There's no doubt the occasional use of a good electric heater can be a quick and easy way to take the edge off a cold night, particularly if you're sitting reasonably close to the heater and the room isn't too large. From safety advice to average running costs, here's what you need to know before hitting the shops.
First things first: if you have a big space to heat, you may want to look at our reverse-cycle split-system air conditioner reviews or gas heater reviews instead. But if you're only looking to heat a small, enclosed space like a bedroom or study, an electric heater will do the job – particularly one with a fan and a thermostat if you're planning to have it on for long periods.
Our lab test results have found that the type of heater isn't necessarily a factor when it comes to efficiency. As with all appliances, it's the overall design that makes for a good heater.
Of course, any portable electric heater will be much more effective if you have an insulated room with no draughts. Our home heating guide has some good tips on proofing your home against the winter chill and summer haze.
The unfortunate news is that electric heaters are not cost-efficient compared to other forms of heating. On average, they tend to be the least cost-efficient form of heating in Australia. The most cost-efficient are reverse-cycle air conditioners, followed by gas heaters, then slow combustion wood heaters.
Whether you run it all night or just the times you're getting ready for bed, most costs will be roughly similar – our electric heater reviews (which include average running costs) can help make sure you don't stuck with a dud that costs more in the long run for lower heating performance.
|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.
|Energy||Fan heater||Oil column heater||Panel heater|
|Typical heat output|
|Energy consumption (kW/hour)|
|3 months' use in winter|
Your running costs will vary based on your electricity price. To calculate your own running costs, multiply your energy cost per kWh by your heater's hourly energy consumption. To calculate your annual running costs, multiply this figure by the number of hours a day, and then by the number of days per year that you expect to be running your heater. For our calculations we use an estimate of 30 cents per kWh, and an estimate of 9 hours a day, every day for 12 weeks.
What's the cheapest type of heater?
This depends on what cost you're looking at – upfront purchase, or running cost? As usual, there are trade-offs with either selection. On average, small fan heaters are less expensive to buy, but can have higher running costs.
Oil column heaters will be the cheapest on the market to run (on average) – but only by a narrow margin ahead of convection heaters (like panel and micathermic panels). There are some comfort trade-offs for that cheap running cost, primarily being slow to heat and ineffective at heating a whole room if they don't have a fan. If you have a reversible ceiling fan, it'll help disperse the heat around the room more evenly.
The models in our electric heaters test range between $29 and $999, but we've found a higher price tag doesn't always mean better performance. A number of pricey heaters have failed to impress our testers, while some cheaper models make for surprisingly good buys.
Space heaters are responsible for around 43% of all home heating-related fires and 85% of associated deaths every year, so safety should be high on your list of priorities. The good news is, modern electric heaters are considerably safer than their ancestors, and incredibly safe in comparison to liquid fuel combustion heaters which burn kerosene or other accelerants. Modern heaters also come with built-in safety features, such as thermal cut-outs and tilt switches which are designed to keep you and your family safe.
But we do find some heaters that fail our safety tests. We conduct tests that reflect how heaters are potentially used in people's homes, including what happens when the heater is tipped over, or when a towel is draped over it, and whether electrical cords move too much (from their connection to the heater) when tugged.
Like all electrical appliances, electric heaters must comply with Australian electrical safety standards. It's a safe bet that any heater from a major brand or retailer will comply. But be wary if you're tempted by a no-name bargain on an online site – check that the product is stated to comply, and check its label when it arrives. A guide to compliance marks can be found on many regulatory websites, such as the Electrical Equipment Safety System or NSW Fair Trading.
If you're buying a second-hand heater, check that it hasn't been the subject of a recall at recalls.gov.au.
Convection heaters can be a safer option
As a rule, convection heaters such as oil column and panel heaters are the safest heaters to use as they tend to have lower surface temperatures, don't have exposed heating elements, and are more stable due to their greater weight or wall mounting.
But while oil column heaters are relatively safe as far as space heaters go, there's always a risk of fire due to faulty wiring or connection to an unsuitable extension cord, tipping over, oil leaks (particularly if an oil with a low flashpoint was used), or fires caused by items hung over or falling onto the heater. And while they tend not to get as hot on the surface as other heater types, children (and adults) can still sustain a nasty burn if they're not careful.
Tips for safely using a heater
Regardless of the type of heater you're using you should follow these guidelines for safe operation.
- Only ever use a space heater on the floor – never use a space heater on a shelf, bench or any raised or uneven surface.
- Don't use a space heater in bathrooms, kitchens or any other wet areas – water and electricity are a bad combination.
- Keep flammable items such as clothes, curtains and furniture at least a metre away from your space heater, and be mindful of the risk of items falling onto the heater from above.
- Never leave a running space heater unattended, especially if there are small children or pets around.
Which heaters are safe to leave on all night?
Convection heaters, such as oil column or panel heaters, are your best choice for a heater you're going to leave on all night – their gentle convection heating is conducive to an easy night's sleep, and they don't get as hot as other types of heaters so they're safer to touch (they compensate for this with the larger heating surface area). Panel heaters can be a good option for children's rooms, as they can be secured to a wall so they can't fall over, and they usually have a lower temperature contact surface.
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/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.
You should avoid leaving radiant heaters on all night as their exposed heating elements pose a particular fire risk if anything falls on it, and avoid heaters that can easily tip over. A heater with a fan doesn't pose an elevated risk, but if the fan's noisy then it won't be conducive to getting a good night's sleep.
Do electric heaters need ventilation?
No, because electric heaters don't produce carbon monoxide the way gas, kerosene or other combustion heaters do, so they're safe to use without ventilation – but there are a couple of caveats. While a space heater may evaporate some moisture from the air, an oil column heater does not. The combination of warmth and moisture can lead to mould growth, which can exacerbate respiratory and other problems.
And while you don't need ventilation, to get the most out of a convection heater you'll need a way to circulate the air in your room, such as a ceiling fan on reverse, or even a pedestal fan to distribute the heat evenly rather than having it pool directly above the heater.
On the other hand, unflued gas heaters definitely need ventilation, and even flued gas heaters should never be used in bedrooms, bathrooms or confined spaces due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Incidentally, it was the gas lamps and heating, and its subsequent carbon monoxide production, that was responsible for most (but not all) Victorian-era ghost stories – visual and auditory hallucinations are a common symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning from the gas lamps and coal fires that were ubiquitous at the time.
Gas heating also increases the moisture content in the air, so it can further contribute to mould problems.
A timer allows you to set the heater to run at set times or periods – useful to heat up the room before you get up in the morning, or at night time to turn your heater off and save electricity while you're asleep under the doona.
A built-in timer feature on the heater itself is a better option than using a smart plug or timer switch on the power point. Those may not be able to cope with your heater's high current draw and could be a fire risk.
The thermostat on your heater is essentially a heat activated mechanical or digital switch which allows you to regulate the temperature in the room by turning on the heater below a minimum temperature, then turning it off again once the maximum set temperature is reached. A good thermostat will maintain a very consistent temperature. Without a thermostat your heater would run constantly – your room may become uncomfortably hot, and your electricity consumption will be correspondingly high.
Importantly, turning the thermostat on your heater up really high won't bring a cold room to temperature any quicker – your heater will still heat at the same rate, you'll just overheat your room if you forget to turn it down. Leave it on your desired setting and your room will warm up just as quickly, but once your target temperature is reached your heater will cycle on and off to maintain a comfortable environment.
An essential safety feature, a thermal cut-out switches the heater off if it overheats – if something's covering your heater for example – reducing the risk of fire. We assess the effectiveness of thermal cut-outs in our electric heater tests. Regardless of the presence of a thermal cut-out, you should never drape towels or other items over any heater to dry.
Some heaters may have a fuse instead of (or as back-up to) a switch. This will do the job, but once the fuse is triggered, it will need to be replaced by a service technician before the heater will work again. The cost of this service could be more than the heater's original price tag. A thermal fuse is not as convenient as a thermal switch. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible for a consumer to know whether a heater has this sort of thermal cut-out device.
Most heaters have a thermal cut-out of some sort, but not all of them say so in their product specifications. If in doubt, choose a heater that clearly identifies that it has this feature.
A tilt switch turns the heater off almost instantly if it tilts beyond a certain angle or falls over. This helps prevent a potential fire from the hot parts of the heater being in direct contact with the floor or other materials. We've found some heaters don't state whether they have a tilt switch, but still turn off when pushed over in our test.
Not all heaters are required by law to have a tilt switch, but we think it's an important safety feature to look for in any heater. A thermal cut-out safety feature will also often turn off the heater if it falls over, but may take longer to do so.
Cord length is an important consideration for heaters from both a usability and safety perspective – you need a cord that's long enough that you can position your heater where it's going to be most effective, but not so long that it's a trip hazard. We've seen heater cord lengths ranging from under a metre up to 2.7 metres, with an average of 1.7 metres in our tests.
Safety tip: You should never use an electric heater with an extension cord or power board. Heaters draw a lot of current which can cause smaller gauge extension cords to heat up and catch fire. And if you absolutely have to use an extension cord, make sure it's a heavy duty one rated for the amount of current your heater draws.
Useful for colder climates where the temperature could drop below zero, the frost watch feature is claimed to maintain a temperature of around 5°C, avoiding frost or freezing in the room. This setting generally uses a relatively small amount of energy. It can help protect water pipes from freezing and reduce dampness in the room.
If you're looking to add another 'connected' appliance to your smart home, we're seeing more and more heaters with Wi-Fi and/or smartphone compatibility. This means you can adjust temperatures and turn them on or off remotely using an app on your smartphone, or control them through your Google Home or Amazon Alexa smart speaker.
Heaters usually come with a one- or two-year warranty, but some offer more, or even 'lifetime' cover. Regardless of warranty, don't forget your rights under the Australian Consumer Law – the seasonal nature of heaters means you may have only used your heater for a few months out of a given 12-month period.
Your electric heater is basically 100% efficient, in that pretty much all of the electricity is being converted to heat (some is also used by built-in fans and electronic controls). But that doesn't mean one 2000W heater will output exactly as much heat as another – for example, one may have a poor-quality thermostat which stops the heater from running at full power when it ought to. 'Efficient' is not always the same as 'effective'.
You can improve the effectiveness of an electric heater by making sure its heat isn't wasted, and the best way to do that is by insulating your home and stopping draughts. For more about home heating efficiency, check out our home heating guide.
Are electric heaters low in greenhouse gas emissions?
When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, electric heaters are the highest producers out of all heating types due to Australia's mix of energy fuels. This is less of an issue if you have solar panels on your roof, but chances are you'll be using your heater the most at night, when the sun's not out.
If you have a ceiling fan, the reverse feature found on many of them can be a boon in winter when combined with an electric heater. Usually a ceiling fan blows a cooling breeze down towards you, but in reverse or 'winter' mode, the fan instead draws the room's air up. It then mixes with the warm air rising from the heater, and is moved along the ceiling and back down the walls, thus spreading the warm air more evenly around the room.
Check out our ceiling fan reviews and make your heat work for you.
Without the ceiling fan, warm air collects directly above the heater and cold air pools near the floor.
A ceiling fan circulates the warm air around the room for more even temperatures, and pushes it back down to where you need it.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.