Is It Cheaper To Run Space Heaters Or Central Heat?

A retired senior woman in her 70s sits at home inside her cold house in winter.
coldsnowstorm / Getty Images

It’s shaping up to be an expensive winter in the United States, with many households likely to spend more on energy in 2022-23 compared with recent winters, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This is due to the combination of higher fuel prices and forecasts for slightly colder weather than last winter.

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Many Americans will look to cut costs by considering the most efficient way to warm their homes — including weighing the advantages of space heaters vs. central heat.

A “Space Heaters Buying Guide” recently published by Consumer Reports noted that the right space heater can keep you warm and save you money. They can also do so safely thanks to newer models with built-in safety features that minimize the risk of short circuits and fires.

Whether it’s cheaper to run a space heater than central heating depends on a number of variables, including the size of the space, how quickly you want to warm it, how many people you’re trying to warm, and how much money you’re willing to spend on a space heater.

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Consumer Reports’ lab engineers tested more than 90 space heaters and found that the highest-rated models can heat an average-sized room (200 square feet) in about 15 minutes, with individual models ranging between $36 and $739. Those costs don’t include the electricity needed to power the space heaters.

Heating costs for central units also vary depending on variables such as the size and age of the house (older homes tend to be less insulated) and the type of heat. The home’s condition also plays a role. Cracked walls, cheap insulation and doors and windows that aren’t energy efficient will cause heat to escape, driving up your monthly heating bill.

Central heating units that use fuels such as natural gas and coal to generate electricity are considered the least efficient, according to a blog from Ventwerx HVAC, a California HVAC repair and services company. That’s because 70% of the energy is wasted during the conversion process. In contrast, gas-fired systems are the most efficient, followed by systems fired by oil or coal.  

As Ventwerx noted, if you only need to warm up one or two rooms in your home, a space heater might be the more practical choice. Space heaters use less energy than central heating systems because they only have to heat a single space instead of the whole house. This is especially true of newer models, which are designed to be more energy efficient than older ones.

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The downside is that once you leave the room, you’ll need to carry the space heater to the next room to heat it up, which is both inconvenient and time consuming. The solution is to put a space heater in every room and have them run simultaneously. This gets expensive both in terms of the money spent on each individual heater and the electricity it takes to run them — especially in a big house (it also increases the risk of overheating your circuits). In this case, it would probably be more expensive to heat your home with space heaters than central heating.

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A separate blog from AirAce Heating & Cooling, an Illinois HVAC repair and services company, noted that space heaters “aren’t entirely useless” in terms of saving money, but they can only do so much. They work best when you only want to heat one room or small space, either by using the heater on its own or to supplement the heat you already have running. But if you need to heat more than one room, AirAce said “it’s best to forget about using space heaters.”

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About the Author

Vance Cariaga is a London-based writer, editor and journalist who previously held staff positions at Investor’s Business Daily, The Charlotte Business Journal and The Charlotte Observer. His work also appeared in Charlotte Magazine, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Business North Carolina magazine. He holds a B.A. in English from Appalachian State University and studied journalism at the University of South Carolina. His reporting earned awards from the North Carolina Press Association, the Green Eyeshade Awards and AlterNet. In addition to journalism, he has worked in banking, accounting and restaurant management. A native of North Carolina who also writes fiction, Vance’s short story, “Saint Christopher,” placed second in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Two of his short stories appear in With One Eye on the Cows, an anthology published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2019. His debut novel, Voodoo Hideaway, was published in 2021 by Atmosphere Press.
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