Did you enjoy winter last year? Or did you freeze? Were you in shock after reading the energy bill that followed it? If you can't afford to relocate to an island paradise for the winter, you can always change the way you heat your home. We outline your options from gas, electric and flame-effect heaters, to reverse cycle air conditioners.
People are embracing open-plan living more than ever, but heating such large spaces can be a real challenge. A gas heater is a great solution for heating a large space quickly and cost effectively.
Do you have a flue?
A flue is a pipe that carries exhaust gases from your heater or fireplace to the outdoors, saving your room from being filled with fumes. Suffice to say, they're pretty important. If you're a renter or don't want to go to all the fuss of a flue, you might want to look at a portable, or unflued, gas heater.
Just how much space are you heating?
The measurement of a gas heater's warming capacity isn't just about room size – it's also about how quickly the heater can warm the space. The room size and local climate will determine what size gas heater will effectively heat your room.
Unflued gas heaters must not be installed in a room too small for their rated capacity due to the emissions they produce. For fast heating, choose the biggest capacity (measured in MJ/h) suitable for the room. A lower-capacity heater can still heat the room but will be slower.
Flued or unflued?
There are benefits and drawbacks to both flued and unflued heaters.
Pros of a regular unflued gas heater
- They’re portable, so you can point them in different directions, move them from room to room, store them away in summer and take them with you when you move house.
- They're very efficient – about 90% of the energy content of the gas is transformed into heat. All models sold in Australia have to be certified and carry an efficiency label (up to six stars, with six being the best).
- They provide instant heat – and lots of it. Unflued gas heaters come with a capacity of up to 25 MJ/h (megajoules per hour). That's equivalent to more than 6kW of electric heating – the same as you'd get from three 2kW electric heaters.
- They cost much less to run than a portable electric heater, although they're a lot more expensive to buy.
- They produce a quarter to a third carbon dioxide of an equivalent electric heater (unless you get your electricity from renewable sources).
- Modern models have a range of safety features that switch the heater off in case something's wrong – for example, an oxygen depletion sensor if the oxygen level in the room gets too low, flame failure protection in case the flame gets extinguished, and a tilt switch in case the heater tips over.
Cons of a regular unflued gas heater
- Not having a flue means emissions from the gas combustion process in the heater are vented back into your room.
- They're illegal to use in bedrooms, bathrooms and other small or badly ventilated rooms, so for those areas you need a flued heater (which vents the products of combustion via a flue to the outside), or an electric heater.
- Some states have further restrictions for use of this heater type – check with a gas plumber or retailer.
- An unflued gas heater produces carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrous oxides (NOx), though only in relatively small quantities – Australian emission standards are among the toughest in the world. However, they can still cause problems for asthmatics or people with certain allergies or respiratory problems – a flued gas heater will be a better solution for these people.
- Water vapour from the combustion process can also condense on walls and ceilings and cause mould, which is why ventilation is so important.
What about installation?
Installation is a price hike on top of the heater itself. One way you can get around this is by buying last year's model and asking for a discount, saving a bit of money in the process.
CHOICE strongly recommends professional installation for these heaters, as many things can go wrong. When our experts tested a range of flued heaters back in 2010, in every case there were incorrect parts supplied or manuals incorrectly printed – or some heaters were not assembled correctly to the point of being potentially dangerous.
Do you need a chimney?
Not necessarily. Most units can be installed into an existing fireplace, with an existing chimney accommodating the flue. Otherwise, you can use a firebox and put the unit anywhere in the room, as long as you can incorporate a flue.
The average price range for flued heaters is from $1200 to $2200. The average price range for unflued heaters is from $400 to $1400.
If you have a big space to heat, an electric heater may not be your best bet. However, if you have a small, enclosed space such as a bathroom or bedroom, an electric heater will do the job – particularly one with a fan.
There are three different types of electric heaters available.
As the name suggests, these personal heaters radiate heat from a red-hot heating element.
- There are floor and wall-mounted models.
- They’re relatively inexpensive.
- They don’t heat the air in a room very well.
- 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 – so be careful.
Cost: from $20 to $200.
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. Some column heaters aren't even oil-filled but instead use other material or heating technology, but work the same way.
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.
- You can use a ceiling fan on very low speed to assist the column heater to distribute the heat faster and more evenly.
They rely on natural convection so they take longer to heat a room than fan-assisted heaters of similar capacity.
If there's not much air movement (for example, if you're sitting reading or watching TV), the heat may not be distributed evenly.
Cost: from $50 to $380.
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 also usually have a fan that 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 that could leave you with cold feet – particularly if there's not much movement in the room (again, if you're reading or watching TV – activities many people enjoy during winter). 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.
They’re more portable than their oil-filled column heater counterparts because they're significantly lighter.
They heat the air in a room evenly and quickly.
Like a column heater, you can use a ceiling fan on very low speed to it to distribute the heat faster and more evenly.
Some models, particularly panel heaters, are comparatively expensive to buy.
Cost: from $40 to $600.
How would you like the old-world charm of a roaring fire, without the smoke or messy hearth? Don't have a chimney? No problem! It's time to take a look at an electric fireplace heater.
Also called flame-effect heaters, these perform as a normal electric convection heater and are the perfect antidote to a cold, wintry evening. What could be more heartening than a fire (effect) to gather around? They're also a great in-between for renters who can't have a log fire for insurance reasons.
What to look for
These heaters offer a fairly simple range of controls – two heat settings and the ability to operate the flame effect without heating should be standard.
Some models also have a thermostat, which switches the heating elements on and off to maintain a temperature.
For that extra level of ambiance, some models also allow you to change the flame level to suit your mood.
Make sure the electrical cord of the heater will reach your power point, as the use of an extension lead is not recommended.
Most heaters use standard clear candle-type light bulbs to create a flame effect and they're fairly simple to replace. If a bulb goes out, the model should continue to operate as a normal convection heater.
Cost: from $250 to $400.
Reverse-cycle air conditioners
- These will be more expensive to buy than a small electric heater, but very effective in terms of the power they use compared to the heat they generate.
- Very good if you’ve got a larger space, like an open-plan living area.
- Our advice is insulate, then calculate – so insulate your ceiling, draught-proof windows and doors, cover windows at night, and close the doors between heated and unheated areas.
- Don’t heat rooms to tropical temperatures; for example, try 20 degrees instead of 23 degrees. Each degree less will save about 10% on your energy use.
- Only heat the rooms you’re actually using.
- Hot air rises to the ceiling, so if you have a ceiling fan with a reverse-direction option, consider using it at a low speed to help circulate the hot air more evenly through the room without creating a downward breeze.