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What's the cheapest way to heat your home this winter?

Reverse-cycle air conditioners vs heaters – we crunch the numbers

heaters vs air conditioners
Last updated: 24 April 2020

When winter hits and the temperatures drop, attention turns to how we're going to heat our homes. And the dilemma: do you go the cheap, quick option and duck to the shops to pick up an electric heater on the spot? Or do you invest in something more efficient and permanent like a reverse-cycle air conditioner? We compare the two options. 

Upfront costs and installation

It's a win for the portable electric heater on convenience and upfront costs. With no installation required, wide availability and prices starting at around $30, they're definitely a quick and easy fix when the cold snap hits. 

On the other hand, reverse-cycle air conditioners can cost thousands of dollars to buy and install. 

CHOICE heating expert Chris Barnes says, "You'll be hard-pressed to purchase a ducted reverse-cycle air conditioning system for less than $5000, including installation. That's the entry level cost for a small home or apartment. 

"For a typical freestanding house, the cost can easily reach $10,000 or more, depending on the size and type of system you choose. For a large or multi-floor home, you're looking at $15,000 or more."

But which one is ultimately cheaper?

Reverse-cycle air conditioners are the winner when it comes to saving big bucks on your energy bills. They're great for heating large open-plan spaces like a combined living room and kitchen area, and as they use less energy, they're ultimately better for the environment. 

An added advantage of a reverse-cycle air conditioner is it'll keep you cool in the warmer months, too.

Portable electric heaters are ideal for small spaces for short periods of use. They're also a great option for renters or owners of strata apartments who may not be able to install air conditioning.

But these types of heaters are not energy efficient and can get expensive. You'll likely see a hike in your energy bills, particularly if you're running multiple heaters in different rooms. 

In fact, a portable electric heater can cost almost three times as much to run on average than a reverse-cycle air conditioner (based on heating six hours a day over 12 weeks in a moderate winter).

Other ways to save on heating

Solar panels

While solar panels are an investment, heating expert Chris Barnes says: "For a home with its own solar panel system, running an electric heater or air conditioner in daytime can be significantly cheaper than running a gas heater." 

We partnered with CSIRO to find out how to buy the best solar panels for your home.

CHOICE partners with the CSIRO to test solar energy

There are big savings to be made on solar power. Go to to find out more. 

Take advantage of end of financial year sales

With the end of the financial year coinciding with the start of winter, it's not surprising that electric heaters are CHOICE's most searched product during this sale period. However, CHOICE experts warn against getting caught up in the sale madness, with tips to help you navigate the sale frenzy.

Install a new air conditioner in the off-season

CHOICE heating expert Chris Barnes advises, "If you're looking to install an air conditioner, get it done well ahead of the peak cold season; don't wait until the installers are busy. You might pick up an off-season bargain this way."

Winter-proof your home to stay warm

While wrapping up in your winter woolies is the lowest fuss DIY option, there's plenty more you can do to keep warm around the house – check out our 6 practical DIY tricks for staying warm this winter. They include things like sealing draughts, covering hardwood floors with rugs and even venturing into the world of DIY insulation.

CHOICE heating expert and general insulation enthusiast Ashley Iredale says, "DIY insulation is a messy, hot and uncomfortable job but I saved myself over a thousand dollars doing my house myself."

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE