Electric heaters: Are they expensive to run and can they replace central heating?

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Electric heaters: Are they expensive to run and can they replace central heating?

We live in an oil-fuelled house in the country and the pipes that supply central heating around the house have corroded, causing a major leak in the c

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We live in an oil-fuelled house in the country and the pipes that supply central heating around the house have corroded, causing a major leak in the ceiling above our kitchen. 

We have had to drain the central heating and turn it off completely whilst we figure out what to do. It’s so cold we may as well now be living in an igloo. Luckily the hot water runs on a different system.

It is the third time we’ve had this pipe problem, and the plumber who patched it up previously said it’s likely that everything needs replacing.

The immediate problem is our entire family are staying this Christmas, and the house will be full from 23 December until New Year’s day. 

Desperate times call for desperate measures: Our reader is wondering whether nine electric heaters for a 10-day Christmas emergency would be worth it

Desperate times call for desperate measures: Our reader is wondering whether nine electric heaters for a 10-day Christmas emergency would be worth it

Desperate times call for desperate measures: Our reader is wondering whether nine electric heaters for a 10-day Christmas emergency would be worth it

The house is quite large – there are nine rooms to heat – and extremely energy inefficient.

So I am considering a drastic solution in time for Christmas. Purchase nine electric heaters and then work out what to do after that. Is this a cunning plan or total folly?

How much will nine electric heaters cost to run at the same time for 10 days? Are electric heaters safe? There seems to be thousands of different types – which is best?

Long-term, fixing the leak and starting the system again is not an option because of the risk of a leak elsewhere. So either we will re-do the entire oil central heating system, which will cost a small fortune and is probably not that sensible given that oil might get phased out. 

Or we could go electric and install electric radiators where the existing radiators are. Any suggestions here would also be most welcome.

Ed Magnus of This is Money replies: This is very unfortunate timing, with just over a week before Christmas and freezing cold temperatures now upon us.

Most people considering an electric heater at the moment will likely be buying just one to warm a single room from time to time – perhaps when the rest of the house is unused.

You on the other hand are considering purchasing nine to heat the entire house.

It’s certainly a unique plan – but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad one. After all, desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures.

By the sounds of things your house is going to be an expensive beast to heat. Old houses with large rooms and high ceilings can look great, but there is often a price for that beauty.

Like with most things you buy these days, Google will provide what seems like an infinite amount of choice when it comes to electric heaters. 

Alternative plan: Body heat? Rather than spread out over nine rooms, keep to one or two rooms when possible because natural body heat will heat the room

Alternative plan: Body heat? Rather than spread out over nine rooms, keep to one or two rooms when possible because natural body heat will heat the room

Alternative plan: Body heat? Rather than spread out over nine rooms, keep to one or two rooms when possible because natural body heat will heat the room

You have to decide between the type of heater, the heat output, the price, the manufacturer and of course the design. That’s on top of reading product reviews before committing.

There are a number of different types of electric heaters than you can purchase, including halogen heaters, fan heaters, oil-filled heaters and convector heaters.

How much do electric heaters cost to buy and run?  

In terms of cost, the cheapest electric heaters can cost as little as £10 while the more expensive options can have you forking out more than £200.

The different forms of portable heater also come with different heat outputs.

This is because every appliance has a power rating, usually given in watts (W) or kilowatts (kW) – 1000W equals 1kW. 

This tells you the amount of electricity it uses – and how much it costs you will depend on how long it’s turned on.

Electricity is sold by kWh, which tends to come up as ‘units’ in your bill.

The most common outputs for electric heaters are 1.2 kilowatt (kW), 1.5 kW, 2 kW and 3kW. The higher the kilowatts, the more powerful the radiator is – but it will also be more expensive.

When it comes to appearance, some look as appealing as a miniature Dalek while others look as slick and modern as a smart TV. 

Some even connect to the internet and enable you to directly control them from an app on your smartphone.

As a rule of thumb, you will need 10 watts of heating power for every square foot of floor area in a room.

This means that a 2,000kW heater can be the primary heat source for an area measuring up to 200 square feet. That is almost 20 square meters.

Convector heaters will heat a room more thoroughly and these will be the best option if you are looking to heat a room for a large part of the day

Convector heaters will heat a room more thoroughly and these will be the best option if you are looking to heat a room for a large part of the day

Convector heaters will heat a room more thoroughly and these will be the best option if you are looking to heat a room for a large part of the day

You can work out how much an electrical appliance costs to run by multiplying the device’s wattage by the number of hours you use it and then by the cost of electricity. 

Using the current price cap rate, which is 34p per kWh, a 1.5 kW oil filled radiator costs 51p to run for an hour and a 1.2 kW halogen heater would cost 41p, for example.

To work out how much a heater would cost per day depends on how long it’s on for.

For example, if it’s eight hours, then it would be £4.08 for one 1.5kW oil filled radiator, multiplied by 9, that’s £36.72 per day, and over 10 days, that’s a total of £367.20.

If you go for a 2kW convector heater, which may be suitable for heating bigger rooms, one hour of usage will cost 68p. 

Eight hours of usage will therefore add up to about £5.44. If it’s nine heaters all on for eight hours a day, then that adds up to £43.52 a day. If you were to continue that usage for 10 days it’ll cost you £435.

Then you need to factor in the cost of buying the heaters in the first place. Were you to spend £50 on each electric heater, then nine will set you back £450.

Add that to the running costs and you could end up forking out almost a £1,000 to salvage your Christmas.

> Read our energy-saving tips and the myths that won’t do much 

COST OF USING DIFFERENT TYPES OF ELECTRIC HEATER 
Typical heat outputRunning costper hour (standard meter)Running cost per hour (Economy 7, night)Running costper hour (Economy 7, day)
Radiant bar fire2 kW68p35p79p
Halogen heater1.2 kW42p21p47p
Convector heater2 kW68p35p79p
Fan heater2 kW68p42p£1
Oil-filled radiator1.5 kW51p26p61p
Source: Centre for Sustainable Energy   

What are the different types of electric heater? 

Fan heaters are often a popular choice, but they may be noisy and are often not as powerful as other types of heater.

The Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) says a fan heater will be the preferable radiator when looking to heat a room for a short amount of time.

However, it said convector heaters will heat a room more thoroughly and these will be the best option if you are looking to heat a room for a large part of the day.

Oil-filled heaters are one of the more reliable varieties. Even though they tend to take slightly longer to heat up than other models, they will stay warmer for longer – even after they have been turned off.

Halogen heaters, most well known for keeping punters warm in pub gardens, are another option – but they work quickly and are relatively cheap to run.

To help in answering your question in more detail, we spoke to Emily Seymour, energy editor at Which?, Jenna Wilcox, energy advisor at the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Chantel Scheepers, chief executive of energy company Oaktree Power.

What do you make of their electric heater plan?

Emily Seymour replies: Running nine electric heaters concurrently will be expensive. 

A 2kW convector heater takes around half an hour to heat a room, so running nine heaters would cost about £3 in just 30 minutes.

Portable heaters can be a good way to heat a single zone for a limited amount of time, but when it comes to multi-room heating or heating throughout the day, costs do add up.

It might be worth using the electric heaters to get through the Christmas period. I wouldn’t use them as a long-term solution, and do use them sparingly – only heat occupied rooms and close doors to prevent heat from escaping. 

If you can, use oil-filled radiators or convector heaters, which are better than electric fan heaters for use over a longer period of time.

You don’t need to spend a lot for better performance. Every new portable heater has a thermostat, which is the most important feature.

Pub garden staple: Halogen heaters are another option as they work quickly and are relatively cheap to run

Pub garden staple: Halogen heaters are another option as they work quickly and are relatively cheap to run

Pub garden staple: Halogen heaters are another option as they work quickly and are relatively cheap to run

Chantel Scheepers replies: It seems you would need to invest in either new central heating or alternative in the near future, although the immediate need this Christmas is clearly a concern.

As with many things in life, making a hasty decision and buying several electric heaters without understanding the household’s future requirements could be costly in the long run.

If anyone in the family is suffering with any medical condition, double check that any short-term solution does not impact their health.

And if any small children are around, it might be wise to invest in fan heaters, as these would not be hot to touch compared to other options on the market.

What type of electric heater would be best?

Jenna Wilcox replies: I’ll start with the question of what to do over Christmas, assuming that getting a new central heating system installed before then isn’t going to be feasible. So electric heaters are your only option, really.

Broadly, there are two categories – convector or radiant. Convector heaters, such as oil filled radiators, are a good choice to warm up a room for a few hours at a time.

They take a little longer to work than radiant heaters, but can be easily controlled with a timer and thermostat, so you don’t overheat the room.

Is it cheaper to turn off the central heating in your house and use electric heaters instead?

Is it cheaper to turn off the central heating in your house and use electric heaters instead?

Is it cheaper to turn off the central heating in your house and use electric heaters instead?

Radiant heaters, for example halogen heaters, work quickly and are useful if you want to warm up only part of a room (or a person) for a short period, as they heat only what is in front of them.

Unlike convector heaters, they don’t achieve an even level of heat throughout the room, so often don’t bring the same level of comfort over time.

They rarely have thermostats or timers, which can make their running costs more expensive over long periods.

Any other words of advice?

Jenna Wilcox replies: As the heat from electric heaters is expensive, have a think about how long people are likely to be in each room and what they might be doing in them.

A fan heater would be the preferable radiator when looking to heat a room for a short amount of time

A fan heater would be the preferable radiator when looking to heat a room for a short amount of time

A fan heater would be the preferable radiator when looking to heat a room for a short amount of time

For example, when everyone is gathered in the kitchen or lounge, the heaters in the bedrooms can be turned off.

So an oil-filled radiator in the lounge might make sense, and you can set the thermostat so it automatically turns off when the desired temperature is reached.

You could use a timer to make sure the heaters in the bedroom go off automatically after a certain time, but also so that they come on say half an hour before people are likely to go to bed. This might be particularly suitable if you have elderly guests.

Alternatively, a halogen heater may be an option for bedrooms as they can put out a quick blast of heat just before bed or after getting up. However, people would need to remember to turn them off as these heaters should not be left on overnight.

What other energy savings measures could help?

Jenna Wilcox replies: You should also do your best to keep the heat in, and get the family on board.

Make sure the curtains are all closed as soon as it gets dark, and if you can, do some basic draughtproofing – block up unused chimneys, draughtproof letter boxes, seal draughts around windows. It’s a miracle what can be done with a tube of sealant.

Chantel Scheeper replies: There are a couple of practical ways to improve efficiency within the home for this winter.

First, use rugs in the bedrooms if there aren’t already carpets, as well as door stoppers.

Second, rather than spread out over nine rooms, keep to one or two rooms when possible because natural body heat will heat the room. 

Finally, for big rooms, perhaps move the furniture where possible to reduce or block off any draughts. 

> Read our guide on how and why you should consider changing your boiler flow temperature. 

Are electric heaters safe?

Emily Seymour replies: They are safe to run if used correctly.

Buy from a retailer you trust and check for the CE mark. When using them, ensure there’s enough space on all sides and they can’t be easily toppled.

Don’t place near furniture or fabrics, keep them clean and dry, and supervise during operation.

Jenna Wilcox adds: They should be run straight from the socket – rather than an extension, and placed on a flat surface, never covered with anything such as clothing or towels, and kept at least a meter away from soft furnishings.

Oil-filled radiators are very safe as they do not have an exposed element. Halogen heaters are more risky as they radiate intense heat in one direction so should be kept at a safe distance from people and furnishings.

So you could also factor this into your decision about what type of heater to put in each room. Heaters can also be moved from room to room – once cool, of course.

What should they do in the long run?

Emily Seymour replies: If you want to use electricity as a fuel source for heating long-term, you could look into installing a heat pump. 

These run with high efficiency, so you could potentially get a lot of heat from the energy you use.

However, you’ll only ever get your home up to temperature if it’s well-insulated. 

For an off-grid property, you could consider thermal energy storage, which is a way of storing and managing heat until it’s needed. 

This can be connected to multiple renewable heating sources, including solar panels or a heat pump, but can also use off-peak mains electricity as a back-up.

If it’s the cheapest option for you, don’t forgo an oil-fuelled central heating system for the fear of having it taken away from you. 

We may see a ban on new oil boiler purchases in the future, but no such ban currently exists, and it is not likely that any ban would affect boilers already installed.

Newly built houses off of the gas grid will have low-carbon heating from 2025, but this has nothing to do with the existing housing stock or boiler purchases today.

I suggest investing in the central heating system that’s affordable right now and looking to insulate and buy a heat pump in the long term, if possible.

Jenna Wilcox replies: Longer term, it would make sense to look at ways to make the house more efficient.

Can the walls, roof or floors be insulated? There are a wide range of products these days for all applications and property types, so even if your home is older and you want to retain a traditional look, there’s likely to be an option that works for you.

And it’s not just insulation – reducing air leaks can be very effective too, as mentioned above.

Start with the obvious – windows, doors – and move into other areas where warm air could be leaking out, like along skirting boards or through service inlets.

If you’re not sure where the air leaks are, you could check yourself using a smoke stick. These are inexpensive and available online.

Alternatively, you can use a thermal imaging camera or pay for a thermal imaging survey or air tightness test.

Thinking about heating options in the longer term really depends on how well insulated your home is.

Any electric heating system should only be installed in a well-insulated property, because electricity is expensive – much more than oil, or gas, per unit.

You’ve probably heard about heat pumps, which are likely to be the best solution for most properties.

When working properly, heat pumps should be around 300 per cent efficient, whereas a direct electric heater will only ever be 100 per cent efficient, so heat pumps should always work out best – when properly designed and installed.

There is currently Government funding of between £5,000 and £6,000 available to install a heat pump through the boiler upgrade scheme, but it’s absolutely vital that you address the fabric of your home first to ensure it’s well insulated.

Get some advice on how to approach this from a retrofit expert or architect.

Tips on how to keep your home warm and energy efficient

Mark Ronald, lead engineer at Hometree, has given his top tips on how to keep your house warm in the winter months. 

1) Turn down the thermostat. During colder weather, it’s easy to turn up the heat in your home to help take the chill off and warm your home faster. But in fact, keeping your heating at a more ambient temperature of 18°C or 19°C can keep your home just as warm, but will also save you money on heating bills. 

2) Replace your boiler with an energy efficient one. Half of what you spend on energy every year is down to your boiler, so it’s more important than ever to make sure you think about the efficiency of your boiler to make sure you’re not paying any more than you should, particularly as energy prices remain high.  

3) Switch your heating on only when it’s needed. The best way to save energy, and therefore how much your bills are, is to schedule your central heating to come on at specific times during the day or to put it on as and when you need it.  

4) Dodge the draught. Draughts in a house can make it exceptionally hard to keep it warm, especially in winter months. Sealing any unwanted gaps and keeping a well-insulated home is an easy and affordable way to cut down on energy use and could help you save hundreds on your bills.

5) Do a maintenance check on your appliances. When it comes to your boiler, an annual service by a Gas Safe registered engineer will ensure your heating and hot water system is running efficiently and, most importantly, there are no faults or leaks that could cause serious risk.

6) Maximise your heat. Think about where your heat sources are and if anything is blocking the warmth from circulating in your home. Having curtains or a sofa in front of a radiator will absorb the heat that could be helping to warm the rest of the room, therefore wasting energy and making the house feel colder than it is. 

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