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Warming Trend

Electric space heaters have their place

Let’s talk about radiant space heaters—those small electric gizmos you can plug in to keep yourself toasty while reading or working in a relatively frigid room.

The Cooperative Research Network (CRN), our national research arm, has started answering individual cooperatives’ questions on topics such as when it makes sense to use a radiant heater. First off, our gurus point out, radiant heat has to reflect off an object needing warming—say Dad in the barn office, or you reading all day in the lake cottage or a new litter of puppies in the garage. These little portable heaters are not designed to heat a whole room, although if the heater warms you up your body heat may transfer some of that warmth to the rest of the room.

Space heaters are called space heaters because they are designed to heat only a limited space that someone is occupying. It’s possible to cut way back on central heating if you intend to use only a limited area in your home on a particular day. Some advertisements for radiant space heaters claim that they save large quantities of energy. That holds true only if they are used very specifically in such instances as mentioned above. You have to turn down the central heating system considerably and then use radiant space heaters to heat only occupied areas.

Don’t be misled by the cost of a space heater. The most expensive ones do the same work as the cheaper ones. It’s worth it, however, to pay extra for a tip-over safety switch.

In general, the efficiency of an electric space heater is essentially 100 percent. In other words, all of the electricity it consumes will be given off as heat. Space heaters that burn natural gas have a typical efficiency ranging between 55 percent and 80 percent, because some of the heating energy in the fuel is lost during combustion. 

Electric space heaters may use quartz tubes, carbon tubes, metal coils or halogen lamps to emit radiated heat in a specific direction.

The most commonly purchased space heater is the combination heater that uses both radiant and convection techniques. Any space heater with a heating element and an internal fan can be classified as a combination heater. These heaters can be used to warm an entire room (although not as evenly as a true convection heater) and to heat a stationary person (again, not as efficiently as a true radiant heater). Many people enjoy the versatility of these portable types.

All of these heaters can be a fire hazard, so it is important to operate them in areas where they’re unlikely to tip over or come into contact with flammable materials such as paper.

Before you jump onto the space heater bandwagon, it makes sense to take easy and inexpensive energy-saving measures at your workplace or home. Any one of these measures could solve your heating problems without any additional heating equipment: 

• Weatherize the building: Caulk and install weatherstripping around doors and windows and add insulation. 

• Clean or replace the furnace air filter regularly. 

• Insulate heating ducts. 
• Verify that heat registers are not blocked (by furniture or other objects) or clogged. 

• Seal off registers in unused spaces. 

These measures can be implemented in just a few hours, and any costs are usually recouped in savings over just a few months. 

Kaye Northcott is retired editor of Texas Co-op Power.