Space Heaters: Energy Efficient?

February 2, 2010

Are space heaters energy efficient? Or are they sucking the life out of your energy efficiency plan, one outlet at a time?

When I was growing up, my family lived for a year in a small two bedroom house. It wasn't a shanty in the Appalachians, but a farm house on a family ranch in the West. There was no central heat or air and not even a window unit in the summer. But winter was the time that things got really tricky. The house was heated by a black coal-fired pot-bellied stove in the front room.

Most people like sleeping in a chilly house and this one certainly accomplished that handily. My father arose early every morning to restart the fire and get it blazing for when he woke the rest of the household. And when it was time to get cleaned up, the bathroom was in the farthest corner of the house. It was cold in that bathroom! So we had a space heater.

Dad guarded the use of that space heater with his life! He would turn it on low while we were in the tub, and allow the highest setting only as we got out to shiver while drying off. We only lived in that house for about 10 months until a new home could be built for us. And these days, of course, heaven bless my college professor father for teaching his children to be frugal about both energy and money. But I also wondered if that old space heater was really the expensive consumer of power that he said it was.

Modern space heaters can actually be extremely energy efficient little machines. If you live in a large house and don't use parts of the house during various times, or if you have an employee who is always colder than the rest of the staff, then you know how helpful these little gadgets can be, if you purchase the right one.

With central heat, you lose a large amount of the heat into the system of ducts and vents weaving in and through the house. With a space heater, you can individualize the heat. You can turn the temperature down in the rest of the house or office, while applying heat directly where desired. Think of all the times you've been blown through a business' front door and wondered how the person at the front desk ever tolerated the wild shifts in temperature that came with the arrival of every customer. It was likely that they had a space heater just below the front counter, trained on their knees.

Space heaters often use between 900 and 1500 kilowatts. This can be quite a lot of heat, but if you only need to supplement one smallish area, they can be a lot more energy efficient than using central air to heat the entire house or building to a desired temperature when only one (or perhaps two?) rooms are needed.

Should you try to heat the entire house with a space heater? No, that would be overuse and in fact, could overload the electrical circuitry. (You'll need to make sure your outlets, fuses and circuitry can handle the full 1500 watts) But dropping the temperature to slightly below the comfort zone in most of a house or business and using space heaters in one or two rooms could see an 8 percent savings on the fuel bill.

And that would be good Greenifying on for both the environment and the home or business expense.


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