How to Choose an Infrared Space Heater

Infrared Space Heaters
Hampton Bay Legion Panoramic Infrared Electric Stove. Photo Courtesy of Home Depot

Unlike other supplemental heating appliances, infrared heaters do not heat large quantities of air, but instead, they emit infrared radiation that only warms the objects the radiation touches. The physics involved is similar to the way sunlight warms objects, which means there is a natural feel to being warmed by the heat from an infrared space heater.

The Advantages of Infrared Space Heaters

Infrared heaters can be a more energy-efficient option than many other space heaters, and because they do not move large quantities of air around, they don't dry out the air excessively or move dust around, as, for example, a forced air heating system does. They are also considerably safer than other types of space heaters since the heating coils do not become ultra hot. They have gained popularity of late as an efficient form of zone heating to keep a room, space or zone warm and comfortable. 

There is a tendency to measure infrared heater efficiency in terms of how quickly a heater heats a room, but some portable heaters can heat up a room just as quickly, so there's more to consider when it comes to efficiency.  And though infrared heating technology is known to be efficient when compared to some other forms of electric heat, there is a lack of sound testing data of infrared heaters to quantify this efficiency. You should be careful about exorbitant claims of energy savings with an infrared heater. While they certainly do consume less energy than some other electric radiant heaters, the actual energy saved needs to be measured in terms of kilowatt hours used to heat the space.

Consumers should consider several aspects and features, before buying an infrared heater to make sure they get the best value and buy the best infrared heater for the space.

This article will focus on electric infrared heaters suitable for indoor home use, but be aware that there are also propane infrared heaters that are often used on outdoor construction sites. These are not included in this article's discussion. 

Types of Portable Electric Infrared Heaters

There are three styles of electric infrared heaters:

  • Portable wheeled units with infrared heating technology. 
  • More compact heaters with (partial) infrared capability combined with other forms of heating systems.
  • Freestanding electric infrared fireplaces.

Some units are portable and can be easily relocated, either simply carrying by hand or, with larger models, using built-in wheels. Fireplaces are freestanding, bulky and most would be cumbersome to relocate, though not impossible. Fireplace-style units also offer an aesthetic plus, as many units are quite attractive and add ambiance to a room. This comes at a price, of course, as some of these units are expensive. 

Features to Look For

Whether you are shopping for a small table-top unit, a larger portable model with wheels, or a fixed fireplace style infrared heater, where are some features to look for: 

  • Built-in thermostat and easy-to-set controls
  • Fan
  • Quartz bulb(s)--the longer the life, the better the value
  • Cool-to-the-touch exterior
  • Heating capacity suitable for the area (some can heat 1000 sq. ft. or more)
  • Stable design that resists tipping
  • Wheels that swivel
  • Return/refund policy

Bells and Whistles

Though not as efficient as stand-alone appliances that clean or humidify the air,  some infrared heaters come with premium features you might find worth the investment:  

  • Replaceable air filter
  • Built-in humidifier
  • Operating light
  • Stylish design
  • Ultra-quiet fan
  • Compact cabinets
  • Longer-than-average warranty
  • More liberal return/refund policy

Energy Efficiency

While we know that infrared heat is an efficient technology, the overall efficiency of the unit depends greatly on how the unit is engineered and constructed.  You should realize some energy savings with an infrared heater, but its construction materials and design will influence how much you'll save. This can be hard to determine with precision since infrared heaters are generally not part of the Energy Star program. If Energy Guide labels are supplied, this can give a way to compare energy costs between different models. 

Remember, too, that there is more to energy efficiency than simply energy consumption. The appliances must be disposed of at some time in the future, and they have replacement parts that must be manufactured. Don't assume an infrared is necessarily a "greener" option than other heating appliances. 

Be skeptical of marketing claims that an infrared heater will cut your electrical usage in half. Such savings are rarely achieved, even for homeowners who turn down the main heating system and use an infrared heater for zone heating.

And you should not expect any energy savings at all if you are adding a heater without decreasing the consumption of another heating system. But you should see some decrease in electricity use if you are using an infrared heater to warm a room while turning down your more costly whole-home central heating system.

What to Avoid

  • Avoid heaters equipped with short-life bulbs. Replacement bulbs are expensive and may be difficult to find. Look for heaters that feature long-life infrared bulbs. 
  • Don't buy a heater that is not thermostatically controlled. If you can't control the heat output, it can end up costing a lot more in the long run.
  • Don't believe marketing that claims to raise humidity levels. While using an infrared heater rather than forced air heating can keep the air from drying out quite as fast, you will not magically raise your humidity level simply by using an infrared heater to provide auxiliary heat.

Price Ranges

Electric infrared heaters can range in price from less than $50 for small portable desktop units to more than $1,000 for decorative fireplace look-alike units. Generally, for a decent model with thermostatic controls, you can expect costs to be in the $100 to $200 range. 

High price does not guarantee better energy savings; prices are inflated in some cases simply because demand is high and brands are limited.

Features, construction, and heating technology tend to differ among infrared models and consumers should compare heaters to get the best value for their money.

Infrared Heater Use and Care Tips

  • Larger units (1500 watts or more) should be connected to a 20-amp outlet, or, if connected to a 15-amp circuit, it should be dedicated to the heater only. A 1500 watt heater will draw up to 12.5 amps of power, which can cause a 15-amp circuit to overload if other lights and appliances are also running off it. 
  • Most models of infrared heaters have cool-to-touch exteriors and are safer to use with young children and pets in the home.  Though clearances are not as much an issue as with hot-coil heaters, you should remove clutter in the heater's area to ensure that heat can freely be dispersed to the room.  As with any electrical heater, keep papers, clothing, magazines and other items away from the heater.
  • Quartz bulb or tube infrared heaters will require bulb replacements over time.  Before buying, you should ensure the availability of such replacement parts and check bulb prices.  You might also want to consider a model with a longer bulb lifecycle to reduce operating expenses.
  • Use of extension cords is not recommended but when you must, ensure that the power bar or extension cord is rated for the wattage rating of the heater. Always check to make sure that the heater is UL certified before using.
  • Infrared heaters are designed to be room (zone) or space heaters.  Though some may boast a capacity to heat a large area, an infrared heater should not be used as a home's sole heating unit, but as a supplemental heater to your central heating furnace or system. 
  • By using an infrared unit as a zone heater, you can reap some energy savings by turning down your central heating system and adding warmth to the space or zone that you use the most.  A zone heater such as an infrared heater is ideal in a family room, insulated garage or open living space.