What You'll Learn
Electric Units Despite differences in heat delivery, all electric heaters operate at a maximum of 1,500 watts that produce about 5,120 Btu (1 Btu is equal to the amount of heat produced by burning a wooden kitchen match). According to Nelson, "You can keep a medium-size room comfortable with 5,100 Btu with the wall thermostat set at 55° F." Electric space heaters fall into two categories, each of which shines in different circumstances. Radiant heaters. Radiant heaters ($30 to $100) generate infrared radiation to quickly heat people or objects within the beam. Because they provide focused heat rather than warm the whole room, radiant heaters are a good choice for the garage, workshop, or in front of your favorite reading chair. For wider coverage, look for models with parabolic reflectors or small fans (called "fan-forced") to distribute the heat. Although radiant heaters make you feel toasty, you lose their benefit quickly if you're moving around (out of the beam) or when the unit cycles off. Another disadvantage: Despite a protective grille and surrounding case, these heaters can get red-hot. In use, the radiant element can reach temperatures of 800° to 1500° F. This means that the case can become very hot, too, which makes it well worth choosing a model with a warning light that indicates when the case is too hot to touch. Convective heaters. These heaters ($15 to $100) work by warming the air. Although they take a little longer to make you feel warm, convective heaters generally do a better job. Unlike radiant units, some of the better convective heaters feature electronic temperature controls that can adjust heat output to maintain an even temperature, instead of simply cycling on and off. Convective heaters can be divided into two subgroups: fan-assisted and fanless. Fan-assisted heaters rely on a ceramic or metal-wire heating element. Sam Pelonis, president of Pelonis Heating Products in Malvern, Pennsylvania, recommends fan-assisted ceramic heaters because of their lower operating temperature. "Ceramic elements gradually cut off the current as the temperature nears 380° F, which is less than the ignition point of paper," he says. Another advantage is portability. Ceramic heaters are the smallest portable heaters, which makes them easy to carry from room to room. Another type of fan-assisted convective heater uses wire-type elements. These "heater fans" have their own advantages, according to Craig Plank, vice president of marketing for Vornado Air Circulation Systems in Andover, Kansas. "Wire-type elements allow better air circulation, which means you can heat a room more quickly." He also points out that unlike radiant units, the fan keeps elements from getting red-hot, which keeps the case cool to the touch. When shopping for either type, look for a unit that features tip-over protection, which turns off the heater the instant it gets knocked over. Thermal shutoff switches found on most portable heaters will turn off a heater that's tipped on its face, but there's a chance the floor covering will be scorched first. For silent, even heating, your best bet is a fanless, radiator-type heater ($40 to $100). These oil- or water-filled units resemble, and work much like, old-fashioned radiators. An element heats the fluid contained in a metal case, which in turn heats the room by using natural convective currents. Even when the heater cycles off, the heat stored in the body of the heater will continue to keep you warm. Lamb frequently recommends oil-filled heaters. "Radiator-type heaters take longer to heat up, but there's no red-hot element or annoying fan." Lamb points out that some radiators have timers so you can "preheat" a room, for example, setting the heater to start a half hour before you wake up.