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Energy Efficiency of Electric Baseboards vs. Space Heaters

Jennifer M | Posted in General Questions on

After reading the great article here on GBA (many, many times, by the way), “Heating Options for a Small Home,”  I settled on electric resistance heat to supplement the powerful fireplace insert that we keep running most of the winter.  We are in Zone 5a, CT, with 1400 sq ft, all on one level, so we need heat six months of the year, at the least, but not enough to justify the expense of a heat pump.

As we were transitioning from oil to electric (see: “Our Ancient Furnace is a Goner: Now What?”), I purchased a few space heaters to get us through last winter.  Now that I am ready to purchase and install the Cadet SoftHeat baseboard strips, I wonder – at 1500W each, the same as my “temporary” De’Longhi Mica Thermic Panel Heaters, all with programmable thermostats, all with the capability to attach to the wall – am I just trading one style of heater for another?  Or will installing the Cadet strips make a difference in energy usage?

In other words, is 1500W just 1500W, no matter how it is delivered?  Or is there another benefit?

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Replies

  1. Jon R | | #1

    It's basically no-difference in efficiency. OK, small difference if radiant electric heat is directed to specific areas and similar comfort can be achieved at a lower air temperature.

    Might be worth reviewing the cost effectiveness of some of the low cost heat pumps. Perhaps 1/3 the operating cost.

  2. Expert Member
    Peter Engle | | #2

    Yes, look at your electric bills for last winter and subtract out the background electric costs for some of the shoulder months to find your cost for electric heating. Do the same if you use window A/C units. For most of the year, a good small minisplit is going to have about 1/3 the operating cost.

  3. Jennifer M | | #3

    My electric costs for last year, with the space heaters I listed, were less, but not significantly so, than the costs associated with heating the home with oil (on a month-to-month comparison). We did not use the fireplace insert last year due to a bad load of wood (I am learning all the time!), so those costs were probably higher than going forward. Finally, the quotes for minisplits have been in the $30k range (some a bit higher, some a bit lower). I cannot justify that price!

    I will take a look at my electric bills at the end of this coming heating season, after sticking with the space heaters and utilizing the fireplace.

    Thank you!

    1. Jon R | | #4

      I think you should be able to get a single mini-split heat pump installed for more like $3K.

      1. Jennifer M | | #5

        For a minisplit, I was quoted $15k!! Do you have a recommendation for an installer in CT?

      2. Nick Defabrizio | | #9

        This is not surprising-in many places the cost of installing mini splits is outrageously more expensive than any comparable HVAC job, or for that matter, most renovation jobs of any sort. Unless the industry figures out a way to get around this, mini splits will remain a novelty and not an important part of making homes more energy efficient. Efficient DIY models is one solution. Another is to allow technicians associated with the brand to put them in so long as they have an EPA 608 certificate.

    2. Wooba Goobaa | | #14

      30K seems awfully high. I've got an install happening soon for Mits H2i systems. Three indoor airhandlers, ductwork, two ODUs ... low 40s. Highest quotes did run in the 60s. Shop it around.

  4. Walter Ahlgrim | | #6

    Yes 1000 watt-hours of electric resistance heating will produce 3412 btu/h portable or not.

    The big difference is about safety if you read the instruction for the portable space heaters most will call for about 3 feet of clearance form anything. Very few homes are large enough to provide the required clearance and maintained an acquit space to walk past the heater without getting close to the heater and risk getting burned. It is estimated that space heaters are responsible for 25,000 house fires 6000 trips to the ER and 300 deaths every year.

    Also I understand most home owner’s insurance policies require central heating. If you remove your furnace the policy is most likely void as of that date. If your heater was manufactured as a portable heater it does not qualified as central heating. If your heater was manufactured with a cord and a plug it does not qualified as central heating. If your heater is not attached to the building it does not qualified as central heating.

    It does not seem like you mind is open to hear this but unless you happen to have very very low rates, electric resistance is the most expensive way to heat a home.

    Please be careful

    Walta

    1. Jennifer M | | #8

      Thank you for this detailed reply, Walta! I will definitely install the baseboard heaters before I remove the furnace. And I would love to install a heat pump, but, again, that is alot of money for my small home.

  5. Expert Member
    Zephyr7 | | #7

    A watt is a watt with resistance heat, which is in theory 100% efficient in converting the electrical energy into thermal energy. There is nothing fancy like the COP numbers you have with air conditioning, for example.

    What can make a difference is that you can move the portable unit around a bit to optimize WHERE the heat goes. That’s about the only difference.

    I agree with Walta too, best not to rely on portable space heaters for long-term heating needs. If you want a “portable” heater to use frequently, you can do what I did at my little cabin: get a small electric garage heater that can be used as a portable, and wire it with a suitable cord. Note that I said “can be used as”, that doesn’t mean you can just make any of them work — some are built with the required top-over shutoff switches and are intended to be used either mounted or portable. Permanently mounted units won’t have the required safety switches for portable use.

    Bill

  6. Expert Member
    Akos | | #10

    I would look at getting a standard cold climate heat pump installed such as an Infinity greenspeed. Mini split manufactures also make air handlers that look like a standard furnace. Check out:
    https://ashp.neep.org/#!/product/25275
    or
    https://ashp.neep.org/#!/product/31992

    These are closer to a standard install and you are more likely to get a price plus labor cost instead of mythical pricing.

    P.S. A single wall mount hyper heat in your living space could probably cover 60% of your heating load and cost $3k-$5k installed. It would significantly reduce your energy use without breaking the bank.

  7. Jennifer M | | #11

    As I mentioned in my post (above), we heat primarily with our fireplace insert - specifically, the Hearthstone Clydesdale wood burning fireplace insert. It is rated at 60,000 Btu, heating up to 2,000 sq. ft. Since I need only 33,000 Btu, have 1400 sq. ft., and use this as my primary source of heat (it keeps the entire house toasty when we use fans), can't this serve as my "official" primary heat source? Again, the space heaters are attached to the wall and rarely used (only on the coldest mornings before the fp is back at full burn), not dragged around the house.

    1. Expert Member
      Zephyr7 | | #12

      Insurance companies typically want some form of "permanent" heat system. This usually means a conventional furnace (gas, oil, propane, electric) with a thermostat that can run automatically and unattended. If you had one of the fancier gas fireplace inserts that can operate automatically with a thermostat, then I'd think that would satisfy your insurance company but you'd need to ask them. With a wood-burning fireplace, it can't operate unattended (think "for several days"), so the insurance people get worried about freezing issues and possible insurance claims.

      The "official" heat source need is usually to satisfy your insurance company. As long as they're happy, you can heat with whatever you want. People who heat primarily with wood stoves, for example, will often install electric resistance heat (which tends to have the lowest installed cost) and list that as their "primary" heat source for their insurance company. In practice, the electric heat is actually a backup for the wood stove which is doing most of the work. This is actually a win-win: you get to heat the way you want while you're there, but the insurance company knows your place will be OK if you are away or something happens since you also have a conventional heating system in place.

      It sounds like you're in a similar position to the wood stove people. I'd make sure you have enough electric resistance heat that is permanently installed and automatic (like electric baseboards) to keep your home warm enough if your fireplace insert stops working. Set the resistance heat just below your normal comfy temperature. This way you are doing all the "work" with the fireplace, but the electric system is a backup that only runs when needed.

      Bill

      1. Jennifer M | | #13

        Thank you, Bill!

  8. BFW577 | | #15

    I'm in Southern CT and when I got quotes for a single 12k unit they were around $4-5k. I ended up installing 2 units myself for $2k and saved $8k. These units are ridiculously overpriced considering how easy they were to self install.

    Also, I would never run electric resistance heat in CT. I think we literally have the most expensive electricity costs outside of Hawaii and Alaska.

    I had a wood insert as well but after I installed my 2 mini splits I don't even bother using it much. I just leave them running 24/7 in the winter. I' have solar panels but if I had to buy the electricity for them it would be under $100 every month in winter for both.

    I attached a graph of both my mini splits yearly electrical consumption to give you and idea on how little power they use.

    1. Jennifer M | | #18

      Which DIY minisplit do you have? The MrCool looks like something I could tackle; and, while some say it is more expensive than it should be, it is still less than hiring an HVAC contractor to do it (over $5000, at last check).

  9. Walter Ahlgrim | | #16

    Many insurance companies have started dropping coverage for any home heated with solid fuels (wood coal pellets) even for out building. They are fine with a fireplace or 3 but never tell them you use them for heating.

  10. Keith Gustafson | | #17

    HVAC contractors seem to view minisplits as competition rather than their product. They price out your home as if you were having full ductwork AC installed rather than price out the product in front of them

    Also I believe they suffer from an antiquated supply chain. They buy from their plumbing supply house, who has a bad supply chain...so their costs are high and they pass the lack of savings on to you

    I think you will find that in many places when things are 'overpriced' no one is really making any money.

    In most states they also have to hire an electrician, where a homeowner can usually do their own wiring.

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