To keep things warm as the winter cold bites, you'll most probably need heating and, if your central heating doesn't quite cut it – or if you're in an area with no gas heating – then a portable electric heater (sometimes known as a space heater) is worth considering.
"Portable heaters are great for situations where heating has failed in your house," explains Rob Bennett, technical service manager at Pimlico Plumbers. "They are also great for camping and outdoors, when the cold hits."
In the home, you might consider using an electric heater if only requiring short, targeted warmth. For example, if you're having a quick shower before leaving the house in the morning, you can use one in the bathroom rather than switching on the whole house's central heating. Or, if you have a small outside summer house that doubles as an office, a portable heater means you don't have to worry about connecting the space to your central heating system.
Conversely, portable heaters are "not so great for a constant heating source in a large area where heat disperses quickly," Bennett warns, because they struggle to fill the space.
There are four main types of portable electric heater:
- Fan heaters: Fan heaters use an electric coil to create heat, and then blow the warmth across the room. They are cheap and light, but noisy. They heat (small) rooms quickly but warmth can be quickly lost if you let in a draught.
- Convector heaters: Convector (or convection) heaters radiate warmth throughout the room. Like a fan heater, they have an internal heating element. However, instead of using a fan to circulate the warmth, they wait for hot air to rise and be replaced by cool air, which then gets heated. For this reason, convection heaters are slower to warm up than fans, but distribute heat more thoroughly. You can pick up a model for £20, but realistically the better products start at £50 and go north from there.
- Oil-filled heaters: According to Bennett, these are the most reliable on the whole. They use an electrical current within thermal oil, heating the oil and circulating it around the heater, a bit like water in a radiator. Oil-filled heaters tend to be more cumbersome than other types, as the oil adds weight, so they're perhaps less portable. They take a long time to warm up – normally somewhere in the range of 20 minutes – but they stay warm for a long time once they're turned off. Oil-filled radiators are cheap to run – and there is no need to replace the oil. Prices for a good model start roughly at the £50 mark.
- Halogen heaters: You'll recognise these from pub gardens. Halogen heaters radiate heat directly onto objects, rather than relying on convection to circulate the warmth. As a result, halogen heaters work quickly, and they're efficient – so cheap to run. They're also light and portable. However, they struggle in large spaces. Like most portable heaters, you can pick one up for under £20, but can easily spend over £100, too.
Here, we take you through our favourite portable electric heaters, covering a range of styles, before explaining the pros and cons of each type, with a little help from the experts.
1. De'Longhi HCX9124E panel convector heater
Why we like it: Slimline build, quick heating and several different programmes to get just what you need
One of the best brands for portable electric heating name-checked by Bennett is De'Longhi, an Italian small appliance manufacturer founded in 1902.
Slim and discreet (the dimensions are 82 x 55 x 22cm), this convection heater features a double fan system that helps to boost performance while allowing you to heat up the room quickly and easily. The fans can be switched off if you prefer.
At 2.4kW, it's slightly more powerful than your average portable heater, so it can heat slightly larger rooms (most of the heaters in this list are 2kW or under – and that added power does make a difference). The pay off, however, is that it's quite heavy, at over 8kg – which should be fine for most households, but it will be less appealing for those who struggle to carry objects around the house. (It's worth noting here that oil-filled radiators tend to be heavier still, by as much as double.)
The De'Longhi HCX9124E has an impressive range of power options alongside an adjustable thermostat – so you can pick your desired temperature – all selectable from the easy-to-use electronic control panel. The 24-hour timer, for example, allows you to programme when you want your heater to turn on. There's also an automatic tilt switch which turns the machine off if it accidentally falls over – music to the ears of parents of young children.
In terms of specifications and functions, you can't go too far wrong with this model, though it will cost you at least £100 (the amount Bennett suggests guarantees a top quality portable heater).
The appliance can be wall mounted if desired. Comes with a three year guarantee.
2. Dimplex DXUC2B ceramic fan heater
Why we like it: An affordable, efficient fan heater
Electric fan heaters come in all shapes and sizes, and can be bought for less than a tenner. Having had a very cheap model for some time, I can confirm that they can be rather volatile creatures – often, the air is boiling hot; at other times, it's practically air conditioning. Generally, however, fan heaters tend to be a little cheaper to buy than their convector or oil-filled brethren.
According to Bennett, Dimplex is one of the top brands to look out for in the portable heater market, offering high performance and affordable prices (mine certainly isn't a Dimplex).
This model comes highly recommended and performs well beyond its diminutive size (26cm tall; 18.5cm wide). Admittedly, it does have a slightly weird shape, but it's inoffensive, to me at least. It's also not very heavy (2kg) so you can lug it between rooms easily.
The most important thing, however, is how it performs. The good news is it's very quick to heat a room – though as a 2kW heater, it's better for small or medium rooms; it won't fully heat a large room.
This Dimplex has several features, including a choice of heat settings, a cool air function, a frost setting (details below), and safety cut-out, which means if the device overheats it'll switch off. As far as fan heaters go, it isn't too loud (all fan heaters make a bit of a racket).
Overall, a well-priced appliance that, coupled with a three-year guarantee, should see you in good stead throughout this winter, and many more to come.
3. Duronic HV101 radiant convector heater
Why we like it: A solid, dependable appliance that heats up super quick.
It's not exactly a looker, but this convector heater works a charm. Its core boast is that it heats up in a minute, thanks to special panels Duronic has developed. By contrast, oil heaters, which radiate heat in a similar way, take up to 20 minutes to warm up.
Fast heating, however, isn't the only thing that sets apart this very reasonably priced heater. Firstly, it's light (it's not filled with oil), has wheels and a handle – all these make it as portable as possible. You can also choose between different power settings, which can help save on bills. Unlike fan heaters, it's practically silent, too. Trip-over protection means that if it does fall, it'll switch off, and the overheat function prevents it from getting too hot.
Despite being heavier than convector radiators, there are benefits to getting an oil-filled radiator. They're cheap to run, for starters. While they take around 20 minutes to heat up, they're good at maintaining that heat. This means that, when switched off, the oil takes its time to cool down, meaning you can turn it off and go to sleep in a toasty room without the danger of leaving it on all night.
The VonHaus 7's design is pretty classic. It's built onto four wheels which, because oil radiators tend to be heavy, makes transporting around the house easier (like Daleks, it doesn't help much with stairs). Though it's quite small, it warms medium-sized rooms very well.
It comes with three heat settings and a thermostat to set the right room temperature, both of which can help keep down costs. It's worth noting that a little assembling is required to attach it to the wheels from the packet. Another downside is that it doesn't have handles, which means you can easily burn yourself if you forget it's on.
For a budget heater that's easy to use and unobtrusive, this value model from Argos does the job well. Particularly useful for students or those living in shared accommodation, it has the ability to warm up a small room in under ten minutes.
There are two simple settings – warming and cool air – and an auto cut-off function that detects when the heater is no longer needed. It's not the most potent appliance around, but should do the trick in compact university accommodation.
6. Dimplex Cadiz Eco 2kW electric oil-free radiator
Supposedly 10pc more efficient to run compared with other similar-sized oil-filled radiators, the Cadiz model from Dimplex boasts a super-fast warm-up time (heating up 30 per cent faster than other models) and energy-efficient heat-conversion properties.
Thanks to the lack of oil, the Cadiz is also much lighter than other portable radiators, making it easy to move from room to room. The 24-hour timer means you can programme when you'd like the radiator to turn on and off each today.
7. Dyson AM09 Hot + Cool fan heater
Speaking of not cheap...
Though very expensive, this silent fan heater from Dyson is worth consideration. It comes equipped with their exclusive 'Jet Focus' control to ensure a consistently powerful airflow, and 'Air Multiplier' technology to heat up the entire room quickly and evenly. In summer it will cool your room.
The minimalist design and lack of blades or visible heating elements also makes it extremely easy to clean and position anywhere in the room.
Portable heaters FAQ
Which style of portable heater is the cheapest to run?
All portable heaters come with significant running costs – heavier than gas central heating. As Vicky Dunn, energy manager at Smart Energy Greater Lincolnshire, explains: "The cheapest heating is the one you don't use. Make sure heaters are only on when required, and set as low as comfortable. Stop draughts so warm air isn't lost."
Dunn confirms that electricity is a relatively expensive way to heat your house but, for many, a portable electric heater may be essential – especially if you live in one of the four million or so households in the UK that don't use mains gas heating. Electric heating is also a good idea if you're just looking to heat one room, or only need to heat in short, sharp bursts.
Your heater's power will be measured in kilowatts. For most small- and medium-sized rooms, a 2kW device will suffice. According to the Centre for Sustainable Energy, a 2kW convector or fan heater will cost 28 pence per hour to run; a typical 1.5kW oil-filled radiator will set you back 21 pence per hour; while a 1.2kW halogen heater costs around 17 pence per hour. Gas is significantly cheaper.
What features should I look out for?
These days, a portable heating appliance is likely to come with several features – at least if you're going beyond the cheaper options. LCD screens displaying temperatures are common, useful for knowing when the room is getting too hot. Often, the heater will come with a remote control for switching on and off or adjusting the temperature.
Another useful function is a timer, allowing you to set the heating for the moment you wake up or arrive home. Frost protection will see the heater automatically switch on when the room goes below 5C.
Some heaters have a cold air setting – they essentially double up as fans in the summer. While not as potent as air conditioners, it could save you having to fit both appliances into your house. Fan heaters can also feature a climate control function: when the required temperature is reached, it will maintain that rather than get hotter.
How safe are portable heaters?
If you follow the instructions, there's no reason why a portable heater should be unsafe. The most important thing is to never place anything combustible on or too close to the appliance. If using a fan heater, consider whether anything nearby can be blown over (it's also worth noting that fan heaters should be placed in sufficient space to facilitate an airflow from behind).
Many fans will come with additional safety features, such as tilt protection or a safety cut-out. This means, should something knock it over, like a pet or a small child, it will switch off. Almost all – even cheap options – will have a carry handle, which means you can carry it around without burning your hand.
According to Electrical Safety First, there are several other safety measures to implement:
- Never leave portable heaters unattended.
- Never leave them on while asleep.
- Position them away from anything which can knock them over.
- Keep at least a metre away from combustible materials.
- Never buy second-hand halogen heaters.
- Never power a halogen heater from an extension lead.
- Regularly inspect your heater for damage (and don't use if it is damaged).