Electric Heaters vs Radiators: Which Is Cheapest for Home Heating?

Home heating costs are on the rise. Electric heaters and radiators each carry pros and cons, but which is best for lowering your energy bills?

electric heaters
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Understanding the cost of using electric heaters vs radiators is essential if you want to stay warm but keep costs down.

We all want ways to cut our energy bills with costs soaring as we head into winter. The U.S. Department of Energy projects heating bills will jump 28% for natural gas, 27% for heating oil, 10% for electricity, and 5% for propane. 

In our ongoing bid to save you money – we compare electric heaters and radiators to see which one is the cheapest heating method.

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To help answer this important question of electric heaters vs radiators, we’ve sought help from our expert friends at The Money Edit to give you that all-important information. 

But first, consider our other articles about home energy savings, including oven vs air fryerwood burning stove vs central heatingfan heaters vs oil heatersdishwasher vs hand washing, and our audit on how to save on energy bills

Electric heaters: Cost of use

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration the average cost of electricity in the U.S. is 15.5 cents per kilowatt hour or kWh. An electric heater for a home may use up to 4.5kWh per hour, depending on variables like space heated and time operated. If you run the electric heating system in a house for five hours with these numbers it would cost you $2.79/day. If you did this 18 days out of the month it would cost you $50.22, as reported by Better Homes and Gardens.

"On average, electric heaters can cost anywhere from $0.10 to $0.50 per hour to operate," adds Dale Steven, researcher, and analyst at Mowers and Yard Tools. The major plus point of course is that it can be far cheaper than turning on the whole heating system.

You can of course buy bigger electric heaters, which are usually all portable enough to carry around the house. These may be handy if you just need a quick burst of heat and you’re the only one in the house.

It’s worth registering your new electric heater with the manufacturer as well as any new electrical appliance you buy. It’s free to do this and means you’ll be contacted in the event of any safety issues with the product or recalls. In most cases details on how to do this with the manufacturer should be in the original box.

Electric heaters can be used for heating a single room but shouldn’t be used to dry clothes directly or close by your heater. Never power a heater from an extension lead as they can easily be overloaded and cause fires.

Heat from your radiators isn’t lost instantly when the heating switches off, but when you unplug your electric heater the heat is quickly lost.

Another downside is that it can be harder to pre-set electric heaters to come on at fixed times of day – unless you buy a timer plug which you can pick up at most DIY stores.

But if you get to the point where you’re plugging in electric heaters in every room,  then the cost may outweigh the cost of central heating.

Heating individual rooms using portable electric heaters may seem convenient, but the cost of running electric heating is significantly higher than the cost of the gas equivalent.   

As a rough comparison – if you use an electric heater in four rooms of the house it could be more expensive than using the central heating – especially if you have a smaller home.

The Missouri Division of Energy reports that you can calculate the cost to operate a space heater with the formula kilowatts multiplied by the rate you pay for electricity multiplied by the length of time the appliance runs. Divide watts by 1,000 to get kilowatts per hour. If your electric company charges you 10 cents per kilowatt hour and you run a 1,500-watt space heater for 10 hours, that will cost $1.50.

Radiators: Cost of use

Setting your central heating to come on at regular intervals so your house is toasty warm when you get up in the morning or come home is a luxury – compared with having to crawl out of a warm bed to switch on an electric heater or come home to a cold house.

If you’ve got radiators in every room – there’s no need to worry about some rooms being left cold – as every room in your house should be evenly heated.   

If you’re not using your spare bedroom or any other room - you can easily turn off radiators in rooms you don’t use and shut the door with smart heating controls and timers on thermostats. 

And by only heating the rooms you need in the house could save you a fair amount of money each year.

When it comes to the cost factor Dr Steve Buckley, head of data science at Loop said: “while gas central heating is less efficient in absolute terms, gas is significantly cheaper than electricity”.

This means if you want some extra heat in the lounge while watching TV or working in your upstairs office – flicking on the heating for an extra hour is an expensive way to keep warm.

Temperature is also key to saving money. The US Department of Energy recommends US households set their winter home temperature at around 68°F during daytime - and a few degrees lower while you sleep or leave the home - to save on energy costs.

The verdict

It all comes down to whether you're heating a single room or an entire house. 

If you’re just using one room – for example working from home – and need a quick burst of heat, using an electric heater can be a money saver compared with firing up the central radiator heating system.

And electric heaters come out on top for ease of use, low maintenance and easy installation (all you have to do is plug it in). 

But if you try to heat your entire home with electric heaters in each room instead of radiators – it will cost much more and won't give the same level of warmth.

If you are heating the whole house or multiple rooms and are better off using the radiators, you can still cut costs by doing small things:

And if you don’t own an electric heater and don’t want to invest in one right now, there are other things you can do to only heat the rooms you want in your home with central heating, which could save you money.

Radiators and other space heaters approach 100 percent efficiency in their use of electricity, but you can achieve greater functional efficiency based on your heating needs. For instance, a small parlor or reading room might be warmed effectively using a radiator's 600-watt heating element, but a family of three spread out on a basement couch might make better use of a higher wattage oscillating heater. The true energy savings come from reducing the use of your whole-house furnace when spot heating is all you really want.

Ben Demers
Audience Engagement Manager, Kiplinger.com

Ben Demers manages digital content and engagement at Kiplinger, informing readers through a range of personal finance articles, e-newsletters, social media, syndicated content, and videos. He is passionate about helping people lead their best lives through sound financial behavior, particularly saving money at home and avoiding scams and identity theft. Ben graduated with an M.P.S. from Georgetown University and a B.A. from Vassar College. He joined Kiplinger in May 2017.