EREC Fact Sheet: Saving with Electrical Resistance Heating
Electricity is a versatile but precious energy
source. Because it is needed for refined power equipment such as computers and medical
machinery, when it is used for less-refined needs such as heating it should be used as
efficiently as possible. If you use electricity for heating your home, this publication
will help you save money and minimize your energy consumption when using electrical
heating systems. It covers the different types of electric heating, but electric heat pump
technologies are not specifically addressed in this publication. Contact the Energy
Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse (ERECsee Source List) for more
information on heat pump systems.
Electric Resistance Heat
Electric resistance heating converts nearly 100% of
the energy in the electricity to heat. However, most electricity is produced from oil,
gas, or coal generators that convert only about 30% of the fuel's energy into electricity.
Because of electricity's generation and transmission losses, electric heat is often more
expensive than heat produced in the home with combustion appliances, such as natural gas,
propane, and oil furnaces.
Electric resistance heat can be supplied by
centralized forced-air furnaces or by zonal heaters in each room, both of which can be
composed of a variety of heater types. Zonal heaters distribute electric resistance heat
more efficiently than electric furnaces because you set room temperatures according to
occupancy. In addition, zonal heaters have no ducts that can lose heat before it reaches
the room. However, electric furnaces can accommodate central cooling easier than zonal
electric heating, because the air conditioner can share the furnace's ducts.
Electric resistance heat can be provided by electric
baseboard heaters, electric wall heaters, electric radiant heat, electric space heaters,
electric furnaces, or electric thermal storage systems.
Electric Baseboard Heaters
Electric baseboard heaters are zonal heaters
controlled by thermostats located within each room. Baseboard heaters contain electric
heating elements encased in metal pipes. The pipes, surrounded by aluminum fins to aid
heat transfer, run the length of the baseboard heater's housing, or cabinet. As air within
the heater is warmed, it rises into the room, and cooler air is drawn into the bottom of
the heater. Some heat is also radiated from the pipe, fins, and housing.
Baseboard heaters are usually installed underneath
windows. There, the heater's rising warm air counteracts falling cool air from the cold
window glass. Baseboard heaters are seldom located on interior walls because standard
heating practice is to supply heat at the home's perimeter where the greatest heat loss
Baseboard heaters should sit at least three-quarters
of an inch (1.9 centimeters) above the floor or carpet. This is to allow the cooler air on
the floor to flow under and through the radiator fins so it can be heated. The heater
should also fit tightly to the wall to prevent the warm air from convecting behind it and
streaking the wall with dust particles.
The quality of baseboard heaters varies considerably.
Cheaper models can be noisy and often give poor temperature control. Look for labels from
Underwriter's Laboratories (UL) and the National Electrical Manufacturer's Association
(NEMA). Compare warranties of the different models you are considering.
Electric Wall Heaters
Electric wall heaters consist of an electric element
with a reflector behind it to reflect heat into the room and usually a fan to move air
through the heater. They are usually installed on interior walls because installing them
in an exterior wall makes that wall difficult to insulate.
Electric Radiant Heat
Electric furnaces and baseboard heaters circulate
heat by moving air. In contrast, radiant heating systems radiate heat to the room's
objects, including its people. For example, you can feel a ceiling-mounted radiant heating
panel warming your head and shoulders if you stand underneath it.
There are several types of electric radiant heaters.
The most common are electric heating cables imbedded in floors or ceilings. Other radiant
heating systems use special gypsum ceiling panels equipped with factory-imbedded heating
cables. Newer ceiling-mounted radiant panels made of metal provide radiant heat faster
than other types because they contain less material to warm up.
Radiant heat offers draft-free heating that is easily
zoned. Unlike other heating systems, it occupies no interior space. This allows you
complete freedom to place furniture without worrying about impeding air flow from floor
registers or baseboard heaters. Manufacturers claim that radiant heat can provide comfort
similar to other systems at lower indoor air temperatures, saving around 5% of space
Critics of radiant heat say that it can be difficult
to control air temperature with a thermostat. The large heat-storage capacity of the
concrete or plaster surrounding the heating cables may result in greater-than-normal
fluctuations in the room air temperature, since it takes quite a while to heat up the
storage mass. Also, some occupants complain about their heads being too warm in rooms that
utilize ceiling radiant heat.
Supplying heat at the ceiling or floor, which are
locations that typically border the outdoors or unheated spaces, can result in greater
heat losses. For example, if there are any flaws in a heated concrete slab or gaps in the
ceiling insulation above heating elements, a significant percent of the electric heat may
escape to the outdoors without ever heating the home.
Electric Space Heaters
Electric space heaters come in a wide variety of
models, either built-in or portable. These heaters may have fans to circulate heated air
and may also be designed to transfer some of their heat by radiation. All of these heaters
must be given adequate clearance to allow air to circulate safely.
Portable space heaters, as well as many built-in
space heaters for small rooms, have built-in thermostats. Larger rooms heated with
built-in electric space heaters should have low-voltage thermostats installed in an area
that maintains the room's average temperature (see Thermostats for Electric Heating).
Portable electric space heaters can pose a
significant safety hazard unless they have safety features and are used properly. Many
cheaper or older portable electric space heaters are not safe for most home uses. Their
red-hot elements and lack of safety features can lead to fires. When buying a portable
electric space heater, select one with all of these safety features:
tip-over switch that automatically shuts off
the heater if it falls over,
protective grille to prevent anyone from
touching the heating elements, and
sealed heating elements encased in metal or
To use your portable electric space heater safely,
follow these guidelines.
Check what other appliances share the space
heater's electric circuit to prevent overloading circuits.
Avoid using extension cords.
Inspect the cord on the heater for any cracks
or worn spots, and replace the cord or heater if any are found.
Make sure the area in which you are using the
heater has a properly functioning smoke detector.
Keep combustible objects, such as blankets,
furniture, drapes, toys, etc., at least six feet (two meters) away from the heating
Electric furnaces can be a more expensive long-term
heating option because of their duct heat losses. The home's air is delivered to the
furnace through return ducts, and heated air is delivered back to the home through supply
ducts. If these ducts run through unheated areas, they lose some of their heat through air
leakage as well as heat radiation and convection from the duct's surface.
Blowers (large fans) in electric furnaces move air
over a group of three to seven electric resistance coils, called elements, which are each
rated at five kilowatts. The furnace's heating elements activate in stages to avoid
overloading the home's electrical system. Overheating is prevented by a built-in
thermostat called a limit controller. This limit controller may shut the furnace off if
the blower fails or if a dirty filter is blocking air flow.
Electric Thermal Storage
Some electric utilities structure their rates in a
way similar to telephone companies and charge more for electricity during the day and less
at night. They do this in an attempt to reduce their "peak" demand.
If you are a customer of such a utility, you may be
able to benefit from a heating system that stores electric heat during nighttime hours
when rates are lower. This is called an electric thermal storage heater, and while it does
not save energy, it can save you money because you can take advantage of these lower
rates. However, electric thermal storage is a seldom-used type of electric heating.
The most common type of electric thermal storage
heater is a resistance heater with elements encased in heat-storing ceramic. Central
furnaces incorporating ceramic block are also available, although they are not as common
as room heaters. Storing electrically heated hot water in an insulated storage tank is
another thermal storage option.
Some storage systems attempt to use the ground
underneath homes for thermal storage of heat from electric resistance cables. However,
this requires painstaking installation of insulation underneath concrete slabs and all
around the heating elements to minimize major heat losses to the earth. Ground storage
also makes it difficult for thermostats to control indoor temperatures.
No matter what electric heating system you use, there
are steps you can take to reduce your energy consumption. These methods include maximizing
insulation, perhaps installing quality windows, reducing air leakage, using zone heating,
and regularly replacing or cleaning filters in forced-air systems, all of which will make
your home more comfortable and efficient and will save you money.
To keep heating costs reasonable, electrically heated
homes should be very well-insulated. Insulation's ability to slow heat flow is measured by
R-value ("R" stands for thermal "resistance"). The higher the R-value,
the better the insulation restricts heat flow.
However, just because you have an adequate R-value
does not necessarily mean your home is well-insulated. The insulation must be properly
installed as well. Gaps and voids in the insulationeven small onescreate air
convection or air leakage that markedly reduce rated R-values. For more information on
insulation, contact EREC.
Instead of R-value, windows are usually rated by
their heat transfer coefficient, or U-value. The lower the U-value, the better the
window's thermal resistance, or resistance to heat loss.
While energy-efficient windows are important in any
house, electrically heated homes especially should have windows with U-values of less than
0.40. Advanced window designs incorporate multiple glazing layers, heat-reflective
coatings, or gas fillings to reach U-values less than 0.25. Installing storm
windowseven over double-pane windowsis often cost effective for homes in cold
climates with high electricity costs. (Contact EREC [see Source List] for more information
Reducing Air Leakage:
Your Home's Envelope
To reduce your heating costs, your home's exterior
wallsalso known as the "envelope"need to be as airtight as possible
yet still provide healthy indoor air. Methods to achieve an airtight home are now
practiced by many building contractors. Air-sealing measures include wrapping the shell of
the new house with an air infiltration barrier and installing gaskets and sealants to
thoroughly seal joints and penetrations in the building shell. However, these steps are
not foolproof. Complicated floor plans, irregular roof lines, protruding windows,
cathedral ceilings, fireplaces, or recessed light fixtures can make air sealing during
construction difficult, if not impossible. As a result, homes with some or all of these
features often have high heating costs due to excessive air leakage.
Your Home's Duct Work
A forced-air furnace's air ducts also influence
residential air leakage. Homes with furnaces and ducts sometimes have greater air leakage
than homes without ducts, such as radiant-heated or baseboard-heated homes. Heat is
frequently lost through leaky or uninsulated ducts. Joints between sections of ducts,
between ducts and registers, and between ducts and the furnace can lose as much as 30% of
the air being moved by the blower.
Leaking ductwork can create positive and negative
room pressures that often increase air leakage through floors, exterior walls, and
ceilings. Reducing or eliminating air leaks will make your home more energy efficient and
The importance of airtight ducts has only recently
been recognized by the building industry. New ducts need to be sealed with commercial duct
mastic as they are assembled. Existing duct systems can be leak-tested and sealed by an
experienced professional. Contact EREC for more information on this.
Zone heating cuts costs by heating the rooms occupied
by you or your family while allowing unoccupied sections to remain cooler.
Zone heating can produce energy savings of more than
20% compared to heating both occupied and unoccupied areas of your house. Of course, the
amount of savings you will achieve depends on how the portable or built-in zone heaters
are combined with your centralized heating system.
One recommended zone heating strategy involves
controlling the centralized heating system with an automatic setback thermostat. During
the times when everyone is at home and active, the automatic setback thermostat provides a
comfortable temperature throughout the house. For the remainder of the day or night, it
lowers house temperatures to between 50°F and 60°F (between 10°C and 15.6°C). During
these setback times, zone heaters provide additional room heat only as needed.
Furnace filters are designed to keep the blower, heat
exchanger, and ductwork clean. Your furnace cannot run as efficiently if the filters,
blowers, and heating coils are dirty. Plus, it is much easier to change or clean filters
than to clean blowers, heating coils, and ductwork.
Filters are composed of either fiberglass wool framed
in cardboard, air-permeable foam rubber, or fibrous plastic. They are usually positioned
near the blower. Depending on the type of filter used in your system, it is a good idea to
replace or clean them monthly during the heating season. Read your furnace's instruction
manual for more information.
Indoor Air Quality and Ventilation
Many homes that use zonal electric heating systems
(baseboard or radiant heat) have very low air leakage rates. Chimneys and leaky ducts
promote air leakage, because they can create pressure differentials within the home. This
unintentional ventilation keeps the air indoors moving. However, uncontrolled air leakage
is a poor way to keep air fresh in any homeand especially in an electrically heated
home. A controlled mechanical heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system is the preferred way
to provide good indoor air quality. Contact EREC (see Source List) for more information on
Zone-heated homes with fairly airtight building
shells can have moisture and air pollution problems because of very low air leakage along
with the lack of a ventilation system. Mechanical ventilation can remove air pollution and
moisture. A relatively airtight, electrically heated home should be supplied with fresh
air from a controlled mechanical ventilation system. This ventilation system can consist
of exhaust fans, a central exhaust air system, an air-to-air heat exchanger with its own
ducts, or an outdoor-air inlet into an electric furnace or heat pump.
Thermostats for Electric Heating
Choosing the right thermostat for your electric
heating system is crucial to maintaining a comfortable indoor environment and enhancing
your home's energy efficiency. Thermostats are classified as line-voltage or low-voltage
thermostats, depending on whether the heater's electric current flows through them.
Thermostats are called built-in if they are attached to the heater and remote if they are
mounted on a wall.
The most simple thermostat is the line-voltage
thermostat, which is used for baseboard and radiant electric heat. The electricity it
controls flows through itmuch like a light switch. Line-voltage thermostats can be
either built-in or remote. Built-in, line-voltage thermostats are attached directly to the
heater and are subjected to temperature extremes. Therefore, they often do not sense room
temperatures accurately. While portable electric heaters must have built-in thermostats,
baseboard or radiant heaters provide better room comfort when controlled by remote
thermostats. Line-voltage thermostats, installed on interior walls, are more accurate
because they measure the temperature of the air of the occupied space rather than the
temperature at the heater itself.
Low-voltage thermostats are used on electric
furnaces, heat pumps, and on baseboard and radiant heaters in large rooms for better
temperature control. Low-voltage thermostats require a transformer to reduce voltage and a
relay (remote-controlled switch) to turn the heater on and off.
Low-voltage thermostats are always installed in
remote locations, rather than being integrated into the heater. They control temperature
more precisely than line-voltage thermostats. Low-voltage thermostats are preferred for
larger rooms, heated by radiant panels or electric baseboard heaters, because they produce
Automatic Setback Thermostats
Automatic setback thermostats combine a clock and a
thermostat to control the heater automatically. They are convenient and very effective at
saving energy. If your family has a regular schedule of being at home and away, a setback
thermostat could save you 5% to 20% of your heating and cooling costs depending on the
duration of setback periods and the degrees of temperature setback.
Automatic setback thermostats can be used to control
all types of electric heat. For baseboard and radiant heat, line voltage setback
thermostats are available. These are either programmed with a clock or they require the
user to push a button at regular intervals to avoid the setback temperature (usually 10 or
For more information about these, and other, energy
efficiency topics, contact:
The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse
P.O. Box 3048
Merrifield, VA 22116
(800) DOE-EREC (363-3732)
Fax: (703) 893-0400
EREC provides free general technical information to the
public on the many topics and technologies pertaining to energy efficiency and renewable
This document was produced for the U.S.
Department of Energy (DOE) by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a DOE
national laboratory. The document was produced by the Information Services Program, under
the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The Energy Efficiency and
Renewable Energy Clearinghouse (EREC) is operated by NCI Information Systems, Inc., for
NREL/DOE. The statements contained herein are based on information known to EREC and NREL
at the time of printing. No recommendation or endorsement of any product or service is
implied if mentioned by EREC.