The house is cold, but you’re the only one home and you’re working in one room. Should you plug in a small space heater or use an electric baseboard heater? It depends on the type of heating you already have and the amount of heat you want. If you want to heat the whole room, you might want a baseboard heater. If you want to heat a small area on a sporadic basis, it can be more efficient to use a space heater.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
While space heaters are fairly cheaper than baseboard heaters, the latter is safer to use and heats up an entire room as opposed to a small area in intervals.
Baseboard heaters cost about $60 to $300. They are more expensive than space heaters, but they are safer to use because there is less potential of fire. Space heaters are more likely to cause a fire, so they must be used with caution. Baseboard heaters have protective covers that prevent potential burns. They also do not use the noisy fans that space heaters use. Baseboard heaters use 500 to 2,000 watts of electricity and require 120 or 240 volt circuits. They do not have a flame, and they do not generate carbon monoxide. They also can’t tip over.
Baseboard heaters can be a cheap, relatively safe way to heat an unheated room without the need to add ducts. Over the long term, they're considerably more efficient than space heaters. However, if you’re using it as a primary source of heat, be aware that the U.S. Department of Energy says baseboard heat is one of the most expensive ways to heat your home. Baseboard heat can, however, be a cheap way of supplementing your heat.
How Baseboard Heaters Work
Baseboard heaters allow warm air to rise up through the cold, so they are a good choice for areas that have cold drafts from windows. Choose the size you need based on the amount of space you want to heat.
Some baseboard heaters use electric coils to warm the surrounding air. These are called convection units. Other heaters are hydronic or oil-filled versions. These use an element that heats the water or oil, which then heats the air. These units are more efficient than convection units.
When plugging in or installing a baseboard unit, make sure you have ¾ inch of clearance between the baseboard unit and the carpet or floor to allow for proper air circulation. Also, make sure any curtains above the unit are no closer than four to eight inches.
Baseboard Heater Efficiency
Watch to see how much your electricity bill rises the first month you use it. If your electricity usage increases considerably, you might consider finding a more efficient way to heat the room. A 1,200 square-foot, well-insulated house in most climates heated by baseboard heat averages 12,000 watts of power, or about $400 per month. This could go up if your home is poorly insulated or temperatures are extremely cold.
If you’re using a baseboard heater on a daily basis in the cold months, it should be cleaned regularly to remove the cobwebs and dust from inside the unit. That will make it work more efficiently. You’ll need to remove the front of the unit and thoroughly vacuum the unit. It’s best to clean them two or three times a year, especially if you have pets.
Space heaters are cheaper to buy, usually costing from $25 to $100. They’re only cheaper to use, however, if you’re using them to heat a small area or to supplement heat in one room. Space heaters are not as efficient as baseboard heaters and should never be used as a main heat source. Make sure you buy one that is energy efficient. Do some research to learn which models are the most energy efficient.
How Space Heaters Work
A space heater contains a convection system with a heat exchanger that converts cold air to warm air. A fan distributes the warm air into the room. These can be noisy. Regular usage can increase your monthly utility bills. The average cost to run one per day is $2.80. Space heaters work well when used for short periods of time. Space heaters work by heating the people and objects in the room rather than the air in the room.
Caution on Space Heaters
Space heaters should never be used if you’re not in the same room with the heater or if you're asleep. Space heaters carry safety concerns that baseboard heaters do not. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that space heaters are a culprit in 25,000 residential fires per year, resulting in 300 deaths annually. They can also cause serious burns.
Karen Gardner is a former feature editor and writer and is now a freelance writer. She looks forward to doing her family's taxes each year, and likes to write about home finances and money subjects for the rest of us.