Small space heaters are typically used when the main heating system is inadequate or when central heating is too costly to install or operate. In some cases, small space heaters can be less expensive to use if you only want to heat one room or supplement inadequate heating in one room. They can also boost the temperature of rooms used by individuals who are sensitive to cold, especially elderly persons, without overheating your entire home.
Space heater capacities generally range between 10,000 Btu to 40,000 Btu per hour. Common fuels used for this purpose are: electricity, propane, natural gas, and kerosene (see the wood and pellet section for information on wood and pellet stoves).
Although most space heaters rely on convection (the circulation of air in a room) to heat a room, some rely on radiant heating; that is, they emit infrared radiation that directly heats up objects and people that are within their line of sight. Radiant heaters are a more efficient choice when you will be in a room for only a few hours, if you can remain within the line of sight of the heater. They can be more efficient when using a room for a short period because they avoid the energy needed to heat the entire room by instead directly heating the occupant of the room and the occupant's immediate surroundings.
Safety is a top consideration when using space heaters. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with the use of space heaters, causing more than 300 deaths. An estimated 6,000 persons receive hospital emergency room care for burn injuries associated with contacting hot surfaces of room heaters, mostly in non-fire situations.
When buying and installing a small space heater, follow these guidelines:
Vented and Unvented Combustion Space Heaters
Space heaters are classified as vented and unvented, or "vent free." Unvented combustion units are not recommended for use inside your home, as they introduce unwanted combustion products into the living space, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and water vapor. The units also deplete the air in the space where they are located. Most states have banned unvented kerosene heaters for use in the home and at least five have banned the use of unvented natural gas heaters.
Vented units are designed to be permanently located next to an outside wall, so that the flue gas vent can be installed through a ceiling or directly through the wall to the outside. Look for sealed combustion or "100% outdoor air" units, which have a duct to bring outside into the combustion chamber. Sealed combustion heaters are much safer to operate than other types of space heaters, and operate more efficiently because they do not draw in the heated air from the room and exhaust it to the outdoors. They are also less likely to backdraft and adversely affect indoor air quality.
Less expensive (and less efficient) units use the room air for combustion. They do not have a sealed glass front to keep room air away from the fire and should not be confused with a sealed combustion heater.
In addition to the manufacturer's installation and operating instructions, you should follow these general safety guidelines for operating any combustion space heater:
Electric Space Heaters
Electric space heaters are generally more expensive to operate than combustion space heaters, but they are the only unvented space heaters that are safe to operate inside your home. Although electric space heaters avoid indoor air quality concerns, they still carry hazards of potential burns and fires, and should be used with caution.
For convection (non-radiant) space heaters, the best types incorporate a heat transfer liquid, such as oil, that is heated by the electric element. The heat transfer fluid provides some heat storage, allowing the heater to cycle less and to provide a more constant heat source.
When buying and installing an electric space heater, you should follow these general safety guidelines