Australia has some cold extremities (we're thinking of you, Tasmania!), but it gets chilly just about everywhere and you need to know the best way to heat things up so your home is comfortable all year round – without drowning in bills.

When the cold really hits in winter, you need to find a middle ground between having a home that's cosy and a resulting energy bill that won't send you broke. This guide will help you heat your home using less power but with maximum effectiveness.

Kill the chill: read our expert review of electric heaters now.

The different types of heating

The main types of heaters include electric heaters, gas heaters and reverse-cycle air conditioners. The best option for you is dependent on a few factors. Let's take a look at each type.

Electric heaters

These are usually portable, cheaper to buy, and a good option if you're not using them in large spaces or for long periods. Check our electric heater buying guide for more details, and also take a look at our electric fireplace heater buying guide.

Good for: heating small spaces, or individual people.

Gas heaters

If you have gas in your area these can be very efficient and good value for money. But gas heating produces small amounts of waste products: gases including carbon monoxide which are dangerous, and water vapour, which can lead to condensation and mould problems. The two main types of gas heaters deal with these waste products differently.

  • Flued heaters direct their fumes outside through a flue, or pipe, and are generally more expensive to buy and install. This removes the carbon monoxide and water vapour from the home, which is safer, but can also create a small amount of heat loss, reducing the efficiency.
  • Unflued heaters expel their the fumes and water vapour into the room being heated. Australian standards and regulations strictly limit the amount of emissions allowed, but even so you need to keep the room ventilated.

Check our gas heater buying guide for more details.

If you're going to leave a heater on all day, a gas heater may be cheaper than a portable electric heater for most homes. However, gas prices are on the rise, partly due to a move towards exporting more of Australia's gas to overseas markets rather than keeping it for domestic use, though so far, prices have not risen as much was first predicted. Also, solar power is making electricity much cheaper in many homes. So it's not a given that gas heating is always cheaper than using electricity.

Good for: heating smaller to medium-sized spaces.

Reverse-cycle air conditioners

These will be more expensive to buy than a small electric heater, but very effective in terms of the power they use compared to the heat they generate. Check our air conditioner buying guide for more details.

Good for: a larger space, like an open-plan living area.

Insulate then calculate!

Ensure you get the right size for the space you're looking to heat.

Our advice is insulate then calculate – so insulate your ceiling, draught-proof windows and doors, cover windows at night, and close the doors between heated and unheated areas.

Room heating calculators can be found online; try searching for room heater size. There are several factors to consider when choosing your heater's capacity: the climate you live in, the floor area and ceiling height of the room, how much natural sunlight it receives, whether the room is carpeted, whether adjacent rooms or floors above and below are heated, and of course the amount of other insulation.

As a general guide for moderate climates, a well-insulated room of 20 square metres will probably need a 2000W electric heater or a gas heater with 6 to 8MJ input. The same room would need more heating if poorly insulated; even a 2400W electric heater could struggle, and you could need at least a 10 to 12MJ gas heater. In cold climates, you'll need still more heating power.

Other heating options

Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces

Wood fires can give a cosy look and feel to a room on a cold night. Modern slow-combustion wood-burning stoves can be quite efficient too.

Firewood should be well seasoned (left to dry for at least two summers) so you don't waste energy evaporating water by burning green wood. Hardwood contains more energy than softwood, and burns longer and more steadily. But it's also harder to light. Softwood can spit and spark in open fires.

Coal may be an option for some people. It can be burnt in many slow-combustion heaters, but you'll probably need to use fire lighters or light a woodfire first to get it started.

Pros
  • Wood and coal are available almost everywhere.
  • Wood heating can be very economical because a lot of people, particularly in rural areas, may have cheap or even free access to firewood (however, check whether you need a permit to collect firewood from forests).
  • If firewood is produced sustainably (by regrowing the amount that's used) and burned in a slow-combustion heater, it produces the least amount of CO2 of all the fuels in our comparison.
Cons
  • You need somewhere to store wood or coal.
  • You have to load the heater or grate, start and maintain the fire and dispose of the ash.
  • Apart from modern slow-combustion heaters, solid-fuel heaters are less energy-efficient than electric and gas heating.
  • They produce combustion gases and need a flue or chimney, which makes installation expensive.
  • The smoke from wood and coal fires can be a major contributor to pollution.

Ethanol fireplaces

These use denatured ethanol (methylated spirits) which doesn't give off fumes (except water vapour), so they don't need vents or flues, or a gas or electrical connection.

They're comparable in heating capacity and efficiency to an unflued gas heater, and typically cost a few hundred dollars. However, they are more expensive to run; one litre of fuel, costing about $2.50, will give roughly 90 minutes to two hours burning on a high setting. The same amount of heating with gas would cost around 50c.

Many models have open flames, so you need to take the same care around them as with an open wood fireplace, and you also need to be careful when handling the fuel. Government regulatory bodies have issued safety warnings about these heaters as there've been a number of people burned by them through mishandling.

Whole house heating

Hydronic

Hydronic heating works through heating water (or steam), piping it through the house into panel radiators and returning the water back to the heating system to be reheated for the cycle to repeat. You can also utilise this method to provide heating to in-floor systems.

The advantage is direct control of how much heat you want to each room. Panel heaters mean no fans to blow dust around. It's a relatively quick way of heating, low maintenance and it's fairly well tested, having been used in other countries for around a century.

The disadvantage is it's quite expensive to install; quotes can start at around $6000.

The heating supply can be a boiler supplied best by natural gas, LPG, electricity, or solid fuel. Look for a low content boiler so it's not wasting fuel, panels that heat up quickly and can be controlled independently, and pipes that don't lose heat where they don't need to.

Electric

Ducted reverse-cycle air conditioning

Such a system consists of a compressor (which can be installed outside or in the ceiling space, for example) and ducted outlets in the rooms you want to heat or cool. A good system can be very efficient, but installation can be costly, in the several thousands of dollars. Consider it if you're building or renovating a house. 

Underfloor heating

For this type of heating, electric wiring or water pipes are installed into the concrete floor slab. The slab is heated, using cheap off-peak electricity or hot water (in which case you can use a gas heater to heat the water if gas is available). It then releases the stored heat during the day, in a similar way to an off-peak storage heater. The substantial construction work required for this type of heating means it's more appropriately installed when a house is being built.

Gas

Ducted gas central heating

This system consists of a gas furnace (which can be installed outside or underfloor) and ducting vents in the rooms you want to heat. A ducted system may work out cheaper to run than two gas space heaters, though installation costs are usually much higher.

Solid fuels

Slow-combustion stove with heat shifters: a slow-combustion solid-fuel stove in one room, connected to a system of ducts and fans in the ceiling space that shift warm air to other rooms. This could be a good option if you have a large supply of cheap wood or other solid fuel, but the same negatives listed above for any wood-burning stove still apply.

How to keep it cheap

  • Don't heat rooms to tropical temperatures; for example, try 20 degrees instead of 23 degrees. Each degree less will save about 10% on your energy use.
  • Only heat the rooms you're actually using.
  • Hot air rises to the ceiling, so if you have a ceiling fan with a reverse-direction option, consider using it at a low speed to help circulate the hot air more evenly through the room without creating a downward breeze.
  • Check out our five ways to reduce your household's energy use.