning in your home at any point while using a space heater, Haas recommends unplugging everything nearby to find where the source of the scent. He also warns that if you need to use an extension cord, make sure it has 12- or 14-gauge wiring to avoid causing a short-circuit, meaning the electrical current could travel in an unintended direction and potentially result in electrical fires, burns, and even death.
The best space heaters to buy now
1. Best Ceramic Heater: Pelonis 1500W Ceramic Portable Tower Heater with Electric Remote Control; $75
Haas recommends the Pelonis 1500-watt ceramic portable tower heater, which typically retails for $75, because it can create warm air in a few seconds. “It comes with all the comforts of an oscillating fan, but for heat, [and includes a] remote control, eco-friendly settings [of high, low, and eco-mode], [a] programmable thermostat, timer, and the heat distribution of oscillation,” he says. He also likes that this model has a toddler safety mechanism that prevents the unit from falling over and safeguards it from a child’s grabbing hands.
Buy it: Amazon
2. Most Affordable: Lasko CD09250 Ceramic Heater with Adjustable Thermostat; $32
For office workers or those looking for a budget-friendly option, Haas recommends the Lasko CD09250 ceramic heater, which retails for $32 and features an adjustable thermostat. At 9 inches tall, this portable ceramic unit won’t take up a ton of room and can easily fit under a desk. It also offers overheat protection, and has three heat output levels. “If you're looking for something at home that's not meant to be your main source of heat, but a nice boost, this would be a great one to snag,” Haas says.
Buy it: Amazon
3. Best Infrared Heater: Lasko 6101 Cool-Touch Infrared Quartz Heater; $185
Haas likes Lasko’s 6101 Cool-Touch infrared quartz heater, which retails at $185. Specifically, he likes that the 6101 offers the brand's proprietary save-smart technology, which uses high heat to reach a specific temperature and low heat to maintain it, then shuts off if the unit goes three degrees above the temperature you set for it. “I like that, and it makes a lot of practical sense,” Haas says. It also comes with an adjustable digital thermostat, a remote, and an eight-hour timer.
Buy it: Amazon
4. Best Oil-Filled Heater: De'Longhi Dragon4 Full-Room Radiant Heater; $140
Both Haas and Hawkins endorse De’Longhi space heaters. Haas especially likes the $140 Dragon4 full-room heater, an oil-filled option that boasts three heat settings, a thermal safety shut-off, and a digital adjustable thermostat. “This specific model is nice because it has a permanently sealed oil reservoir, [so there’s] no need to refill [it] and the slots produce a lot of heat without producing the same surface area heat,” Haas says. Because of this oil reservoir, Haas notes that the model stays warm even after it’s been shut off, but may take longer to heat up initially.
Buy it: Amazon
5. Best for Bathrooms: Lasko CD08200 Ceramic Bathroom Heater; $41
Dread the feel of cold tile on your bare feet every time you head to the bathroom during the winter months? Brandlin recommends the $41 Lasko CD08200 ceramic bathroom heater. “This 1500-watt heater warms the bathroom quickly and has a [one hour] heating function, which is useful for those winter mornings when you only need warmth to get in and out of your shower,” he says.
Buy it: Amazon
6. Best Supplemental Heater: Vornado VH200 Whole Room Heater; $70
This Vornado VH200 whole room heater looks like a fan, but according to the brand, it's not technically a fan space heater. Still, Brandlin endorses this $70 unit, which he says is great for heating entire rooms and is quiet compared to other units. “The Vornado VH200 is relatively more affordable and faster than any other space heater,” he notes. “What makes it great is that it delivers warmth evenly throughout a room.” According to Brandlin, the VH200 is fairly compact, so you can put it away when not using it; plus, it has an overheating protection system, so you can enjoy peace of mind while you're using it.
Buy it: Amazon