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Useful Advice Concerning Space Heaters

January 25, 2008

Useful Advice Concerning Space Heaters

For Immediate Release: January 25, 2008

It's That Time of Year:
State Energy Office Offers Useful Advice Concerning Space Heaters

The recent cold weather in Minnesota has given rise to advertisements promoting space heating devices that promise to drastically cut home heating bills. The claims, while not necessarily untrue, require certain circumstances in order for the devices to satisfy most consumers' expectations.

Electric resistance space heaters can provide supplemental heat for locations where the main heating source is inadequate. They can also provide additional heat for short periods of time—such as when changing a baby's clothes or when working at a computer. They are not designed for long-term constant usage, however, for these reasons:

  • Energy Efficiency  The claim of reducing "fuel bills" is sometimes misleading.  If you turn down the thermostat and use the space heater, you might see a decrease in your heating fuel costs—but you will likely see a significant increase in your electricity costs. In that case you are merely trading one fuel source (oil, propane, natural gas) for another (electricity). And depending on current prices for these fuels, your actual out-of-pocket costs to heat your home may actually be higher—if not today, then perhaps in the future.

  • "Greenness"  At present, the majority of electricity used in this state comes from coal-fired power plants, a key contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. On a per BTU basis, heat derived from sources other than coal (natural gas, propane, oil) contributes less carbon dioxide to the environment.

  • Safety  Space heaters of any type should never be left unattended. Although most new devices have thermostats and safety switches that turn off the appliance if tipped, other mishaps can occur that could lead to fires or other dangers. They can be placed too close to combustibles like drapery or furniture, or clothing or papers can fall on or in front of them. Pets or small children, seeking warmth, can get too close to them, as well.

If you decide to purchase an electric resistance space heater, you should know there is very little difference between models with the same wattage. Despite some claims, all electric resistance space heaters have the same efficiency. Comparing the efficiency of one model to another is misleading and reveals nothing about the merits of particular products. Over-paying, based on inflated or confusing claims, will not buy you a better product.

If your fuel bills are concerning you, there are many good alternatives for reducing your energy costs. Here are a few ideas:

  • Practice conservation. Turn down thermostats (use a programmable one) on furnaces and water heaters. Install low-flow showerheads. Put lighting on motion switches or timers. Unplug cell phone chargers, DVD players, TVs, and other devices when not in use. In short, be conscious of your energy usage, and reduce it whenever possible.

  • Get an energy audit. Available from utility companies and private contractors, an energy audit can help you decide which energy improvements make the most sense. The auditor will examine your energy usage, and will look at your insulation, windows, doors, appliances, and heating systems. Insist on a "blower door" test to determine air leakage, and inquire about other options, such as infrared images to pinpoint problem areas. Basic audits (a good place to start) cost $35-$50; more detailed audits (when buying a home, doing major remodeling, or if considering large energy improvements) cost $100 and up.

  • Invest in efficiency. Whenever you purchase things that use energy, buy the most efficient ones possible. Light bulbs, fans, appliances, furnaces, windows, insulation—all can provide efficiency dividends that can pay back today and into the future. Check out www.energystar.gov to learn about the best efficiency products.

  • Avoid energy scams. There is always a thread of believability in scams—especially as energy costs continue to rise. But keep in mind the old adage: "If it seems too good to be true… it is." Unsubstantiated or vague claims for energy saving appliances or devices should be carefully investigated before investing. Remember there are three "costs" for everything you buy: the initial cost, the maintenance and total operation cost, and the time or "grief" cost. Make sure you understand the entire cost of a product before you choose it.

For more information, the Office of Energy Security in the Minnesota Department of Commerce has publications, a website, and other resources to help you save energy—and money. Contact us at www.commerce.state.mn.us or call us at 1-800-657-3710 (MN only) or 651-539-1882.