Making "Cents" of Small Heaters

We wish we could tell you unequivocally that turning down your furnace and using a portable heater will save you money, but the reality is more complicated. Some folks will save money, others won't, depending on the price of fuel in their area, the climate they live in, the size of their home, its insulation levels, and the age and efficiency of their furnace. Some manufacturers claim that their heaters can slash heating bills by 20 percent. Nelson Stevens, an energy-management specialist at Lincoln Electrical Systems in Lincoln, Nebraska, says that's entirely possible in his area. According to Stevens, "turning down the thermostat 10°F and using a space heater for six hours a day can cut heating costs by 19 percent." However, the cost of electricity in Lincoln is about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). "In areas like Chicago or Boston, where it's 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, the savings would be a lot less," he says. Michael Lamb, a certified energy manager at the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse in Merrifield, Virginia, agrees that it's nearly impossible to provide an average savings figure. But he points out that there are times when space heaters don't make sense. "If you have a small, tight house, an efficient gas furnace is cheaper to run than a pair of space heaters," he says. Another factor in figuring costs involves how you spend your time at home. If you use one room for long periods, a portable heater will keep you warm while allowing you to turn down the thermostat on your furnace 5° to 10°F. But if you're in one room while your kids are playing in another, you'll need to run two heaters or keep the thermostat at 68°F—neither of which will produce savings. To determine the cost of running your portable heater, simply multiply the wattage of the unit by the cost of electricity in your area (cents per kWh; you'll find it on your electric bill) by the daily hours of use: (Wattage / 1000) x rate x hours used = Cost. For the bigger picture, contact your local utility company and tell the customer-service representative how much you plan to turn down your thermostat. "Most utilities have consumer help lines that can run the numbers for you," says Nelson.
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