What type of heater is cheapest to run?

With energy costs on the rise, many homeowners are looking to cut down on their heating bills by switching to more efficient systems. In this comprehensive guide, I'll compare the heating costs, pros, and cons of various types of heaters to help you determine which is cheapest to run for your home.
Ted Curley
Journeymen wiremen at US Electric-International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)

Hello, I'm Ted Curley, a licensed electrician with a wealth of experience in the electrical field. I've launched this platform to share my extensive knowledge and insights with you. My journey in the electrical field spans over a decade, during which I have cultivated a deep understanding and expertise in...Read more

Ted Curley
Journeymen wiremen at US Electric-International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)

Hello, I'm Ted Curley, a licensed electrician with a wealth of experience in the electrical field. I've launched this platform to share my extensive knowledge and insights with you. My journey in the electrical field spans over a decade, during which I have cultivated a deep understanding and expertise in...Read more

I'm often asked what the most cost-effective home heating options are. With energy costs on the rise, many homeowners are looking to cut down on their heating bills by switching to more efficient systems. In this comprehensive guide, I'll compare the heating costs, pros, and cons of various types of heaters to help you determine which is cheapest to run for your home.

Key Takeaways

Before we dive into the details, here are 5 key takeaways:

  1. Heat pumps are often the cheapest form of electric heating for larger homes that require central heating and air conditioning.
  2. Electric radiant heaters provide the cheapest zone heating for smaller rooms.
  3. Natural gas furnaces are the most economical for central heating in colder climates.
  4. Programmable thermostats help minimize energy waste and lower costs for all heating systems.
  5. Proper maintenance and usage habits increase efficiency and savings regardless of heater type.

Now let's look at how these and other common heating systems compare when evaluating total cost over the lifetime of the equipment.

Comparison of Heater Types

Table 1. Summary comparison table for all types of heaters

Heater TypeUpfront CostsOperating CostsLifespanEnergy EfficiencyZone Control
Electric Furnace$4,000 – $5,500$1,100 – $1,500/year15-20 years99% AFUEWhole-home
Electric Boiler$3,000 – $6,000$900 – $1,300/year15-20 years90%+ AFUEZoned
Heat Pump$3,000 – $7,000$700 – $1,100/year8-15 years200-300% AFUEDuctless or central
Electric Radiant$100 – $300$50 – $150/year10-15 years90-95%Single room
Gas Furnace$5,000 – $12,000$750 – $1,250/year15-20 years95% AFUEWhole-home
Gas Boiler$3,000 – $6,000$550 – $950/year15-20 years90%+ AFUEZoned
Oil Furnace$6,000 – $10,000$1,700 – $2,500+/year20-30 years80-87% AFUEWhole-home
Oil Boiler$4,000 – $8,000$1,200 – $1,800/year20-30 years80-90% AFUEZoned
Ventless Gas Wall$600 – $1,500$300 – $800+/year10-15 years95-99% AFUESingle room
Portable Propane/Kerosene$100 – $300$300 – $600+/year3-5 years60-80%Single room

Factors That Determine Heating Costs

Choosing the most cost-effective heating option for your home depends on several factors:

  • Home size – Central heat vs zone heating needs. Larger homes often require whole-home systems like furnaces and boilers. Smaller spaces can rely on zone heaters (Energy.gov).
  • Climate – Heating needs and severity of winters. Colder regions need more powerful and cost-effective central heat (Dept of Energy). Milder climates can use zone heating.
  • Fuel source – Electricity, natural gas, propane, etc. This affects equipment and operating costs. Natural gas is often the cheapest for central heat where available (EIA).
  • Equipment costs – Purchase price & professional installation. Prices range from $100 for a portable space heater to $10,000+ for a new gas furnace (HomeAdvisor).
  • Operating costs – Energy efficiency & consumption. Check AFUE ratings and yearly energy estimates (Energy.gov).
  • Maintenance – Upkeep costs over the lifespan. Yearly service improves efficiency & equipment lifespan (Carrier).
  • Features – Programmable thermostats, and zone control options affect costs. Smart thermostats like Ecobee help minimize waste (Ecobee).
  • Personal needs – Health conditions, desired comfort level, and convenience preferences affect choices.

Looking at both equipment and operating costs over the total lifespan is key to determining the most economical heating for your specific home. Let's compare common system types on these criteria:

Electric Heaters

Electric heating systems offer several advantages that can make them a cost-effective option in certain homes and climates.

Electric Furnaces

Electric furnaces use heating elements to warm air, which is then distributed through ductwork.

  • Upfront Costs – $4,000 to $5,500 installed for a 3-5 ton unit (HomeAdvisor)
  • Operating Costs – $1,100 to $1,500 per year for a 2500 sq ft home
  • Lifespan – 15-20 years with proper maintenance (Direct Energy)
  • Energy Efficiency – 99% AFUE rating, less heat loss vs gas (Energy.gov)
  • Zone Control – Typically whole-home only

Electric furnaces are ideal for smaller, all-electric homes that require a central heating system. The higher upfront cost of electric furnaces is offset by lower heating bills compared to alternatives over the 15-20-year lifespan.

Ted's Tip: “If you're using an electric heater, always ensure it's placed away from flammable materials and never leave it unattended.”

Electric Boilers

Electric boilers heat water and use a hydronic system of radiators, baseboards, or in-floor radiant tubing to heat spaces.

  • Upfront Costs – $3,000 to $6,000 installed (HomeAdvisor)
  • Heating Costs – $900 to $1,300 per year based on climate and usage
  • Lifespan – 15-20 years with proper maintenance (Direct Energy)
  • Energy Efficiency – 90%+ AFUE rating
  • Zone Control – Heating zones throughout the home
Positive
  • Provides zoned heating
  • Hydronic heat keeps air moist
  • No combustion or fumes
  • Lower operating costs than electric furnace
Negatives
  • Upfront cost for boiler and radiators
  • Electricity costs can still be high
  • Old steam radiators lose a lot of heat

Electric boilers provide zoned electric heat at a lower operating cost than electric furnaces. They are well-suited to smaller, zoned hydronic heating systems.

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps provide heating, cooling and dehumidification in one system. They use electricity to extract heat from outdoor air and pump it indoors.

  • Upfront Costs – $3,000 to $7,000 installed
  • Operating Costs – $700 to $1,100 per year
  • Lifespan – Outdoor unit 10-20 years, indoor 8-15 years
  • Energy Efficiency – 200-300% AFUE rating
  • Zone Control – Ductless or central heating
Positive
  • Provides both heating and A/C
  • Most energy-efficient electric option
  • Lower operating costs
  • Works well for central heating/cooling
Negatives
  • Expensive upfront installation
  • Doesn't work as well in extremely cold climates
  • Outdoor unit is bulky and noisy

Most energy-efficient electric heating and cooling. Cost-effective for whole home systems. Reduce costs further with programmable thermostats.

Electric Radiant Heaters

Electric radiant heaters use heating elements to directly warm people and objects. No ducts required.

  • Upfront Costs – $100 to $300 purchase and DIY install
  • Operating Costs – $50 to $150 per 1500W unit/year
  • Lifespan – 10-15 years, replace bulbs every 2-3 years
  • Energy Efficiency – 90-95% less heat loss than forced air
  • Zone Control – Heats objects, not full volume of air
Positive
  • Inexpensive to purchase and operate
  • Energy efficient for zone heating
  • Easy DIY installation
  • Safe and clean
Negatives
  • Only heat what they directly contact
  • Can dry out air over time
  • Limited heating capacity

Cheap to install and operate for quickly heating small zones like bathrooms or offices. Limit use to occupied times in those spaces to maximize savings.

Gas Heaters

For homes with access to natural gas, gas heating systems often provide the most affordable options for whole-home central heating.

Gas Furnaces

Gas furnaces use a gas burner to heat air, which a blower circulates through ducts throughout the home.

  • Upfront Costs – $5,000 to $12,000 installed (HomeAdvisor)
  • Operating Costs – $750 to $1,250 per year for a 2500 sq ft home
  • Lifespan – 15-20 years with yearly service (Carrier)
  • Energy Efficiency – 95% AFUE rating
  • Zone Control – Typically whole-home only
Positive
  • Lower operating costs than electric
  • Quick warmup and even heat distribution
  • Reliable central heating for larger homes
Negatives
  • Upfront cost for furnace and gas line
  • Combustion produces some fumes/emissions
  • Requires yearly professional service

For climates with cold winters, a gas furnace often provides the most economical option for whole-home central heating. The payback period compared to an electric furnace is typically 3-5 years.

Gas Boilers

Gas boilers heat water to provide zoned hydronic heating via radiators, baseboards, or in-floor radiant tubing.

  • Upfront Costs – $3,000 to $6,000 installed (HomeAdvisor)
  • Operating Costs – $550 to $950 per year based on climate and usage
  • Lifespan – 15-20 years with yearly service (Direct Energy)
  • Energy Efficiency – 90%+ AFUE rating
  • Zone Control – Heating zones throughout the home

In homes with existing hydronic heating, replacing an old boiler with a new gas-fired boiler can significantly reduce heating costs.

Ted's Insight: “Always ensure your gas heater is regularly serviced to prevent carbon monoxide leaks.”

Oil Heaters

Oil heating systems can provide effective home heating, but the operating costs are substantially higher compared to other options.

Oil Furnaces

Oil furnaces use an oil burner and blower to distribute heated air through ductwork.

  • Upfront Costs – $6,000 to $10,000 installed (HomeAdvisor)
  • Operating Costs – $1,700 to $2,500+ per year for 2500 sq ft home
  • Lifespan – 20-30 years with proper maintenance (Carrier)
  • Energy Efficiency – 80-87% AFUE rating on average
  • Zone Control – Typically whole-home only
Positive
  • Provide effective whole-home heating
  • Long equipment lifespan
Negatives
  • Very expensive to operate
  • Require large costly oil tank
  • Combustion byproducts and fumes

Oil furnaces are only recommended if you lack access to natural gas or electricity. The operating costs are too expensive for most homes.

Oil Boilers

Oil boilers provide zoned hydronic heat via radiators, baseboards or in-floor tubing.

  • Upfront Costs – $4,000 to $8,000 installed (HomeAdvisor)
  • Operating Costs – $1,200 to $1,800 per year based on climate and usage
  • Lifespan – 20-30 years with yearly service (Carrier)
  • Energy Efficiency – 80-90% AFUE rating
  • Zone Control – Heating zones throughout the home
Positive
  • Provide zoned heating control
  • Long equipment lifespan
Negatives
  • Costly to operate long-term
  • Require large oil tank
  • Combustion byproducts and fumes

While cheaper to operate than oil furnaces, oil boilers are still far more expensive to run than other heating options. Only recommended when natural gas is unavailable.

Propane and Kerosene Heaters

Propane and kerosene heaters can provide supplemental zone heating but are too costly and risky for primary home heating.

Ventless Gas Wall Heaters

Ventless propane wall heaters provide zone heating for smaller spaces like bedrooms or office spaces.

  • Upfront Costs – $600 to $1,500 purchase & install
  • Operating Costs – $300 to $800+ per year
  • Lifespan – 10-15 years with yearly service
  • Energy Efficiency – 95-99% AFUE rating
  • Zone Control – Small spaces only
Positive
  • Inexpensive to install
  • Provide zone heating
Negatives
  • Risk of indoor air pollution
  • Very expensive to operate
  • Only heat small spaces

Not recommended as a primary heat source due to indoor air quality and fire risks. Very expensive to operate long-term.

Portable Propane and Kerosene Heaters

Portable propane and kerosene heaters can provide temporary supplemental zone heat.

  • Upfront Costs – $100 to $300 purchase
  • Operating Costs – $300 to $600+ per year
  • Lifespan – 3-5 years
  • Energy Efficiency – 60-80%
  • Zone Control – Single room
Positive
  • Inexpensive to purchase
  • Portable supplemental heat
Negatives
  • High fire and safety risks
  • Expensive to operate
  • Produce fumes/emissions

Only for emergency use due to high fire risk and dangerous fumes. Extremely expensive to operate for primary home heating.

Additional Cost Factors

A few other variables can factor into the overall costs and savings when selecting a heating system:

  • Existing equipment vs. new install – Replacing only components like an old boiler or furnace heat exchanger may cost less than a brand-new system.
  • Single vs. dual/modulating stage – Advanced modulating systems provide more consistent temperatures but at a higher upfront cost.
  • Size needed for home's heat load – An oversized system will cycle on and off more, reducing efficiency and equipment lifespan.
  • Energy rates in your region – Electric and gas rates can vary significantly. Compare rates from local providers.
  • Added features – Humidifiers, better air filters, and WiFi thermostats improve comfort and efficiency but add cost.

Newer systems and modulated heating tend to be more energy efficient. Oversized equipment cycles on and off more, reducing its lifespan.

I always recommend getting quotes from 3 contractors for any heating system installation or replacement. Make sure they do a proper heat load calculation before making equipment recommendations.

Recommendations for Most Economical Heating

Table 2: Average Cost Per Hour of Different Heaters

Explore further:  Do Space Heaters Raise Your Electric Bill?
Heater TypeAverage Cost Per Hour
Electric Space Heater$0.15 – $0.30
Gas Heater$0.10 – $0.20
Heat Pump$0.05 – $0.15
Radiant Heater$0.12 – $0.25

Based on the above comparisons, here are my top recommendations for the most affordable and cost-effective home heating:

For All-Electric Homes

  • Large Spaces: Heat pumps for whole-home heating and cooling

Also, upgrade to programmable or WiFi smart thermostats to maximize energy savings.

For Homes with Natural Gas Service

  • Smaller Spaces: Electric radiant heaters for zone heating
  • Large Spaces: Natural gas furnace for central heating
  • Homes w/ Existing Hydronics: Natural gas boiler

Install setback thermostats to lower heating costs. Get yearly service.

For Off-Grid and Rural Homes

  • Smaller Spaces: Electric radiant or ventless propane for zone heating
  • Large Spaces: Propane furnace (with backup generator if possible)

Minimize use of propane/kerosene heaters due to risks. Focus on insulation.

For Older Homes with Hydronics

  • Repair/replace existing boiler
  • Convert radiator valves to allow zoned control
  • Insulate and air-seal to improve efficiency

Restoring and upgrading hydronic systems can provide maximum savings.

Consider these electric radiant heaters for zone heating

Tips for Maximizing Efficiency

Maximizing energy efficiency is key to lowering heating costs. Here are tips that apply to all heating systems:

1

Stop Air LeaksStopping drafts makes any heater more effective.

  • Caulk and weatherstrip windows, doors
  • Seal openings like ducts, pipes, vents
  • Insulate attic, walls, basement
2

Lower the ThermostatUse programmable or smart thermostats. Every degree lower saves up to 5%!

  • Set to 680F (200C) when home
  • Lower to 60-650F (15-180C) when away
3

Regular MaintenanceProper maintenance improves efficiency and extends equipment lifespan.

  • Replace air filters monthly
  • Have furnace/AC serviced yearly
  • Oil radiator valves, bleed trapped air
  • Clean intake/exhaust vents
4

Monitor UsageUnderstanding your usage patterns allows you to program heating schedules and settings more efficiently.

  • Review heating bills yearly
  • Note days/times most used
  • Adjust the programmable thermostat accordingly
  • Track improvements from upgrades

By following these tips and choosing the right heating system for your home's requirements, you can minimize energy usage and enjoy lower heating bills. Contact a qualified local contractor to help assess your best options.

FAQ

What are the benefits of infrared heaters?

Infrared heaters warm objects directly using infrared radiation, which is efficient for zone heating. They heat up quickly, are safe and silent, and do not reduce humidity. Downsides are they only heat what is in direct path of radiation.

What are panel heaters and how do they work?

Panel heaters use electric resistance coils or infrared heating elements behind a metal panel to radiate heat. They are slim, lightweight, and mount on walls to provide zone heating. Most have adjustable thermostats and timers.

Are fan heaters more efficient than ceramic heaters?

Fan heaters use electric resistance coils and blow air over them with a fan to heat spaces. Ceramic heaters embed heating elements in ceramic plates. Fan heaters heat up faster but circulate drier heat. Ceramic retain heat longer and are safer around kids.

What temperature should I set my electric heater to?

For an electric space heater, aim for 68°F when actively home using the room. Turn down to 60-62°F when away. Monitor humidity and adjust as too much dryness can be unhealthy.

Are halogen heaters efficient for home use?

Halogen heaters use a tungsten halogen bulb and reflector to produce radiant heat. They can be wall-mounted or portable. Good for spot heating a small area quickly, but high fire risk and expensive to operate for whole room heating.

What are benefits of using an oil-filled heater?

Oil-filled heaters use electric heating elements submerged in oil to distribute heat via natural convection. The oil retains and radiates heat smoothly after shutoff. Safe for kids but heavier than other electric heaters. Good for constant, portable heat.

Should I only use kerosene heaters outside?

Yes, only use kerosene heaters outside due to the fire and fume risks. Never run a kerosene heater indoors or in partially enclosed spaces. Only use for emergency supplemental heat for short periods outdoors. Ensure proper ventilation.

Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions!

Ted CurleyJourneymen wiremen at US Electric-International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)

Hello, I'm Ted Curley, a licensed electrician with a wealth of experience in the electrical field. I've launched this platform to share my extensive knowledge and insights with you. My journey in the electrical field spans over a decade, during which I have cultivated a deep understanding and expertise in various roles. Let me take you through my journey and my passion for electricity and space heaters. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line at ted.curley@tedreviews.com

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