While most homes are heated by forced air or hot water, electric heating can make sense in certain circumstances. For instance, if you live in an area where electricity is cheaper than gas/oil (very rare) or extending central heating ductwork is impractical, electric heating may be a smart choice.
Keep in mind that electricity is probably the most expensive and least environmentally friendly heating method. In most cases, furnaces and heat pumps are the most cost effective and earth friendly options. If you don’t have a gas connection to your home, it may be worth the investment. Speak with a professional HVAC technician to choose the best heating system for your home.
Electric Heating Options
Despite its disadvantages, electric heating is often an easy and convenient heating option. Several electric heating systems are available:
Electric Resistance Heating
Resistance type heating involves electricity passing through an element, which is converted to heat. While 100% of the electricity gets converted to heat, the electricity most likely comes from generators that run on coal, gas, or oil. Only around 30% of the fuel’s energy is used to generate electricity (U.S. DOE). This makes electric resistance heating less efficient and more expensive than traditional combustion appliances.
Electric resistance heating normally comes in the form of portable space heaters, baseboard panels connected to the lowest part of the wall, or electric “radiant” heating in floors, walls and ceilings.
- Baseboard heaters utilize heating elements in metal pipes. Heat transfer is aided by aluminum fins. As cool air falls to the floor, it gets displaced by what is referred to as convection. The circular process repeats to keep the interior warm.
- Electric walls heaters use heating elements and reflectors to create heat and a fan to move it around the room. They are wired directly into the electrical system and can be installed into walls or ceilings.
- Radiant heating supplies heat directly to panels in walls or ceilings. Heat is delivered to the room via infrared radiation, similar to the heat you feel emanating from a hot stovetop element. In addition to electrical radiant heating, there are also air-heated and hot water heated (hydronic) radiant floor options.
In cases when it is not practical or cost-effective to extend the central HVAC system to an addition, electric resistance heating can be a good choice.
Heat pumps involve extracting heat from the outside air using refrigerant and electricity. A heat pump is basically an air conditioner that works in reverse as well (see Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioner).
For a more energy-efficient and less expensive heating solution that uses electricity rather than fuel, consider heat pumps. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heat pumps can “easily cut electricity use by 50% when compared with electric resistance heating.”
There are two main types of heat pumps:
- Compression heat pumps that run on electricity.
- Absorption heat pumps that can run on electricity or combustion fuels such as natural gas.
Since heat pumps transfer heat rather than produce it, they tend to have much lower operating costs that other heating systems.
If you don’t have an existing fuel line coming into the home, you can use an electric-powered furnace. Electric furnaces are generally more expensive than other electric heating systems since there is extra energy loss due to duct leaks and distribution.
A blower sends air over the heating elements, also known as electric resistance coils, to send heat through the ductwork. To prevent overloading the circuit, the heating elements operate in stages. To prevent overheating, a limit controller will shut down the furnace in cases such as blocked airflow or a broken blower motor.
One benefit of electric furnaces is that no flue or chimney is needed to vent combustion gases, such as carbon monoxide. This can make installation less expensive; however, the high cost of electricity in most regions will offset the upfront savings.
Just like any other forced air system, it’s important to regularly change the air filter.
Proper insulation is necessary for all heating systems, but especially heaters that rely on electricity. More insulation is needed in homes that use electric heating. Since heat rises, it’s important to have proper insulation in the attic, where a lot of heat loss occurs.
If you are adding electric heating to your garage, learn some garage heating and insulation tips first.
No matter which type of heating system you choose for your home, it’s important to maintain optimum operation. In addition to professional annual maintenance, you’ll also want to supplement it with some DIY heating maintenance of your own. As always, be extra careful around electricity (see HVAC Electrical Safety Checklist).
Service Champions is known for friendly, on-time home service throughout the East Bay, South Bay, and Sacramento areas.
If you have any questions about electric heating, don’t hesitate to Ask a Champion:
- Pleasanton: (925) 308-5025
- Rocklin: (916) 231-9469
- San Jose: (408) 572-8065
- Concord: (925) 392-1212