What Is a Space Heater? How to Choose the Right Type for Your Home

Looking to warm up just one room in the house? Try a space heater to keep enclosed spaces toasty all winter long.

close up of a space heater

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A space heater is a device used for heating rooms and enclosed spaces. It can be used indoors or outside, but most require an outlet nearby as an energy source. Most space heaters are electric, but some outdoor models use natural gas or propane. They come in various sizes and shapes. 

When used correctly, space heaters can be a safe, cost-effective way to keep rooms warm during cold months. These days, they come with safety features that automatically shut off the device when any tipping or water is detected. Space heaters can be used in conjunction with your home's existing heating system—like radiators or forced air—or as a standalone heating source in a place without any built-in heat source. Here is a look at the pros and cons of the different types of space heaters on the market today.

Types of Space Heaters

1. Oil-Filled Radiator Heaters

These heaters are filled with oil and have metal fins to radiate the heat. They are often called “radiator heaters” because they look like traditional radiators found in older houses. They must be plugged into an electrical energy source for the oil to be heated inside the device. You don’t need to replace the oil at any time.

Pros: When in use, radiator heaters take time to warm up, but they stay hot for a long time. Another pro is that they're quiet, unlike fan-based space heaters.

Cons: These heaters are hot to the touch, making it easy for pets, kids, and adults to mistakenly burn themselves. Also, because the oil is flammable, there’s always the danger of the device catching fire. Tipping is a particularly common fire hazard, but many newer space heaters have an automatic shut-off when tipping is detected.

2. Ceramic Heaters

This type of electric space heater has a ceramic roll with metal coils that heat up and blow hot air into the room.

Pros: Ceramic heaters are lightweight and very portable, making them perfect for a person on the move. The cost of ceramic space heaters may vary depending on the size, voltage, and wattage. They are compact but quickly and evenly heat up a space. They can last a very long time before breaking and are a very cost-effective purchase.

Cons: Ceramic heaters often dry out the air, making a room feel stuffy. Also, they aren’t very good at heating large spaces, so this is not a solution for an open-concept home.

3. Infrared Heaters

These energy-efficient space heaters use infrared rays to heat the room. These kinds of heaters are often found in outdoor restaurants. Because they emit an orange color, they also offer ambient light.

Pros: They are very quiet and best used to target specific areas in a room. Because infrared space heaters convert energy almost immediately, you’ll notice the heat as soon as the heater is on. However, the moment it goes off, you’ll also feel the loss of heat. This is different from an oil-filled heater, which takes time to cool down and thus keeps the room warm even after the device is turned off.

Infrared devices don’t change the humidity in the room, so you shouldn’t feel itchy or dry skin or sinuses after using one.

Cons: A con to infrared space heaters is that prolonged use could harm skin cells, even causing discoloration. 

4. Quartz Space Heaters

A quartz space heater produces heat from infrared light, which is invisible to the eye. Quartz and infrared heaters are similar. They both use electricity. However, quartz heaters have a quartz element to heat the surroundings, while infrared heaters use different materials, like carbon fibers and tungsten.

Pros: In comparison to a ceramic heater, quartz uses less energy.

Cons: As a kind of short-wave radiant heat source, quartz heaters warm spaces in straight lines, so if you want to be warmest, you need to be within a sight line of the heater.

5. Propane Space Heaters

These heaters can heat indoor and outdoor spaces, but they are often called “blue flame” heaters. They use natural gas, but many newer models have an automatic low-oxygen shut-off system (oxygen depletion sensors or ODS) that turns the device off if oxygen levels drop in the space.

Pros: They can be wall-mounted or freestanding, and some work at high altitudes. Blue flame heaters add moisture to a space, so you might need to open a window or door occasionally. These work well in insulated spaces.

Cons: Propane space heaters come with the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. To stay safe, make sure your carbon monoxide detector is working.

rustic living room fireplace

Michael Partenio

What is the best space heater for a large room?

Well, that depends. For large rooms, infrared panels are ideal because they quickly warm the whole space. If the space has an open concept, these heaters can be against a wall or hang overhead. Since infrared heating warms within sight lines, you might want something else if your space has many compartments. 

If your room is full of furniture or has walls blocking sight lines, try electric and ceramic heaters with a fan, which helps circulate warm air across and around a room. 

Which space heater is safest?

If used properly, they are all safe. Always read the manufacturer's instructions carefully before using a space heater. They need to be placed on a dry, level surface, away from flammable materials. Keep them away from curtains, fabrics, or flammable items. While many space heaters now have tip-protection devices and other shut-off mechanisms, they should never be left unattended. Do not leave a space heater running while out of the room, out of the house, or asleep. 

And remember to keep children and pets away from space heaters, even if the devices are cool to the touch.

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