Convection space heaters versus radiant space heaters
When the weather outside is frightful, a fire certainly would be delightful -- but not everyone is lucky enough to have a fireplace. Instead, a space heater can offer a supplemental heat source in your home or office. It's important to note that space heaters aren't recommended as your only heat source, but they can be a great way to increase a room's temperature a few degrees or provide warmth in a drafty space without overheating the entire home. Some owners say they also use portable heaters to lower utility bills, but this depends on many factors, like your fuel costs, insulation, how often your space heater is used and more.
Note that this report covers electric space heaters intended for use inside the home. You can also find space heaters fueled by kerosene, natural gas and other combustible fuels. However, those are generally not recommended for use inside the home unless some type of venting to the outside is provided, and many states have banned unvented kerosene heaters for indoor use. For more information, see the section on space heater safety.
Types of space heaters
There are two basic types of electric space heaters: radiant and convection. Convection heaters -- like convection ovens -- move hot air around to create warmth. A fan blows air across internal heating elements and out into the room. This makes convection units especially effective for warming entire rooms or many people.
Ceramic space heaters are the most popular type of convection space heater. Electricity flowing through wires heats a ceramic element, which in turn heats the air. Almost all ceramic heaters include a fan to distribute the warmed air most effectively.
Some forced air heaters use a non-ceramic heating element to warm the air, and then use a larger, more powerful fan to spread that warmed air over a large area. Their fans can also pull double-duty to help cool rooms in the warmer months.
Convection also comes into play when liquid moves across a heating element. That's why, while it might seem counter-intuitive, oil-filled radiator style space heaters are considered to be convection heaters, even though they lack a fan. Oil filled radiators are slow to warm up, but they keep giving off heat long after they are turned off, making them a good choice for sleeping areas. Some radiator-style heaters use mica panels instead of heated oil to produce heat. These warm up faster than oil-filled designs, are lighter, and are flat enough to mount on a wall. However, they also cool down quickly, losing one of the key advantages of oil-filled radiators.
Radiant heaters, on the other hand, warm people or objects, not the air around them. The heat from these heaters doesn't circulate well and can't be used to warm a whole room, but for fast heat for a short time, they're more efficient than convection heaters. Traditional radiant space heaters are a bit more "old-school" than convection heaters and seem to be falling out of vogue. However, infrared space heaters with quartz elements still have a place where the primary goal is heating a person or a smaller area, and some can do a lot more.
Finding the best space heaters
To find the best space heaters, editors considered professional tests, expert reviews and user feedback. ConsumerReports.org has the most comprehensive coverage. Though not completely up-to-date, most of the space heaters covered there remain either current or available at retail. TheSweethome.com's coverage is a little more limited, but it looks at popular and well-reviewed space heaters, then tests to find a couple of top choices. We also rely heavily on user reviews, looking at feedback posted at Amazon.com, HomeDepot.com, Lowes.com, Walmart.com and elsewhere. These reviews provide an up-to-date snapshot of how space heaters perform, and touch on long-term factors, such as the reliability of a specific model, that are beyond the scope of most expert testing. Using this feedback, we consider performance, safety and reliability to name the very best space heaters, along with some choices that could be worth considering for some buyers.