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Updated: 6 Apr 2022

Seven things to avoid when buying and using an electric heater

Choosing a substandard model or using your portable heater incorrectly could put both your wallet and your safety at risk, and could be worse for the environment. Here's how to avoid common mistakes.
Fan heater on the floor

Amidst soaring energy bills and a cost of living crisis, many are turning to portable electric heaters as an alternative to central heating.

While plug-in heaters offer more concentrated heating for single rooms, they still consume a lot of electricity (we estimate about 1kWh to get your room from cold to warm, on average). To avoid using more electricity than you need to, and being stung by spiralling energy costs, you need to use your electric heater sparingly and thoughtfully.

And, off the back of increasing demand for portable heaters, the charity Electrical Safety First has urged the public to 'be cautious when using plug-in heaters to reduce the risk of fire'.

As we - hopefully - see off the last of the cold weather, read on for crucial advice for using your plug-in heater in the most eco friendly way, keeping costs as low as possible and, crucially, staying safe.

Read our electric heater reviews to find a Best Buy model that's proven better than the rest in our tough lab tests.

1. Don't: Place other items close to or on your heater - that includes yourself

Laundry on a heater

Portable heaters can be powerful heat generators, so don't position them too close to furniture, furnishings or other objects, especially not flammable objects. And never drape laundry over an electric heater to dry it; the consequences could be disastrous.

The London Fire Brigade recently issued a warningfollowing a deadly fire in New York City that originated with a portable heater.

It said '[It's] absolutely vital that heaters are kept well away from curtains, furniture, paperwork and are never used to dry clothes. Always sit at least a metre away from the heater, particularly those using them whilst working from home, as it could set fire to your clothes or your chair. Position [heaters] where they won't be knocked over and away from pets.'

Read the London Fire Brigade's advice on using portable heaters, gas fires and open fires safely.

2. Don't: Assume a premium price means a better performance - our testing proves otherwise

You can spend anything from £20 to well over £100 on a heater. The cheapest heaters tend to be small fan heaters that don't oscillate; you'll typically need to pay upwards of £60 for a convector or radiator model, or an oscillating fan heater. The most expensive models will have extra bells and whistles, such as an air purification function.

Importantly, though, a higher price doesn't guarantee a better performance. Our tests have found cheap Best Buy heaters that will do an effective job of keeping you snug while keeping running costs to a minimum, while some of the most expensive disappointed us on test, often because of poor thermostats.

What to do instead

Person using an electric heater

Your first priority should be to pick the heater style that best suits your needs:

  • Fan heaters increase room temperature faster, but tend to be noisier and to heat rooms less evenly. They're best used in fairly short bursts.
  • Radiator or convector heaters take longer to get to work, but will gradually shroud the room in an even warmth while barely making a peep. They're suited for delivering several hours of warmth.

Once you've decided which type you want, use our reviews to identify a heater that performs well in our tests for performance and ease of use, and has the features you need. These might include portability, a fan that oscillates to move heat around a larger space, or wi-fi connectivity to control your heater at a distance.

If you want a head start in your shopping, visit our round up of the best electric heaters for 2022.

3. Don't: Leave your heater unattended

cat in front of electric heater

If you leave a heater in a room unattended, it increases the chances of a problem being missed until it's too late. In households with young children or pets, it also increases the risk of the heater being knocked over, or of a child thoughtlessly draping something flammable over it. If you're going to be leaving the room for any length of time, turn it off.

4. Don't: Buy a second-hand heater without carrying out checks - it could be a safety hazard

If you're looking to keep costs to a minimum, it could be tempting to look for a portable heater on the second-hand market. Just as when buying a new model, check our reviews first. Much of the expense of owning an electric heater comes from running costs, rather than up-front costs, so buying a dirt-cheap model that's expensive to run could prove a false economy.

And, importantly, when buying second-hand you don't know a heater's history. So, if you have your eye on a pre-owned heater, there are some extra things you should check for:

  • Has the model been recalled? We've seen heaters recalled in the past because they are fire hazards, including several fan heaters in the GoodHome Colenso range, as we reported in 2021.
  • Does the heater have signs of damage? Any heater that has signs of wear and tear should be checked and, if necessary, repaired by a qualified electrician. Loose wiring, safety guards not in place, or problems with stability are all warning signs.

Even when buying new, make sure that you buy from a reputable seller to reduce the risk of buying a counterfeit, and potentially unsafe, heater.

In general, it's always worth buying a heater new and from a recognised brand, because the cost savings to be made by bypassing this are minimal.

If you need a qualified electrician to repair a heater, use Trusted Traders to find a professional near you that's been endorsed by Which?

5. Don't: Take your indoor heater outside

Days are finally getting lighter and longer, but there's still a decided nip in the air. If you're tempted to try and warm up a chilly garden get-together with an electric heater, resist this temptation.

Not only is it potentially dangerous to expose indoor electrical equipment to the elements, but the way indoor electric heaters warm the air (by convection) means they'll do a terrible job of keeping you warm outside - and waste energy in the process.

What to do instead

Use a patio heater that's made for that environment. An infrared heater is usually best outdoors because it's a radiant heater. This means that it doesn't heat the air, but it heats objects directly using infrared radiation, reducing heat loss. Patio heaters are still far from environmentally-friendly, but they're a far better choice than using an indoor heater. Read more about the pros and cons and how to choose a patio heater.

6. Don't: Run your heater at max for any longer than necessary

It's not rocket science; the higher the setting you run your heater on, the higher the energy use and, inevitably, the bigger the impact on your energy bills. Running your heater on its maximum setting (typically 2kW, but sometimes up to 3kW) for longer than you need to could see your bills spiraling out of control.

You probably need to run your electric heater for at least half an hour to achieve a sizeable temperature rise in your room (for context, that's equivalent to boiling a kettle or leaving a toaster on continuously for that same duration). But once your room's reached the desired temperature, you can probably get away with reducing the setting.

What to do instead

Eco-design regulations require electric heaters to be designed to meet minimum requirements for sustainability. One of the things heater manufacturers must do is integrate a thermostat.

If you use it, a good thermostat will automatically adjust your heater's output to maintain the temperature you set. This means it can wind down its heat generation, and thus its energy consumption, to a level that is just enough to maintain a comfortable ambient temperature.

We test heaters to find out how good their thermostats are in practice. The best do a great job of measuring and maintaining a set temperature, and adjusting heating accordingly. The worst do not.

Read our advice on controlling heater running costs in our guide on how eco-friendly heaters are.

7. Don't: Buy a noisy heater by mistake

Woman watching television

One of the most frequent irritations we hear about in relation to portable heaters is that some are far too noisy.

Fan heaters are the main culprits here: they will kick up a ruckus that can be surprisingly loud. Our tests assess how loud each fan heater we review is and how abrasive the noise sounds.

Convector and radiator heaters, on the other hand, are generally quiet. At worst, they may produce a low murmur, and you can sometimes hear a clicking noise (because of the way the materials expand and contract from heat transfer).

If you want to watch television without headphones, hold a conversation in the kitchen or just concentrate, don't buy a noisy fan heater - to avoid buying something that sounds like a plane taking off, check our electric heater reviews and look out for the 'noise' star rating.

Of course, if you just want a heater to give you a burst of heat while you get ready in the morning, the noise shouldn't bother you too much.