Picture of a typical installation of an electric baseboard heater in bathroom.

Electric Heat Pros and Cons




Electric heating is one of the most versatile and simple ways to keep your home warm during cold winter spells.  It’s available in many forms, from baseboard convection units, hydronic heaters, and radiant infrared space heaters, to forced air portable units, ceiling panels, and whole-house electric furnaces can also be procured.  It has a reputation for being rather expensive over the long run.  But in our decades-long experience with it, you get what you pay for.  Efficient electric heat is attainable with adequate insulation, windows, well-sealed doors, and little foot traffic in and out of the house during the coldest months of the year.  The pros and cons of electric heat, as we have discovered them in our experiences, are listed below.

Advantages and Benefits of Electric Heating (Pros)

  • Simple design.  Easy to understand how it works.  Electricity is routed via the wiring to a heat-dissipating resistive component, and switched on, off, high, and low by some kind of thermostat.
  • Rudimentary components. There’s really little more too most of them than a large resister (heating element), wiring, and a thermostat. This makes the system less likely to break down, and generally cheaper to fix if it does.
  • Highly scalable.  Heaters are available in widely varying sizes, from the smallest cube form quartz portable heaters, up to the 220-volt radiant ceiling units, capable of warming an entire basement.  Whole house electric furnaces may also be purchased, and typically cost significantly less than gas or oil central heating.
  • Works almost everywhere in the home.  Can employ electricity heating in any room.  Unlike natural gas heaters, which should not be installed in sleeping quarters, electric heaters work well in just about any dry and flammable-fume-free location, including bedrooms, nurseries, and basements.
  • No risks of carbon monoxide poisoning.  This form of climate control produces no fumes under normal circumstances. CO2 detectors not required therefore.
  • Easy to install, repair, and replace.  Installing electrical heating is more laborious than cerebral.  The hardest part in our installation experiences, was laying the power cables inside walls and above ceilings.  Plus, the units are usually secured to walls and ceilings by simple wood screws, which can be quickly removed for heater servicing.  In the event that you must replace the heater, its simple wire connections can be undone for old heater removal.
  • Lightweight.  More portable than gas or kerosene heaters. No worries about spilling the fuel.  You can’t spill electricity after all. Electrical units are generally lighter, and today’s designs virtually eliminate exposed dangerously hot surfaces.  So, even while hot, the portable space heater version can quickly be moved to where you need the heat.
  • Very safe. Virtually no chance of asphyxiation or house fires.  No internal flames are present when heating with electricity.  With proper wiring of heater and surrounding devices and fixtures, electric heaters will not shock you.
  • Can be decentralized.  Each room can have its own heating system and thermostat, for independent temperature control from the rest of the house.  No more excessive cold in one room while another is excessively hot.  Big advantage over central heating.
  • Electric heat is typically very quiet.  Hydronic type electrically powered heaters especially, tend to operate with virtual silence.
  • Electricity found in more locations.  Electricity is available in more places than natural gas.  Plus, it’s easier and cheaper to run electrical wires through walls to the heaters, than it is to plumb black iron gas pipes.
  • More BTUs than other forms of “energy saving” heat.  Produces warmer air than a heat pump, generally speaking. Quieter than heat pumps, and even the forced air electric heaters have only a low-current fan motor.
  • Less maintenance costs.  Aside from periodic cleaning, electric elements require no maintenance or adjustment.  They just run and run, until they’re done; typically two decades or more.
  • Fewer single points of failure.  In a de-centralized heating scenario often implemented in electric heating installations, should one heater fail, you don’t lose heat to the rest of the house.
  • No ventilation needed.  Requires no ventilation to the outside via a chimney or wall vent, unlike many fossil fuel powered heaters.

 

Electric Heating Disadvantages & Problems (Cons)

  • Costly to operate. Larger homes may at times require 20 kilowatt hours (KWHs) to 30 KWHs for adequate warmth in occupied rooms.  At fifteen cents per KWH, this hour of heating could cost as much as $3 to $4,50.  Not too bad if all you had to pay for was a single hour.  But for a whole month of heat during January or February, you may pay the better part of a grand to heat your home exclusively with electricity.
  • Can be noisy.  Cheaper heaters often emit buzzing or humming sounds when energized.  So if you plan on heating your house this way, but are not installing a central furnace, be sure to invest in hydronic heaters for the most quiet operation.
  • Can be dangerous.  Incorrect wiring can pose deadly shock hazards. Further, some electric heater types create very hot surfaces on their exteriors.  Keep children away from them therefore, or make sure that electric heaters that become really hot are caged, or installed well away from where children can reach them.
  • Create very low humidity around the home.  Can produce exceedingly dry air within the heated space, which can encourage static electricity, irritate throats, and trigger nose bleeds during longer cold spells.  The best installations of resistance heating also incorporate some form of humidification, to help keep the warm air inside the home moist.
  • Larger electrical service panels may be required.  Heating an entire home with electrical power will likely demand higher current capacity pole-to-house wiring.  Also, more dedicated branch circuits will also be needed for each of the heaters.  While gas heating may require the professional services of a plumber, you may need an electrician, as mandated by many local codes, to install and service your electric heaters; particularly if they’re permanently installed.
  • Huge energy hogs.  May not be the most “green” heating choice, especially if the generation of the electricity used is accomplished from coal, nuclear, fossil fuels, or other polluting means.
  • Stringent power handling requirements and procedures.  For the portable units especially, care must be taken when powering via an extension cord, that the extension cord can safely carry the current that the heater draws, without overheating. Improperly sized cables can create a fire danger, and permanently installed electric heaters should never be powered by an extension cord.
  • Additional house hold insulation required.  To prevent operating costs from becoming prohibitive, good insulation in the home is required, with specifications that exceed standard recommended levels.  If the specs call for R12 insulation for example, use R24 where space permits.   Triple-pane windows, well-insulated doors, and glass block window units in the basement effectively reduce electricity bills as well.
  • Harder to switch to electric heat in homes not designed for it initially.  Can be difficult to retrofit this type of heating into existing homes; particularly older houses, where you cannot add more insulation or gain easy access to inside of the walls and ceilings to run the wires.
  • 220 volt wiring often required.  High power electric units (those that require more than 1500 watts) generally need to run on 220 volts.  So they cannot simply be plugged into an existing household AC outlet.  You can either hard wire them into your house, or install a 220-volt outlet in each place you need them.  The connecting cables for this type of installation however, are heavy, thick, and difficult to manage. Hard wiring for non portable heaters is best therefore.
  • Resistance heaters require periodic cleaning and maintenance.  Often, particularly in convection heaters, the element has thin metal fins attached to it, through which the air passes and is thus, warmed.  These fins often become quite dusty, and if not cleaned often enough, can generate a smell of burning.  Or, at worst, can form a sort of insulation around the heating element, and cause it to overheat and burn out.
  • Can have very sharp heat fins.  These convection fins are sharp and easily bent.  So care must be taken when vacuuming them out, not to damage them or cut yourself.
  • Must use line-voltage thermostats, unless you add additional control switching equipment, like a relay, that features a low-voltage operated switch. This can make wiring them more laborious and risky. Make sure you know how to wore high voltage circuits safely before attempting to install your own permanently wired electric heating units.

Our Preferences

Over all, we prefer electric heating in situations where it’s practical. But de-centralized is the way to go, where you can control the temperature in each room separately and independently from the others.

References

Revision History

  • 2016-12-27: Added more content.
  • 2015-11-14: Added appropriate tags.
  • 2015-09-19: Added the featured image.
  • 2015-09-13: Added further tagging and updated content to mention space heating and hydronic units.
  • 2014-12-10: Added more whitespace for clarity, and adjusted ad placement.
  • 2014-11-04: Initially published this post.



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