Skip to content   Skip to footer navigation 

How to find the best portable electric heater

Fan, radiant, oil-column, convection or panel – which is right for your home?

electric heater on wooden floor

There's no doubt that 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. Here's what you need to know before hitting the shops.

How much space do you need to heat?

If you have a big space to heat, you may want to try our gas heater reviews or reverse-cycle split-system air conditioner reviews. However, if you have a small, enclosed space like a bathroom or bedroom, an electric heater will do the job – particularly one with a fan, and a thermostat if you have it on for long periods.

It's often claimed that this type or that type is more effective, or more efficient. CHOICE tests have found that the type of heater isn't necessarily a factor; as with all appliances, it's the overall design that makes for a good heater.

Of course, any portable electric heater will much more effective if you have an insulated room with no draughts. Our home heating guide gives some good tips on proofing your home against the winter chill and summer haze.

How much does it cost to run an electric heater?

Whether you run it all night or just the times you're getting ready for bed, most costs will be roughly similar – better to check our heater test results to make sure you don't get a dud that costs you more in the long run for lower heating performance.

Electric heater running costs
Costs Fan heater Oil column heater Panel heater
Cost per hour / peak
Cost per hour / off-peak
Typical heat output (kWh)
3 months winter use

Off-peak hours are roughly 10pm to 7am, and are averaged nationally at $17.5c/kWh. Peak hours are roughly 2pm-8pm and are averaged nationally at 30c/kWh. Costs taken from April 2018 energy pricing check. Winter measured at 9 hrs off-peak use/day for 12 weeks.

What types of electric heaters are available?

Radiant heaters

Radiant electric heater

These are personal heaters. As the name suggests, they radiate heat from a red-hot heating element – the family will have to take turns sitting in front of it.


  • There are floor and wall-mounted models.
  • Relatively inexpensive.


  • They're not going to 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.


From $20 to $200.

Oil-filled column heaters

Oil filled column heater

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. And 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.


From $50 to $380

Convection and panel heaters

Electric convection heater

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 (again, if you're snuggled up on the sofa with a good book or watching a movie – activities lots of 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. You don't want the fan drowning out the TV!

Panel heaters are a type of convection heater that are, as the name suggests, particularly thin and flat, though they can also be quite long. They often come with a wall-mounting kit for permanent attachment, much like an old-style radiator (though some convection heaters are also wall-mountable).

Micathermic panel heaters usually have a similar shape as a column heater, but are often thinner. They have panels of the mineral mica around their heating element; the mica absorbs the heat and radiates it more evenly, or so the marketing material claims. Supposedly this helps the heater warm the room faster and more efficiently than the element alone. We haven't seen it eventuate in our testing.


  • More portable than their oil-filled column heater counterparts because they're significantly lighter.
  • Will 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.
  • Those with fans can be noisy.


From $40 to $600.

Fan heaters

Electric fan heater

Ceramic fan heaters

You'll see the term 'ceramic' used in conjunction with some fan heaters. This is a safety advantage rather than performance advantage, as the ceramic cools faster than metallic heating elements, reducing a burn risk.


  • Generally smaller and more portable than other electric heaters.
  • Can heat the air in a room more rapidly evenly and quickly.
  • Claimed lower risk of burns.


  • They can be quite noisy with the fan on full power, though are usually reasonably quiet at lower fan speeds.


From $50 to $200.

Which is the cheapest heater?

This depends on what cost you are looking at – up front purchase, or running cost? As per usual, there are trade-offs with either selection. Check out our electric heater review to find out which ones perform the best.

Running cost

On average, oil column heaters will be the cheapest on the market to run – but only by a narrow margin ahead of convection heaters such as panel and micathermic panels. There are some comfort trade-offs for that cheap running cost, primarily being slow to heat and inefficient without a fan. If you have a reversible ceiling fan, it will help disperse the heat around the room more evenly (see below).

Purchase cost

On average, fan heater are less expensive to purchase, but tend to have higher running costs.

What's the most energy efficient electric heater?

Your electric heater is 100% efficient – all of the electricity is being converted to heat. You can improve the effectiveness of the electric heater (insulation, stopping draughts, ceiling fans, make sure it has a fan built-in, etc), but you can't make it any more efficient than it already is. To discover more efficient ways of heating your home, check out our home heating guide.

How to make your electric heater more effective

For those of us with ceiling fans already, the reverse feature found on many of them can be a boon in winter in combination with an electric heater, forcing the heater air that rises to the ceiling back down to you, equalising the warm air around the room. Check out our ceiling fan review to make your heat work for you.

A temperature scale shows how hot air rises from an electric heater to the ceiling while cold air remains low at ground level

Without the ceiling fan, warm air collects directly above the heater and cold air pools near the floor

How a ceiling fan helps draws the cool air up and pushes the hot air around and downwards to provide warmth

A ceiling fan circulates the warm air around the room for more even temperatures, and pushes it back down to where you need it


Leave a comment

Display comments