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What is a Portable Electric Heater?

By P.L. Hardt
Updated May 16, 2024
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A portable electric heater, or space heater, is a portable heating device that is generally used when other heat sources are insufficient or when an individual is highly sensitive to low temperatures. The two main types of portable electric heaters are radiant heaters, which use infrared radiation, and convection heaters, which heat and circulate the air. Electric heaters can be expensive to operate when compared to other types of space heaters, such as kerosene, propane, or gas heaters. A key difference is that electric heaters generally are non-combustible, unlike the other types of portable heaters. Typically, a portable electric heater operates off of a 15 amp, 120-volt household circuit and comes in 400 to 1,500 watt models.

Radiant portable electric heaters are considered line-of-sight heaters because they primarily heat only objects directly in front of them. The radiant heater is commonly preferred when heat is required for a short period of time, or when a single person is in need of a heat source. Radiant heaters are manufactured as metal rod heaters, quartz heaters, and electric element heaters. Metal rod heaters use a reflector located behind a metal rod to emit heat. A quartz portable electric heater uses a quartz tube, while electric element heaters rely on metal coils to operate and use internal fans to push the heat out of the heater.

A convection portable electric heater circulates the heat in the air to warm an area. This type of heater works with the use of a transfer liquid that is stored in the unit and heated with an electric element. Since the liquid — which is usually oil — remains in the heater when the heater is in operation, the convection unit does not need to recycle constantly, thereby saving on heating costs.

One of the most significant issues associated with space heaters is their propensity to be the cause of fires. This includes both electric and other types of portable heaters. Each year, approximately 25,000 fires in the United States begin with space heaters and an estimated 300 people are killed. Roughly 6,000 individuals are treated in emergency rooms with burns received as a result of direct contact with space heaters.

To reduce the chance of fire or injury, portable electric heaters should be plugged directly into electric sockets and the use of extension cords should be avoided. When an extension cord is necessary, however, 14 gauge wire or greater typically is recommended. Additionally, some heater units are equipped with an automatic shut off mechanism that will turn off the heater if it is accidentally tipped over when in operation.

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Discussion Comments

By Laotionne — On Jul 30, 2014

I'm always hearing news stories about kerosene and oil space heaters causing fires or carbon monoxide poisoning. Portable electric heaters might be a good alternative for people who need a way to heat when the temperature drop way down. They sound safer than some of the other heaters I read about.

By Drentel — On Jul 29, 2014

Heat lamps work work well in small spaces like bathrooms. The lamps are relatively safe and they heat up very fast. Some hotels use them, so you can be sure they are probably safer than your average portable electric space heater. However, I'm not an expert since I have never used one of these portable heaters.

I would be worried about using the portable heater in a house with small children or in a house with anyone who might be prone to forgetting to turn the heaters off when they are not being used.

By Sporkasia — On Jul 28, 2014

Portable electric heaters come in handy for bathrooms because they heat up quickly and can warm a small space like an average size bathroom. I have an old one that I need to replace because it is pretty old. It works great on cold mornings when I am showering and getting dressed.

There are so many more different types now than when I bought mine. You really need to do your research to fine the one that fits your needs.

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