Space Heater vs Central Heat - Which One Has Cheaper Cost?

Christine Herrington

Christine is our Chief Editor and a contributing writer to the site.

Last Updated on February 4, 2022

When choosing between heating your abode with a space heater or central heating, the number one factor is space.

Perhaps you only have a small space that needs to be heated intermittently, or you live in a primarily temperate area and don’t use your heating system very often. But if you’re heating more than one room and want a method that’s cost-effective and is less damaging to the environment, your HVAC system is the best choice

When choosing between central heat or a space heater, whatever your reasoning, think about how much space you have to heat, the temperature discrepancy, and how long the heating system must sustain this temperature.

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Table of Contents

Distinctions Between Heating Systems

Almost half of the energy consumed by American households goes to heating and cooling the different areas of your home. Most homes in the U.S. use central heating powered by electricity, propane, or natural gas. Other methods of heating the air in an enclosed space include space heaters. Here are the differences between the two types.

Space Heaters

You’ve probably seen them before: those metal boxes that pump out heat, often used in studios and smaller abodes. There are two main types of space heaters – combustion heaters and those that run off of electricity.

  • Combustion Space Heaters – Use flammable materials like kerosene, gasoline, wood, or propane; combustion heaters are a dangerous alternative and should be avoided if you can’t correctly observe them all the time that they’re on.
  • Electrical Space Heaters – There are three main types of electric space heaters – heat pumps, convection, and infrared.

Heat pumps displace the locale of the heat. To heat a room, a pump draws warmer air from the outside and pumps it inward; you can reverse a heat pump as well.

With both convection heaters and infrared heaters, electricity warms a wire that either heats the air around it or a surface with infrared rays.

Combustion heaters are not as practical as your other options for space heaters. Convection space heaters are quite common, and infrared ones use excellent tech to heat small spaces.


Central Heating

You can use a central heating system to warm all the areas of your home, and it is a part of a primary HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system. Traditionally powered by a furnace, your central heating system can heat just one room or many.

Via a furnace, a central heating system pushes warm air through ducts and vents to heat your home. You control the temperature with a thermostat and can turn the heat on or off in separate areas as needed.

Central heating is usually fueled by either gas or electricity and, less often, coal or wood. The least economical option is electricity (unless you’re creating your own via solar panels) because electricity is quite expensive in lots of areas. A natural gas or propane-run central heating system is the most commonly used, but they have efficiency issues of their own.

Sometimes natural gas or propane is used to produce electricity. This method loses 70% of its fuel energy in the conversion process and even more on its way to your home, proving it to be the least efficient use of power. 

Central heating is a great way to keep your house at the optimal temperature at all times. Unless you live tropically or in one to two rooms, central heating is the most convenient.

Deciding which one is better to run, space heater vs. central heat, you have to consider the operational costs and energy efficiency.

Operational Costs

Your HVAC system, and hence your central heating system, most likely runs on natural gas or propane. Gas and propane energy units are measured in therms, which is different from how electricity is measured in kilowatts.

To assess which system is better, space heater vs. central heat, you need to measure them similarly. Converting the kilowatts into BTUs, British Thermal Units, lets you determine which system is cheaper to run over the long term.

The University of Maine created a nifty formula in which you can calculate the cost per 1,000,000 BTUs to run a propane- or gas-fueled system or an electric heating system. Plug in the fuel efficiency for your plan, the price of fuel, and the amount of energy in power you use, and you will be able to calculate how much you pay for heat.

If you only need to heat one room of your home, then a space heater will be less expensive to run than the entire heating system. However, if you have many rooms in your house to heat, then heating your home in this manner becomes less cost-efficient.

If you want to heat only one room of your house, you have to make sure that your HVAC system is off. There’s no sense in paying for both types of heat. But if you live in a tropical area, in one room or studio apartment, or a tiny house, a space heater may be just what you need to keep cozy.


Energy Efficiency

Surprisingly, a space heater is not more efficient than a gas-powered central heat system. Since electricity has both a larger carbon footprint and costs more in most areas, using electrical space heaters instead of your central heating system is not tenable long term.

This is especially true if you need to heat multiple rooms of a house. Running multiple space heaters is dangerous, as you shouldn’t leave any of them running unsupervised. It’s also too costly to pay for various heat sources on your electric bill.

Although there is an exception to this rule: if you have mounted solar panels and create your electricity to run supervised space heaters, both cost and carbon footprint are decreased.

The Last Word

How much space you’re trying to heat at one time and how long you have to maintain that heat are the two key considerations when you’re thinking about flipping on the thermostat or just warming your place up with a space heater.

If you need to heat a multi-room household, you live in a cold climate and want to maintain a smaller carbon footprint while at the same time decreasing your energy costs, heating your home with a propane or a gas-powered HVAC system is your best option. However, a space-saving space heater can alleviate intermittent heating needs in limited spaces.

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