How to heat our home this winter?
August 28, 2012 7:34 PM   Subscribe

Is it worth it to use space heaters (instead of the built-in baseboard heaters) to keep warm this winter? If so, how?

My partner and I rent a roughly 500 square foot apartment in Seattle. Last winter we were shocked to pay almost $300 every two months for electricity, no doubt entirely due to our electric baseboard heaters. (For reference, we paid just under $20 for this most recent billing period of June/July.)

As you might guess, we have zero love for these baseboard heaters. They're very inconsistent: some are like tiny infernos, while others barely produce heat at all. Perhaps worse, we have no way of timing the heat to be, for example, cooler overnight than when we get up in the morning. And of course, because each of our 6 heaters has its own controls, we couldn't install a central thermostat even if we wanted to.

We're thinking now about investing in a couple (?) space heaters in an effort to reduce our electricity bills for the next few winters. I've done a bit of research and am a bit overwhelmed. Our only bedroom can be sealed off, but the rest of the apartment is quite open. I understand the basics of how to make an apartment efficient for winter, but I don't know about making this switch to space heaters.

How can I calculate whether this will be worth the investment? Any anecdotal experiences with trying this? Any heater recommendations?
posted by CutaneousRabbit to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've done this, though I used one solely to heat the bedroom at night, while letting the rest of the terribly insulated rental house fall to ~50°F. Working at home at the time, I'd stick it under my desk in the day to supplement the wood stove, in an effort to keep the central heat turned off. It was a great success, and knocked a chunk off my ~$300/month electric bill. You could always experiment—buy one, and then if the effect on your bill is looking good, buy another, then another, etc.

Please look at Consumer Reports' ratings of space heaters before you buy one. Some of them are wildly unsafe, and others quite inefficient. When I bought my space heater, back around 2007, I bought CR's top-rated one, and was very happy with it.

Incidentally, we had great luck with insulated curtains, which my wife made. We'd have frost on the inside of the windows in the morning, but it would be comparatively warm on the other side of the curtains. Recommended!
posted by waldo at 7:44 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Anecdotally, our heating needs are consistent but not dire in the winter (SoCal - we close the windows in November and need nighttime heat Dec-Mar and evening heat Dec-Feb), and our central heat essentially doesn't work so we don't use it. The key, for us, is space heaters with thermostats, which is probably exactly what you don't get from the baseboard heaters. We also only need to heat two rooms at night (1000sf, just 1br + LR need heat), plus heated blankets.

We use a tiny oscillating thing in the bedroom, which is almost fully occupied by a king-size bed. We use a tall oscillating heater in the living room, where it needs to blow in a slightly larger area and where we need a little more heat in the evenings (and then turn it down for dogs, who have a comforter to curl up in overnight).

The downside is that consumer heaters all draw 1500w; it's not a cheap pull. But where we tip the scales is on the heated mattress pad, which has an estimated 61w draw. We also use a heated throw in the living room with the dogs; it only has a 3hr timer, but we figure it heats up the sofa and throws back heat for many hours after, and they've never woken us up complaining. It can be in the 50s in the bedroom and we're very comfortable on the mattress pad under the covers.

This kind of heat doesn't do much to dry out the air; you may feel a lot colder because of humidity than we do here (where I have to run a humidifier in the winter sometimes), but the mattress pad or blanket does really amazing things for contact heat.

We buy our heaters at either Target or Costco. We have very old shitty wiring, and so have to plug our heaters into power strips so they'll trip that fuse before they blow the house fuses. You may be luckier than us there.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:55 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

How modern is your apartment? We would use space heaters if we could, but running them on the same circuit as a computer or other large appliance blows the fuse. And we both need to work on our computers from home fairly regularly, so no space heaters until we can re-wire.
posted by instead of three wishes at 7:55 PM on August 28, 2012

You can use your electric baseboard heaters just like space heaters. Turn off all the units except the ones in the room you're in.
posted by 6550 at 7:57 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can't help with figuring out your apartment's cost/benefit ratios for baseboard vs. space heating, but I can say I've had great experiences with oil-filled radiators; they're safer than heaters with exposed elements and once they heat up they radiate heat for a long time without constantly using electricity. They seemed to me to be much cheaper than using central heat all the time. Turn one on in the bedroom a couple hours before you go to sleep, then move it into the bathroom a half hour before you want to shower in the morning (or get a 2nd one and turn it on then go back to bed for a half hour), and you'll find the need for central heating diminishing significantly. I suppose there's also some way to use timers to turn them on and off when you most need them, but I've been fine just doing it by hand.

Oil-filled radiators are by far the best space heaters, in my experience - quiet, powerful and relatively cost-efficient.
posted by mediareport at 8:22 PM on August 28, 2012

(Actually, I see at Amazon that many models incorporate timers; I've been using the same one for over a decade as an adjunct/replacement for central heating so haven't had to buy one in a long time.)
posted by mediareport at 8:27 PM on August 28, 2012

Using space heaters will be more efficient if by using it you don't heat the entire room to the temperature you would need to run the baseboards at feel as comfortable. So certainly running it under your desk and mostly heating yourself is better than heating the whole room. Also an electric blanket is much cheaper than a baseboard for overnight heating.

You can get set back thermostats for electric base board heat if you have wall mounted thermostats. They are fairly cheap; starting around $25 each and aren't any harder to install than a light switch if you are at all electrically handy. Sadly there isn't really a renter friendly option for baseboards with built in thermostats.

It's strange that you are seeing so much variation in output between different heaters. It won't make any difference to your consumption but you might want to inspect the ratings plates and see if the heaters are the correct voltage; someone might have accidentally installed the wrong voltage.

waldo writes "Please look at Consumer Reports' ratings of space heaters before you buy one. Some of them are wildly unsafe, and others quite inefficient. "

All electric heaters are 100% efficient; all electric heat is.

instead of three wishes writes "We would use space heaters if we could, but running them on the same circuit as a computer or other large appliance blows the fuse. And we both need to work on our computers from home fairly regularly, so no space heaters until we can re-wire."

If this turns out to be an issue most of the oil filled and practically all of the ceramic heaters I've seen have two heat settings. The lower setting is usually half the heater element for an output of 750 watts instead of 1500. And you can get plug in base boards with draws as low as a few hundred watts. Under desk panel heaters are usually only about 150 watts.
posted by Mitheral at 8:30 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

All electric heaters are 100% efficient; all electric heat is.

You're talking about how well they warm up their heating elements; I'm talking about how well they actually heat a room. (Or, rather, Consumer Reports is talking about how well they heat a room. I have no idea.) For instance, as I recall, they found that the strip-style heaters (say, 12" tall and 3' wide) heat rooms more efficiently than the squat, plug-style heaters.
posted by waldo at 8:43 PM on August 28, 2012

I have been in my house for 2 winters, and have tried mostly space heaters (the first winter) and mostly baseboard heaters (the second). I'm in Olympia, so same climate, but the rest of my situation is different. I have a 2 story house with a gas stove downstairs. We live upstairs right now (renovation!), and use the gas stove to keep the upstairs at about 50 degrees F, and use additional electric heat to keep comfortable.

The space heater winter (2011), I used the space heater in the room I was in, never left one running when I was out of the room, and didn't even turn the baseboard heaters on, and used 463 kWh in January. Also, unless I was sitting directly in front of the space heater, I was cold all of the time.

The baseboard heater winter (2012), I found that the baseboard heaters didn't work very well for on-demand heat, because they heated the room so slowly. I ended up leaving them on low in the rooms we use most (bathroom, bedroom, and the room we are using as the living room). In addition, I had to use one space heater frequently because my office does not have a baseboard heater. In Jan. I used 1491 kWh. In general, during baseboard heater winter I was much warmer, because I heated more rooms, but it was (much!) more expensive, because I heated more rooms. Hope there's something helpful there.
posted by periscope at 9:37 PM on August 28, 2012

I'm not a huge fan of standalone electric heaters. The inefficiency compared to a boiler is not an issue for you, given that your alternative is also electric heat. But they are one more thing in the way and sometimes present a burning or fire hazard.

You might be better served trying to make the existing baseboards more efficient. Are they all clear of obstruction? If the air can't make its way past them then it's going to do a poor job heating and you'll have them up higher, losing heat to conduction into the walls they're mounted onto. I'd try a few small fans to circulate the air over them.
posted by phearlez at 7:39 AM on August 29, 2012

A few years back we took out our coal stove to sell the house it was in, and in the interim used a vornado heater - it heated the living room well and there was enough heat drafted off into the kitchen and hall that it was perfectly comfortable (and after the aggravation, mess, and dirt of the coal stove, it made me wish we'd been doing that all along!).

But mostly now, other than keeping the kiddo's room a comfortable temp overnight, we focus on keeping us comfortable rather than maintaining a constant temperature throughout the room. Socks, blankets, sweaters, I have a heating pad that I'll sit on, and I have a space heater for when we've got the thermostat lower than I feel comfortable. I've tried most types - we've got an oil-filled radiator in the kiddo's room, an electric heater with a ceramic element in the basement, and a mica panel space heater in the living room. Of all the types, I prefer the vornado, but they all do the job, it's just a different job. The ceramic heater has a blower so it puts out heat faster. The oil radiator maintains a constant low level heat, as does the mica panel. The vornado runs almost constantly but it circulates the air and keeps a fairly level temperature - but not a quick immediate increase in temperatures.
posted by lemniskate at 11:29 AM on August 29, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the input everyone. I ended up ordering a good sized oil-filled heater. Depending on how that works for us, we may or may not get a small ceramic heater (with a timer) for the bedroom, or to supplement in other areas.

What I'm thinking will really make this work well is a programmable thermostat that plugs into an outlet. The model that I got was the only one I could find -- the Lex WIN100 -- but it seems like it will automate the temperature management and allow us to alter the temp of the house based on when we're present/conscious.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 9:49 PM on August 29, 2012

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