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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.

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How much space do you need to heat?

If you have a big space to heat, you may want to try our reverse-cycle split-system air conditioner reviews or gas heater 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
$0.63
$0.51
$0.60
Cost per hour / off-peak
$0.37
$0.30
$0.35
Typical heat output (kWh)
2100
2400
2100
3 months winter use
$278
$223
$264

Off-peak hours are typically 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. The 3 month winter use is measured at 9 hrs off-peak use/day for 12 weeks.

How much electricity do they use?
Energy Fan heater Oil column heater Panel heater
Typical heat output (kWh)
2100
2400
2100
Energy consumption kW/hour
2.1
1.91
2.01
3 months winter use (kW)
1588
1444
1520

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.

Which are the safest heaters?

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.

Electrical compliance

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, and have the right compliance labels. 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 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, and
  • Never leave a running space heater unattended, especially if there are small children around.

Do electric heaters need ventilation?

No – electric heaters don't produce carbon monoxide the way gas, kerosene or other combustion heaters do, so they're safe to use without ventilation – with a couple of caveats. While a space heater may evaporate some moisture from the air, an oil column heater does not. Good news for sufferers of dry skin, but the combination of warmth and moisture is conducive 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 will 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's 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 they used for lighting and heating. Gas heating also increases the moisture content in the air, so it can further contribute to mould problems.

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 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 which 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 nights' sleep.

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.

Pros

  • There are floor and wall-mounted models.
  • Relatively inexpensive.
  • Have a cosy glow and personal warming effect, like sitting in front of a fire.

Cons

  • 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.

Cost

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.

Can oil heaters catch fire?

The risk of fire with an oil column heater is low compared to other heater types, but never zero. Oil heaters don't have exposed elements like radiant heaters do, and their surface temperature is lower than many other heater types (but their large surface area makes up for it), but they're still an electrical appliance filled with hot oil. Oil column heaters won't explode, and while they don't burn their oil to generate heat, it's still flammable (albeit, with a high flashpoint – hopefully), so there is a fire risk if the oil leaks, if the heater tips over and leaks, or if flammable objects or fabric are draped over or fall on the heater. You should exercise the same degree of caution with oil heaters as for other heater types, and never hang towels or clothes over one to dry them – use a drying rack instead, at least one metre away. If your oil heater is leaking, or showing signs of serious corrosion or damage, then you should replace it.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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

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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • Some models, particularly panel heaters, are comparatively expensive to buy.
  • Those with fans can be noisy.

Cost

From $30 to $700.

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. The Dyson heaters fall into the fan category.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

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

Cost

From $60 to $900.

Infrared heaters

A relatively recent entrant into the consumer market, far infrared heaters heat the room like the sun heats your face (without the UV rays so no danger of skin cancer). Whereas other heaters heat up the air in a space, infrared heaters will heat up objects.

One of our sister organisations, Consumer NZ, carried out tests on two 450W infrared panel heaters last year. They found they were equivalent to most other forms of heating in both performance and costs to run.

Pros

  • Can be wall or ceiling mounted – the most unobtrusive form of heating.
  • Heat the objects in a room rather than space, so may be good for a room you cannot draught-proof.
  • Can be mounted behind mirrors to heat a bathroom (mirrors let the infrared rays pass through).
  • They don't take time to warm up – instant on.
  • Silent and only minor maintenance.

Cons

  • Can be quite expensive.
  • Heat objects directly so need to be in line of sight.
  • Can't be installed opposite windows, otherwise heat goes straight through.

Cost

From $300 to $900.

infrared-fan-oil-convection-heaters

Left to right: wall-mounted IR panels, radiant heater, oil column heater, fan heater. Courtesy: CNZ

Heater features

Timer

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.

Frost watch

Useful for colder climates where the temperature could drop below zero, frost watch heaters claim to maintain a temperature of around five degrees if the thermostat is left on its lowest setting, avoiding frost/freezing on the heater which could damage it.

Thermostat

The thermostat on your heater is essentially a heat activated switch which allows you to regulate the temperature in the room by turning on the heater on 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 you 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 over heat your room if you forget to turn it down when your desired temperature is reached – 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.

Heater thermostats can be either mechanical or digital. Mechanical thermostats use a bi-metallic strip – two different metals laminated together with different rates of thermal expansion – as the temperature changes, the strip will bend or straighten, opening or closing a circuit and switching the heater on or off. Many modern thermostats are digital, which allows for greater functionality, such as programmable settings.

Thermal cut-out

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 test. Regardless of the presence of a thermal cut-out, you should never drape towels or other items over any heater to dry – use an appropriate drying rack instead.

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 which clearly identifies that it has this feature.

Tilt switch

Another important safety feature, a tilt switch turns the heater off if it tilts beyond a certain angle or falls over to prevent a potential fire. We've found some heaters don't state whether they have a tilt switch, but still turn off when pushed over in our test.

Warranty

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.

On-board cord storage

Unless you live somewhere really, really cold then your heater's only going to be in use for part of the year – perhaps only a few months. Which means for the rest of the time it's going to be packed away. On-board cord storage makes this much easier – especially for large, heavy oil column heaters where a floppy cord can get in the way while you're trying to wrestle it into the cupboard for the summer.

Cord length

Cord length is an important consideration for heaters from both a useability 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 – an extra risk for heaters in case you fall on it or knock it over.  We've seen heater cord lengths ranging from under a metre up to 2.7 metres, with an average of 1.7 metres on our test. As a rule, larger heaters will have slightly longer cords.

Importantly, 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 – plug them directly into a wall socket instead. And if you absolutely have no choice but to use an extension cord, make sure it's a heavy duty one rated for the amount of current your heater draws.

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 ineffective at heating a whole room if they don't have 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, small fan heaters are less expensive to purchase, but can have higher running costs.

What's the most energy efficient electric heater?

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; 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.

Ceiling fans can make your electric heater more effective

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, where it 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 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