How should I stay warm this winter?
October 25, 2009 8:40 PM   Subscribe

Which is more efficient/economical to run: a baseboard heater or an oil-filled radiator-type space heater?

I'm a Californian getting ready for my first winter in Massachusetts. My apartment has electric baseboard heaters. I have never had those before, and I'm worried my bill is going to be HUGE once it gets cold. It doesn't help that whenever I tell someone those are the heaters I have they dramatically wince and hiss through their teeth. Also, one of my neighbors said her bill was several hundred dollars a month last winter. I'm thinking an oil-filled radiator might be sufficient and a lot less expensive to run.

Bonus question: I have two cats, and would love to have a safer heating source to leave on if I'm going to be out for several hours or overnight. A different neighbor, who also has cats, says she leaves her heaters on when she's not home, but that seems really unsafe to me. Are baseboard heaters safe, or are the other ones safer?

Here are the details:
My living room is basically one big room with a doorway to the kitchen on one end. The living room and kitchen each have drafty old windows (both of which I have covered with that lovely plastic sheeting stuff, which has already helped a lot). There is a front door and a back door that both open up to unheated stairwells. I bought weatherstripping for the doors but haven't installed it yet. My apartment is on the top/second floor, with apartments below and on either side. The building was built in the 70s. The windows and heaters seem to date from then too.

There is one long baseboard heater underneath the window. It's controlled by a dial thermostat on the opposite wall near the kitchen and front door. I spend most of my time at my desk or on the couch, which are near one end of the heater, in the opposite corner from the thermostat. It seems like I could get a space heater to warm the corner where the cats and I spend the most time, and avoid having the baseboard heater running and heating the whole room. I'm an impoverished grad student, and am worried about having to pay huge chunks of my stipend to WMECO. Would it be less expensive to run the space heater, and would that be enough to keep me and the cats warm?

I used to live in a drafty old house in Portland, where the wind ripped the plastic sheets right off the windows and we kept the thermostat at 60, so I know the drill about bundling up indoors and am generally a hot person anyway, but I have never been through a New England winter and I don't know if my plan is realistic or not. Can anyone with experience chime in?
posted by apricot to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Effing Boston. Snow. Much much snow.

I'm from NYC, but had my own heating problems in a poorly run Manhattan apt building there. And then there's my dayz in a country not known for central heat (Go NZ!) I now live in LA.

(BTW - Yankees just won! Watch out Philly:))

I avoid most space heaters for safety or economic reasons. I've had no problems with the oil-filled radiator type - except they are woefully inefficient until they really "get going."

This Soleus-Air ceramic heater I picked up at Home Depot is both quick to heat, $$ efficient, and saftey-minded. I paid under $30 upon purchase - it effectively heats a regular sized living room lickity split.

Overall, I recommend ceramic heaters with timers and tip-over safety mechanisms.

The Soleus model mentioned has a fan, so the heat spreads quickly. Maybe a few of those for when you are home?

I recommend keeping a baseboard heater in play on low while you are out of the house. I had a childhood friend who kept an outdoors feral stray cat fed most winters, cold didn't seem to be much an issue. That cat lived exclusively under the backyard deck. Not sure your cats would freeze to death based on 12+ years experience with this cat outdoors in NorthEast winters, but why chance it? Plus - you don't want your plumbing to freeze! (PS - ask you landlord about the pipe-care during winter...)

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 9:24 PM on October 25, 2009

Response by poster: Actually, I'm in Western Mass near Amherst, far from Boston. Not that it matters, but I'm obligate to clarify. People are fussy about that around here. :)

The lowest setting on the baseboard heaters is 50. Maybe I should leave them at that, or even 55 or 60, and supplement with a space heater. That's a good idea to ask the landlord about pipes. I'm pretty sure they're all in internal walls and are probably okay, but I'll ask anyway.

Thanks for your advice!
posted by apricot at 9:46 PM on October 25, 2009

Baseboard heaters are generally safe, as long as you don't leave things on top of them. If there's six inches of space around them in all directions, there's not a problem.

Production of heat from electricity is 100% efficient no matter how it is done. No way of doing it is more efficient than any other. Therefore, to get a certain specific amount of heat energy into your house, it will cost the same amount of money no matter what device does the conversion.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:49 PM on October 25, 2009

Best answer: I'm not sure I agree with Chocolate Pickle. One of the advantages to the portable radiator type of ambient heaters is that they aren't heating the air directly -- they heat the oil, which then heats the air, and the oil has a thermal mass which then continues to radiate even after the actual heating of the oil has stopped.

BUT... Let me share with you a little story. We used to have several of the oil-filled radiators in our house here in Eastern WA, where the winters can be quite bitterly cold.

Until one day, I came home from work early because of some reason, I don't exactly remember why. But thank goodness I did, because when I walked into the living room, I discovered that the oil was leaking very slowly from the radiator there, and WAS ON FIRE. It was a bit odd, to walk in and see this flame coming from beneath what should be a flameless heat source. I quickly got the fire extinguished and moved that radiator out of the house entirely. Thank goodness I actually came home early that day -- if I had stayed at work for another 3 hours, who knows what the result of the leaking / burning heater might be!

We soon discovered a sort of new technology in the passive room heater realm: the "micathermic heater". I don't know exactly what is so special about this heater, why it does what it does or any of that... BUT I have to tell you, it has been one of the most amazing heaters we've ever owned. With the oil-filled radiator heaters, we would keep them on all the time to get the room up to a temperature we could deal with, and then every winter we would burn between 1 and 2 cords of wood getting the room actually warm during the winters. Last winter, with the new micathermic heater, we burned under 1/2 cord of wood -- the heater is just THAT good at keeping the room warm.

They come in wall-mountable models. We have a freestanding type we got at Costco for ~$40. What's even better, we don't really notice a hit to our electric bill. I'm sure it increases somewhat, but not NEARLY as much as running the in-wall "electric fire" type heaters that this house was built with in the 50s. Not as much as running the baseboard heaters, either. (And since this is one, small heat source, not 4 units like we have with the baseboard heaters, it's a LOT less electricity.)

I suggest you check this kind of heater out -- we cannot recommend them highly enough.
posted by hippybear at 12:55 AM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: "Are baseboard heaters safe, or are the other ones safer?"

Baseboard heaters are generally the safest option. They are designed and tested for unattended use which most if not all space heaters are not. Not to say all space heaters are unsafe. It's hard to imagine the oil filled radiator style especially ever causing a fire except through intential misuse and or defect.

hippybear writes "I'm not sure I agree with Chocolate Pickle. One of the advantages to the portable radiator type of ambient heaters is that they aren't heating the air directly -- they heat the oil, which then heats the air, and the oil has a thermal mass which then continues to radiate even after the actual heating of the oil has stopped."

All electric heaters are 100% efficient with the slight caveat that heaters that glow will lose a minuscule amount of their energy consumption to light escaping out windows. This is true regardless of how many layers of assorted materials the heat has to go through. The oil filled heaters are a good choice for some because they require no fan so are quiet, are safe to touch for those with kids and pets, and because the radiators are so large they give off a "gentler" heat. But they aren't any more or less efficient than ceramic, resistive or other types of electric heat.

Space heating can be more economical because you are losing less energy from your house if you keep temperatures lower. Spending 1500 watts heating your office is better than spending 6000 watts heating your whole house.

Generally speaking though you want to keep your house above 50 to err on the side of caution in preventing pipes from freezing. Your lease may even require it.

I'm not familiar with the name but hippybear's mica heater may be of the radiant style where long wave IR heats your body directly allowing greater set back of your thermostat. I've never liked the burnt marshmellow feel of that style of heater and they don't work as well if you are willing to wear several layers of clothing to compensate for lower thermostat set points.
posted by Mitheral at 7:08 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Electric baseboard heaters are very efficient, and you really shouldn't be worried about the bill of heating an apartment (heat isn't included in your rent?): even if you pay for it yourself with baseboard heaters alone, it should be inexpensive and efficient.
posted by Eicats at 7:57 AM on October 26, 2009

Electric heating is always 100% efficient at converting electrical energy to heat as others have said. The reason everyone is wincing when you mention your heaters is because electrical heating is usually the most expensive way to heat a home.

It's straight thermodynamics: generating the electricity has to be done in a power station which is at best something like 48% efficient at turning heat into electrical power & probably much closer to 30% than 50%. Unless you have access to unusually cheap electrical power it's almost always cheaper to just burn a fuel of some sort and use the heat generated directly to heat your home: modern condensing boilers are about 90% efficient.

This doesn't really help you though, since you probably can't change the heating system in your apartment.
posted by pharm at 8:33 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: At night, if you put a small electric heating pad in your bed, you can stay very warm very efficiently. Those pads are awesome because they warm YOU, not the air.

For the cats, I build mine a couple of warm little "huts" around the house. I take a covered cardboard box (like an office paper box), cut a hole in one side for a doorway, and line it with a couple of old sweaters or a fleece blanket (also if it's on a cold floor, I put an inch thick layer of newspaper in the bottom under the blankets, to insulate it from the floor. That way the cat can get in there and snuggle up and stay warm in his own little nest if he gets chilly. Not that I'm suggesting you offer a hut instead of heating the house, but maybe instead of heating every single room the cats like to hang out in.
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:35 AM on October 26, 2009

One of the advantages to the portable radiator type of ambient heaters is that they aren't heating the air directly -- they heat the oil, which then heats the air, and the oil has a thermal mass which then continues to radiate even after the actual heating of the oil has stopped.

What that is doing is to change the release pattern. But the absolute amount of heat, in joules, is the same for the same number of joules of electrical energy consumed by the heater.

If you've found a way to produce more heat energy than the amount of electrical energy consumed, you're good for a Nobel prize in physics because you've invented perpetual motion.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:55 AM on October 26, 2009

I'm not familiar with the name but hippybear's mica heater may be of the radiant style where long wave IR heats your body directly allowing greater set back of your thermostat.

Micathermic heaters are passive background heaters, and we use them for indirect full-room heat, not for direct radiant heat. Not sure if that's what you're talking about there, but it's something we don't use to warm our bodies directly, but rather to heat the air in the room overall. They are made to work with convection currents.
posted by hippybear at 6:41 PM on October 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everyone! I marked a few as "best answer."

I think I'll try the baseboard heaters for now, and if my bill is too outrageous then try a micathermic heater like Hippybear suggests.
posted by apricot at 7:37 PM on October 27, 2009

Response by poster: For future readers of this question:

My highest electric bill was $125, but that was in December when I was home and cooking a lot. It was about $75 in November and January, and is now back to $50 or so. I was worried about it being hundreds of dollars but it was definitely manageable.

I was very frugal with my heat. I covered all of my windows with plastic sheets. It looked terrible, but really cut the drafts. I kept the thermostats on the baseboard heaters at 50 degrees, and raised it to 60 in the living room when I was home. I wore sweaters and shawls, and never really felt too cold. It helps that I tend to be hot all the time regardless of the weather. I got an electric blanket for my bed, which the cats loved too. I also got them a cube-shaped bed, which they pretty much lived in for the whole winter. It got super toasty in there!
posted by apricot at 4:16 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

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