Heating options for your home buying guide

How to keep your home warm this winter. Get unbiased advice and reviews on heaters and heating options.
 
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01 .Introduction

Baby sleeping

Did you freeze last winter? Were you in shock after reading the energy bill? Then it may be time to change the way you heat your home.

  • First, go back to basics: are you using the right fuel for your needs? Consider what's available (for example, can you get natural gas in your neighbourhood?), the fuel's cost (can you perhaps get cheap or even free firewood?) and its environmental impact (for example, does your electricity supplier offer a green-power scheme?).
  • Once you've decided on a fuel, you need to find the right type of heater. Do you want to heat a person, a room or your whole house?
  • If you only want to heat a small area or use the heater only occasionally, you probably want a heater that's cheap to buy, even if it's dearer to run than more expensive types.
  • If you want to heat a large area for long periods, you need an efficient heater with low running costs. So it may make sense to pay more initially for the heater and its installation, because it'll pay off in the long run.
  • And you need to calculate the right size of heater for your needs. Take into account factors such as whether you have insulation and the size of your windows.

In this article

  • The pros and cons of the main heating fuels (electricity, natural gas and solid fuels), what they'll cost and how much they contribute to the greenhouse effect.
  • Which heater to use for which purpose (heating a room or the whole house).
  • Calculate the right heating capacity for your situation.
  • Heating tips that'll save you money.

Ready to buy a heater?

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Looking for an alternative to electric heating? Visit our insulation buying guide for tips on how to keep warm and keep your costs down.
 
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Heat always travels from warm to cold areas (for example, from the heated interior to the winter air outside your home) — until both areas have the same temperature. Heat can be transferred in three ways:

  • Convection: Heated air moves about — usually upwards. The smoke of an open fire, for example, is carried upwards by convection currents.
  • Radiation: Heat transfer from a warm body to a cold one through direct radiation. The air between the bodies isn’t warmed up in this process. For example, if you stand in front of an open fire, its radiation will warm you although the air around you is still cold.
  • Conduction: Direct heat transfer through solid materials. For example, a poker that’s partially thrust into an open fire will gradually become hot along its whole length due to conduction.

If you want your home to be warmer than the outside, you need to reduce and/or replace heat losses. Insulating your ceiling and walls can reduce loss; a heater can replace them, using radiation and/or convection.

A heater that uses radiation only won’t efficiently heat the air in a room — so use it as a personal heater. Convection alone also may not be enough to evenly heat a room, but may lead to stratification. Additional air movement (for example, using a fan) can improve this.

Heating graph

The heat map of a test room clearly shows the stratification effect created by a convection heater when there’s little air movement in the room: the yellow bar at the ceiling represents about 22°C, the light blue bit (where your cold feet would be) about 14°C.

Watt's a joule?

Energy is measured in joules (J). The rate at which energy is used over a period of time is measured in watts (W), with one watt being the use of one joule per second.

Joules and watts are used to rate different types of heater. Gas heaters are rated according to the energy that goes into them each hour in megajoules (MJ = one million joules). Electric heaters, on the other hand, are rated in kilowatts (kW = one thousand watts).

You can compare the capacity of heaters with such different ratings. For example, an electric heater with a rating of 1 kW running for one hour uses one kilowatt hour (kWh). This is equal to 3.6 MJ (1000 Wh x 3600 seconds per hour).

Electricity

Pros

  • It's available almost everywhere.
  • Some power companies offer a subscription to a green-power scheme, where you pay a slightly higher rate per kWh for electricity that's generated from renewable sources such as solar, hydro, wind or biomass.
  • Electric heaters are very energy-efficient, and don't produce pollutants in your home.
  • You don't need to store fuel.

Cons

  • Heating with portable electric heaters can be relatively expensive.
  • While the heaters themselves don't produce pollutants, power plants that generate electricity by burning fossil fuels produce considerable amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) and other air pollutants. That's why heating with electric radiant, convection and off-peak heaters produces the largest amount of carbon dioxide of all the heating options in our comparison (except in Tasmania, where most of the power is generated by hydroelectric schemes).
  • While the heaters themselves are energy-efficient, there's considerable energy loss during the generation and transport of electricity — up to 70% of the original energy contained in the fuels used to produce the electricity.
  • If you have a power cut — for example during a storm — you have no heating available.
  • The heating capacity of portable electric heaters is limited to 2.4 kW, which may not be enough to comfortably heat large areas.

Check out the pros and cons of the various types of electric heaters.

And before you buy one, use our database of portable electric heaters to find the best model for you. We've done all the hard work for you and pulled together prices, specifications and features for most models available in Australia.

Natural gas

Pros

  • Generally much cheaper than heating with portable electric heaters.
  • Generally produces much less carbon dioxide than heating with electricity (except reverse-cycle air conditioning).
  • The heating capacity of portable gas heaters isn't as limited as with portable electric heaters.
  • Gas heaters carry a star label that tells you about their energy efficiency: the more stars, the more efficient they are.

Cons

  • Not available everywhere.
  • Produces combustion gases, so you either need to install a flue or you have to live with and manage the gases in your home.

Be sure to check out our test of gas heaters before you buy.

Solid fuels

Firewood should be well seasoned (left to dry for at least two summers) so you don't waste energy evaporating water by burning green wood. Hardwood contains more energy than softwood, and burns longer and more steadily. But it's also harder to light. Softwood can spit and spark in open fires.

Coal has a high energy content. It can be burnt in many slow-combustion heaters, but you'll probably need to use fire lighters or light a woodfire first to get it started.

Other fuelled-fire options include ethanol fireplaces, which have hit the market in the last few years. These use denatured ethanol (methylated spirits) which doesn’t give off fumes (except water vapour), so they don’t need vents or flues, or a gas or electrical connection. They are comparable in heating capacity and efficiency to an unflued gas heater, and typically cost a few hundred dollars. However, they are more expensive to run; one litre of fuel, costing about $2.50, will give roughly 90 minutes to two hours burning on a high setting. The same amount of heating with gas would cost around 50c. Many models have open flames, so you need to take the same care around them as with an open wood fireplace, and you also need to be careful when handling the fuel.

Pros

  • Wood and coal are available almost everywhere.
  • Wood heating can be very economical because a lot of people -- particularly in rural areas -- may have cheap or even free access to firewood (however, check whether you need a permit to collect firewood from forests).
  • If firewood is used sustainably (by regrowing the amount that's used) and burned in a slow-combustion heater, it produces the least amount of CO2 of all the fuels in our comparison.

Cons

  • You need somewhere to store wood or coal.
  • You have to load the heater or grate, start and maintain the fire and dispose of the ash.
  • Apart from modern slow-combustion heaters, solid-fuel heaters are less energy-efficient than electric and gas heating.
  • They produce combustion gases and need a flue or chimney, which makes installation expensive.
  • The smoke from wood and coal fires can be a major contributor to pollution.

Heating a person

Electric

  • Portable radiant or fan heater

These supply almost instant heat, but only within a relatively small area.

Heating a room

Electric

  • Portable oil-filled column heater or convection heater
    Their heating capacity is limited to 2.4 kW, so they're suitable for areas like bedrooms and small to medium living areas. Their effectiveness will depend on the climate and how well insulated the room is.

    If they're not fan-assisted, they heat the room quite slowly. With or without a fan, they're not fast space heaters and so are better for rooms that need heating over long periods. Look for models with a thermostat and a timer.
  • Off-peak storage heater
    This type of heater uses cheap off-peak electricity during the night to heat up a storage material (usually bricks). This heat is then released into the room during the day. Storage heaters are less flexible than other types, and you may need an extra heater in the evening if they run low on stored heat.
  • Reverse-cycle air conditioner
    These use electricity to 'pump' heat from one place to another. Even on a cold day, the outside air contains heat that can be pumped inside.

    Air conditioners are rated according to their heat output, which is higher than their electricity input, giving them an efficiency of up to 250%. However, their efficiency declines the colder it gets outside.

    Room air conditioners come as wall or window units and as split systems, which are much quieter because the working part (compressor) is installed outside the house. Larger models may require a separate electric circuit.

    For more see our tests of small or large air conditioners.

Gas

  • Unflued radiant and/or convection heater
    Unflued heaters vent their combustion gases (carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, water vapour) into the room. In Victoria you're not allowed to use unflued natural gas heaters for that reason (unflued liquified petroleum gas (LPG) heaters can be used under certain conditions). NSW, Queensland, SA and WA also restrict the use of unflued natural gas and LPG heaters.

    We recommend you ensure good ventilation when using one -- particularly because of the water vapour, which could otherwise cause problems with condensation. For safety reasons, unflued gas heaters aren't suitable for bedrooms and bathrooms.

    You can get them with a heating capacity from around 8 MJ to over 25 MJ per hour (depending on the size of your room), and they use almost all the heat that's contained in the gas (up to 90% efficiency), though the necessary ventilation can cause additional heat loss. They're usually portable (which is handy if you have a gas connection in several rooms), and easier and cheaper to install than flued heaters.
  • Flued heater
    Flued heaters come as console (standing against a wall), inbuilt or log-fire-imitation models. They cost more than unflued models because of the flue installation. But as the combustion gases are vented outside, you won't have the problems mentioned for unflued heaters.

    Flued heaters are particularly suitable for living areas and bedrooms. However, they're less efficient than unflued heaters (up to 75% efficiency), because part of the heat is lost with the gases through the flue.

Solid fuels

The key to efficient solid-fuel burning is to control the air supply, so that the fuel doesn't burn too fast and heat isn't lost.

  • Open fire
    Open fires may be romantic and nice to look at, but they only produce very localised heat and they're very inefficient: around 85% of the energy is lost straight up the chimney. In most places you'd need an additional heater.
  • Non-airtight stove
    Non-airtight stoves, such as pot-belly stoves, get very hot and supply mainly radiant heat. You can't accurately control the air supply to the fire.

    They have an efficiency of around 30%, and aren't suitable for heating large areas over long periods of time. However, they're relatively cheap, so could be considered for areas that only have to be heated occasionally.
  • Slow combustion
    Modern slow-combustion stoves have an airtight firebox, and air inlet controls to regulate the amount of air supplied to the combustion chamber. They're up to 70% efficient and must comply with Australian standard requirements regarding their flue gas emissions.

    Manufacturers of slow-combustion heaters usually state the size of the area you can heat with any particular model. However, the heat output depends on various factors, such as which fuel you use, how damp it is and how you load and maintain the heater.

    Small, medium and large slow-combustion heaters are available. Small models (with a heat output of up to 15 kW) are the most commonly used for room heating, with radiant models (without a fan) being able to heat areas of up to 90 square metres, and convection models (with a fan) heating up to 130 square metres.

If an electric personal or room heater is for you, check the pros and cons of the different types: oil-filled column, convection, fan or radiant.

Electric heaters are generally quite straightforward to use, and don’t give you too much choice of features and functions.

  • There are usually two or three power levels.
  • A thermostat allows you to fine-tune the average power to maintain the desired room temperature: it’ll switch the heater off once a certain temperature is reached and switch it on again when the temperature falls.
  • A timer is useful if you want the heater to switch on and off automatically — for example, if you want it to start heating an hour before you get home from work. It’s particularly useful with slow heaters such as column heaters, as they can take a long time to heat up a room.
  • A tilt switch switches the heater off if it’s tipped over.
  • A thermal cut-out switch prevents the heater from overheating — for example, if the thermostat fails.
  • Weight / number of wheels: One advantage of most types of electric heaters is their portability. However, some convection and oil-filled column heaters are rather heavy, so look for wheels (four are easier than two).

Oil-filled column heaters

These don’t actually burn oil — they use electricity to heat the oil that’s sealed inside their columns or ‘fins’. The heat from the oil is then transferred to the casing and to the air circulating the fins.

They rely mainly on natural convection, so they take longer to heat a room than fan-assisted heaters of similar capacity. Also, if there’s not much air movement (for example, if you’re sitting reading or watching TV), the heat may not be distributed evenly, and horizontal temperature layers may form. This could leave you with cold feet.

However, there are now more and more fan-assisted column heaters available, which may help overcome these problems.

Tip: Use a ceiling fan (if you have one) on very low speed to assist the column heater. It’ll help to distribute the heat faster and more evenly.

Column heaters are particularly useful in rooms where they’ll be switched on for long periods of time or where they’ll operate unattended, such as overnight in a bedroom.

The surfaces you’re likely to touch on a column heater don’t get as hot as on other types of electric heaters. Data from the National Injury Surveillance Unit, collected from 1986 to 1994, suggests that of the more than 700 recorded cases of burns by heaters, only 10 were caused by oil-filled column heaters.

Check our column heater test results.

Convection heaters

These heaters draw cold air over an electric heating element. The warmed air then leaves the heater and rises towards the ceiling, while cooler air moves in to replace it.

They usually have a fan which enhances the convection effect by forcing the warm air from the heater. When you use the fan, the room will heat up more quickly and evenly. Without it, the air is more likely to form horizontal temperature layers which could leave you with cold feet — particularly, if there’s not much movement in the room (for example, if you’re reading or watching TV).

The fan will break up these layers to a certain extent. However, it’s also noisy — so make sure the fan can be switched off.

Fan heaters

These can supply heat almost instantaneously, but can usually only chase the chill from a relatively small area — the air around you or maybe a small room.
There’ll always be some noise, as the fan can’t be switched off. While some models are whisper-quiet, fan heaters aren’t really the best choice for areas you want to heat over long periods of time.

There are flat and upright fan heaters. Upright models tend to perform better, but they’re also more likely to tip over. So a tilt switch is a useful safety feature.

While the outside surface of fan heaters usually doesn’t get very hot, the grilles can far exceed 100°C on models with a metal grille. A metal grille will also cause you pain much more quickly than a plastic one, at the same temperature. At more than 100°C, touching a metal grille for a fraction of a second can already cause burns. So if you’re likely to have children playing around the heater, it may be wise to choose a model with a plastic grille.

Radiant heaters

These are personal heaters. As the name suggests, they radiate heat from a red-hot heating element to people or objects in front of it. They’re very inefficient in heating the air in a room.

There are floor and wall-mounted models. The relatively exposed heating element can be a fire and safety hazard. For example, a piece of clothing dropped over it may ignite, or small children playing around a floor model may burn themselves.

Hydronic heating

Hydronic heating works through heating water (or steam), piping it through the house into panel radiators and returning the water back to the heating system to be reheated for the cycle to repeat. You can also utilise this method to provide heating to in-floor systems.

The advantage is direct control of how much heat you want to each room. Panel heaters mean no fans to blow dust around. It’s a relatively quick way of heating, low maintenance and it’s fairly well tested, having been used in other countries for around a century.

The disadvantage is it’s quite expensive to install, quotes can start at around $6000.

The heating supply can be a boiler supplied best by natural gas (least expensive), but also possibly with off-peak electricity, LPG or solid fuel (more expensive).

When purchasing and installing, you are best to look for a low content boiler so it’s not wasting fuel, panels that heat up quickly and can be controlled independently and pipes that don’t lose heat where they don’t need to.

Electric

  • Ducted reverse-cycle air conditioning
    Such a system consists of a compressor (which can be installed outside or in the ceiling space, for example) and ducted outlets in the rooms you want to heat or cool. It's very efficient, but installation can be costly -- consider it if you're building or renovating a house. Check our report on ducted air conditioning for more info.
  • Underfloor heating
    For this type of heating, electric wiring or water pipes are installed into the concrete floor slab. The slab is heated, using cheap off-peak electricity or hot water (in which case you can use a gas heater to heat the water if gas is available). It then releases the stored heat during the day, in a similar way to an off-peak storage heater. The substantial construction work required for this type of heating means it's more appropriately installed when a house is being built.

Gas

  • Ducted gas central heating
    This system consists of a gas furnace (which can be installed outside or underfloor) and ducting vents in the rooms you want to heat. A ducted system may work out cheaper to run than two gas space heaters, though installation costs are usually much higher.

Solid fuels

  • Slow-combustion stove with heat shifters
    This type of heating consists of a slow-combustion heater in one room, connected to a system of ducts and fans in the ceiling space that shift warm air to other rooms.

Reducing the amount of heating you use will save you money and give you a clearer environmental conscience. The following tips show you how you can save and still be comfortable.

Insulation

Family roomAn insulated ceiling should be a number one priority for every house owner (1).

Draughtproofing

Use a lighted candle around windows and doors to find draughty spots in your home. Fix draught stoppers on doors (2) (particularly on external doors), draughtproof your windows with insulation strips, and close off unused pet doors (3) and open fireplaces (4).

Windows

Single glass has an R-value of only 0.17, so windows are only a minor barrier to heat. Cover them during the night with heavy curtains or blinds to reduce heat losses (5). However, don't cover north-facing windows during the day, to take advantage of the winter sun.

Ventilation

The better insulated and draughtproofed your house is, the more important it is to have adequate ventilation. Otherwise the air can't be exchanged often enough. Pollutants (especially from unflued heaters) may accumulate and condensation can cause mould and mildew to grow.

Open some windows for a few minutes several times a day (cross-ventilate, if possible), rather than leaving a window partly open all the time you'll lose less heat that way.

Other tips

  • Close the doors between heated and unheated areas (6).
  • Don't heat the rooms to tropical temperatures. Heating them to only 20°C instead of 23°C probably means you'll have to wear a jumper (7), but it'll save a lot of energy. Each degree Celsius less will save about 10% on your energy use. Also, reduce temperatures at night. Use thermostats on your heater or for your ducted system to control temperatures (8).
  • Only heat the rooms you're actually using.
  • Hot air rises to the ceiling, so you may end up with cold feet. If you have one, a ceiling fan at low speed may help circulate the hot air more evenly throughout the room, particularly if you have high ceilings (9). See also our test of ceiling fans
  • Choose the cleanest available fuel and the right size of heater (see our heating calculator).
  • Check with your state energy information centre for more tips for example, on energy-saving passive solar design when building a new house or renovating an existing one.

Depending on the disability, the following features are worth looking for when shopping for a heater:

  • All text and symbols should be clear, simple and easy to see and read.
  • Labels should be large.
  • All dials should be easy and simple to operate, possibly with a large crossbar that’s easy to grip.
  • It should be easy to operate the heater with one hand.
  • You shouldn’t have to lift larger heaters to move them — look for wheels.
  • The heater shouldn’t have any sharp edges.
If you've decided you need a heater to heat your home, this calculator will help estimate the required capacity.

These are the heating capacities needed to maintain a temperature difference of up to 12C between indoors and outdoors. In extreme climates this may not be enough and you may need a larger capacity. The calculator can only be used to estimate the required capacity of a an electric or gas room heater, not for ducted systems.


Adapted from CSIRO's publication Room heaters and coolers - choosing the best size (by permission CSIRO Australia).

The calculator helps you to estimate the heat losses of the room(s) you want to heat, and the capacity your heater needs to have to replace those losses. Follow these steps to calculate how much heating capacity you need:
  • Insulate, then calculate. Prevent heat losses in winter as much as you can before investing in a new heater.
  • Measure the different elements (ceiling and walls, for example) of your room as required in the calculator, and enter their size in square metres (multiply length by height or width to calculate square metres).
  • If you plan to buy a reverse-cycle air conditioner and use it for cooling as well, you'll also have to estimate your cooling needs to find the model with both the cooling and heating capacities which are closest to your requirements.
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