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Panel heater, fan or oil column: Which electric heater is best for you?

Before you buy an electric heater, make sure you're choosing one that best suits your needs.

Last updated: 31 May 2023


Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Need to know

  • Electric heaters are not always the most efficient heating option, but they are convenient, relatively low-cost to buy, and easy to install. 
  • How you plan to use your heater, the size of the room you're trying to heat, how portable you'd like the heater to be and even your preferred aesthetics will affect which heater is right for you.
  • CHOICE experts have recently tested a range of the latest electric heaters. Our detailed reviews rate each heater based on factors such as performance and safety to help you find the best choice.

If the temperature has dropped and you need a fast heating solution, you're likely to be looking at electric heaters. Relatively cheap to buy with no installation required beyond plugging in the socket, they are a convenient and accessible heating fix. 

But, if you've looked online or headed to the shops, you may have quickly become stumped by all the different types of electric heaters out there, including panel heaters, fan heaters and oil column heaters: there's a line-up of hot options all vying to be chosen to meet your heating needs!

So which one will leave you feeling warm and cosy? The best option for you will depend on a few factors such as how you plan to use your heater, the size of the room you're trying to heat, how portable you'd like the heater to be and even just which type you like the look of in your home.

Perhaps you need a heater to quickly warm a small kitchen area on a frosty morning, or something to take the chill out of the air in a child's bedroom? Or you're working from home in a larger living area and want a heater that'll efficiently keep you cosy all day. No matter your needs, our expert reviews and advice can help you pick a top-performing heater that'll keep you going through winter. 

Best heater for bedrooms and small spaces

No one likes hopping out of a warm bed into a freezing cold bedroom or making your morning coffee in a chilly kitchen. If you're after a heater that can quickly and effectively warm a small space such as a bedroom or an office, a fan heater is a good option. Usually comparatively light and portable, they are specifically designed to blow hot air into a room and are suited for heating smaller spaces, or for using as a personal heater (for warming your feet at your home-office desk, perhaps).

The smaller square heaters can be quite low-cost, however, there are premium fan heaters in the 'fan tower' style from brands such as Dyson that can cost up to $600 or more.

If you are heating a room that's about 20 square metres or smaller, a less powerful heater with a capacity of around 1000–1500 watts is all you need. So look for heaters that have a lower capacity (you can check the claimed maximum wattage of each fan in our electric heater reviews), or for a heater with multiple power settings so you can opt for the lowest one (otherwise you'll be paying for heat you don't really need).

Best heater for a baby room or child's bedroom

If you want a heater that you can leave on all night in a bedroom, though, or to gently heat a child's bedroom while they nap, a convection heater such as an oil column heater or panel heater is likely to be the best option as they can emanate a gentle heat without a noisy fan.

Oil heaters are easily identifiable by their vertical columns or 'fins' – they work by heating oil within those columns which is then circulated to produce heat. Panel heaters (which are a type of convection heater and have a particularly slim, relatively flat shape) are a great option for a child's room as certain types can be mounted to the wall and aren't as hot to the touch as an oil heater can be. 

Regardless of heater type, if you're looking for a heater to keep you warm and toasty while you go to sleep or when you wake up, you should look for one with a timer so it can turn itself down or off once you're asleep under the doona to save electricity, and then turn itself on to warm the room up again in the morning to make getting out of bed that little bit easier.

Best heater for living room and large spaces

If you're looking to heat a larger living room or open-plan space, keep in mind that electric heaters are not the overall best option for this. If you already have one installed or can afford the upfront costs, a reverse cycle air conditioner is generally the most energy- and cost-efficient option here.

For a large living area, you'll need a high wattage heater (ideally 2400W) with a good fan to distribute the hot air

CHOICE expert Chris Barnes

However, if you are after an electric heater to heat a large room, the power (or wattage) of the heater is more important than the type.CHOICE home heating expert Chris Barnes says, "For a large living area, you'll need a high wattage heater (ideally 2400W) with a good fan to distribute the hot air. A convection heater such as a panel or oil column heater with a fan, or a tower fan, is usually the best option here."

What's the cheapest electric heater to buy?

As with many products we review at CHOICE, the prices of electric heaters can vary from cheap to expensive across all the different types, and depend on various factors such as size, brand, features and more. And while you can pick up a small fan heater for as little as $30, how effective that heater will be and how much it will cost to run is another story. We've also tested heaters that cost several hundreds of dollars or more that fail to deliver on performance, so they'll really burn a hole in your pocket. 

In our latest electric heaters review, we've tested models in the following price ranges:

Fan heaters: from $75 to $999
Convection with fan or convection panel heaters: from $100 to $649
Column heaters (oil-filled or non oil): from $129 to $429

What's the cheapest electric heater to run?

When considering which electric heater to buy, it's really important to consider how expensive it will be to run, and how you will be using it. As we mentioned earlier, electric heaters are not always the most efficient home heating option available, and running a heater all day and night throughout winter can add up to hundreds of dollars whacked onto your energy bill. 

If you're weighing up buying an oil heater vs panel heater, for example, and wondering which is the most cost efficient option for you, consider how you will be using it. Are you likely to switch it on for short periods of time, such as for an hour or so while getting ready in the morning or are you likely to have it on all day while working from home or for a late-night TV marathon?

While you can pick up a small fan heater for as little as $30, how effective that heater will be and how much it will cost to run is another story

While an oil column heater might be slightly cheaper to run, on average they take longer to heat a room than fan-assisted heaters of a similar capacity, so may not be the best choice if you only want to use it for short periods of time. In comparison, panel heaters will heat your room quite quickly and evenly so are well suited if you just want to get warm fast in the morning, but they'll cost slightly more to run. 

On the whole, how much electric heaters cost to run does not vary hugely between types of heater as you can see in our breakdown below. The price of the energy used will depend on if you are running your heat at off-peak hours (usually 10pm to 7am; average national cost of $17.5c/kWh) or peak hours (roughly 2pm to 8pm with an average national cost of 30c/kWh ). Depending on your energy provider, your costs may also vary.

Electric heater running costs
Costs and energy Fan heater Oil column heater Panel heater
Cost per hour – peak
Cost per hour – off-peak
Typical heat output
Cost for 3 months' use in winter

Off-peak hours are typically 10pm to 7am, and are averaged nationally at $17.5c/kWh. Peak hours are roughly 2pm to 8pm, and are averaged nationally at 30c/kWh. Costs taken from April 2018 energy pricing check. The costs for 3 months' use in winter are measured at 9 hours off-peak use per day for 12 weeks.

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Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.