Choosing a Space Heater
Smart bargain hunters can save some money on energy bills this winter with a little help from a strategically placed electric heater. A cheap space heater is just the right size to keep a small space toasty, letting you comfortably lower the central heating -- and your energy costs along with it. The market is full of effective, portable space heaters that won't put your budget on ice.
Expensive vs. Cheap Space Heaters.Lasko, Vornado, DeLonghi, Honeywell, and Holmes dominate the low end with a bevy of choices for less than $40. The same brands offer showier, pricier, more powerful space heaters with fancy features such as digital displays, programmable settings, and remote controls. Some of the most expensive heaters boast ultra-efficient infrared quartz heating elements, air filters, and settings that can be customized to the size of the space. Among the pricier models are oil-filled heaters built to look like radiators (some of these have worrisome safety reports). Generally, high-end space heaters are powerful enough to heat large rooms and open interior spaces. If you’re on a budget, though, you should find that a no-frills electric heater does a fine job of safely heating up a relatively small room or warming an office cubicle.
Convection Space Heaters.Electric space heaters come in two basic types that differ in how they deliver heat. Convection space heaters force the surrounding air across a heating element and circulate the newly heated air. The heat builds slowly and lasts a long time. Most of our top picks are convection heaters. (Products labeled “ceramic” are usually convection models with ceramic heating elements.) Cheap convection heaters are recommended for small, enclosed rooms. They generally use a lot of energy and can run up your electric bill, but if you use one for supplemental or spot heating -- while also turning down your home thermostat -- you may realize some overall savings.
Radiant Space Heaters.The second type, radiant space heaters, radiate heat around them like a campfire, warming nearby objects and people rather than moving air. They can be put to good use in very small spaces, such as warming feet under a desk, but the heat doesn’t last long or spread out around a room very well, because there’s no circulation component. Radiant space heaters are less prevalent, and we found few reviews of cheap models.
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Space Heater Reviews: What We Considered
For the most part, online space heater reviews come from users posting on retail sites such as Amazon, Best Buy, Home Depot, Target, and Walmart. We also considered the outcomes of product testing by Consumer Reports and The Sweethome. Some of our picks appear in roundups of the best space heaters by TopTenReviews and Digital Trends, which also test products they review, although it's not clear whether their recommendations in this category reflect hands-on experience.
Reviewers place high value on effectiveness, portability, quiet operation, and durability. They want an appliance that generates heat quickly and spreads it throughout the room, maintaining a comfortable temperature. Most users want the option of easily moving a space heater from room to room at home or transporting it to a workspace. Reviewers frequently bring up noise level as a factor in their overall satisfaction. The fans in convection models, in particular, can be bothersome. While maintenance is easy for this product category, consumers often comment on durability, because once a part breaks, the heater must be replaced.
Heating Performance.Space heater ratings are no doubt influenced by users’ success in matching their heating needs with the right space heater. Inexpensive electric heaters are intended for targeted warmth in small, enclosed areas. Consumers who try to use even the best small space heater in a large, open space will wind up disappointed and cold. When used as intended, our top picks provide a much-appreciated temperature boost. In space heater reviews, many users express pleasant surprise at the heat output of these models given their compact size. Some warn that it can take a little while to heat an entire room.
Temperature Control.Most of our top picks have two knobs: one for the power and one for the thermostat. Users can choose a high or low heat setting. Using the lowest setting (which draws less power, measured in watts) can help decrease energy use and reduce costs. Most of our picks also have a fan-only setting for unheated air circulation. This adds value by letting the appliance function as a fan during warm weather (and potentially lower cooling costs) or simply circulate the air in a stuffy room. Heaters with adjustable thermostats turn on and off automatically to maintain a relatively constant temperature. They save energy by ceasing to run when the desired temperature has been reached. Some models also feature an anti-freeze function that automatically turns on the unit if the temperature falls below a certain level.
Portability.If your goal is to control utility costs by turning down the central heating and using a space heater to warm only the room you're occupying, it helps to have a portable space heater you can carry from room to room. Some expensive space heaters that give off a lot of heat are quite large and basically stationary. Our low-cost picks are small and designed to be portable. Features such as a handle and a long power cord increase convenience and ease of use. (The nonprofit advocacy group Electrical Safety Foundation International warns consumers not to use an extension cord with a space heater.)
Noise.All our top picks rely on fans to circulate the air warmed by the heating element, helping it disperse more quickly. While a fan makes a space heater effective and versatile, it can also up the noise level. A convection space heater may emit whirring or buzzing sounds and be disruptive in a home or office. Some users don’t mind white noise from a heater, and some even enjoy it, but overly loud models draw criticism. Although heaters designed without whirring fans may be quieter, they take longer to make a room feel cozy and generally cost more.
Durability.Electric space heaters require little maintenance, save for a light dusting from time to time. However, they are not designed to be repaired. There really aren’t any disposable or replaceable parts, so when something breaks, you just have to buy a new heater. The models we researched do come with one-, three-, or five-year limited warranties. Reviews indicate that the best heaters provide consumers at least a couple of years of service -- four seems to be realistic with fairly heavy use -- although we did read scattered reports stating that some models have given out within weeks.
Safety Features.A space heater can be a safety hazard, so be sure to choose one that includes critical safety features, no matter which type you buy. The first thing to look for is a label certifying that the product meets voluntary safety standards set by the U.S. government. Perhaps the most common label is ETL, from an outfit called Interek. Others are UL (from the Underwriters Laboratory) and CSA (Canadian Standards Association), which likewise indicate that the product has been tested and meets accepted standards.
A safe space heater should also have an automatic shutoff or overheat protection feature, which turns off the heating element if it gets too hot. Another key safety feature -- especially for taller, more top-heavy models -- is a tilt switch that shuts off the unit if it tips over. Some heaters have “cool touch” housing that’s designed to be safe to handle even on the high heat setting. A power indicator light can deter people from touching a potentially hot appliance while it's running.
Regardless, make sure to follow general safety guidelines:
- Read the owner’s manual.
- Never plug a space heater into an extension cord.
- Keep the heater 3 feet away from combustible materials such as drapes, bedding, and furniture.
- Keep the heater on a flat surface where children and pets can’t reach it.
- Don’t use a space heater around water, paint, chemicals, gas cans, or matches.
- Unplug the heater when it’s not in use and unattended.
- Keep the cord out of the way but visible, so you don’t trip and knock over the unit.
- Discontinue use if you notice overheating or detect a burning smell.