Infrared Heaters: Science or Hype?

Perhaps you’ve seen one of those too-good-to-be-true advertorials claiming that an infrared heater will “heat your whole house for pennies per day,” and wondered whether or not there was anything to it. While many of the claims you see advertised for infrared heating are just marketing hype, there are real benefits to infrared – with sound science to back them up.

There are two kinds of infrared heaters. Radiant infrared heaters, which you often see on patios or an outdoor events, have exposed elements and work on a line-of-sight basis. The infrared waves they emit make people feel warmer immediately, though the surrounding air may remain frigid.

Indoor infrared heaters – cabinet type heaters such as Edenpure, Sunheat, and SolarFlare – don’t emit much radiant heat, because their heating elements are enclosed in a heat chamber deep within the heater and thus have no line of sight to people or objects. Instead, an indoor infrared heater works on the principle of convection – it heats the air in the room, which makes the occupants feel warmer.

Note: Not all infrared heaters work the same way. For purposes of this article, we’ll be describing the SolarFlare.

So, what makes an infrared heater better than an ordinary space heater you might get at Wal-Mart for $25? That space heater also uses convection, and pulls just as many watts, so it seems that they should perform exactly the same – but the fact is, they don’t.

Here’s why: It’s the temperature to which the air is heated, and the way in which that air is distributed. An ordinary space heater superheats the air, then blasts it into the room at high speed. The high temperature and turbulence cause the stream of hot air to head straight up and stay there. Wherever the occupants of a room may be, you’re unlikely to find anyone on the ceiling – so the people who are supposed to be getting warmer have to wait until the heat works its way down to them.

A SolarFlare infrared heater warms the air slowly and moderately using a dual heat chamber design and six quartz infrared elements. By the time cool air makes its circuitous trip from the fans on the back to the grille on the front, its temperature has been raised by about 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

This air is gently exhaled into the room, causing minimal turbulence and thus reducing the tendency of the warmer air to rise straight up through the cooler air. The effect of this even distribution is clearly shown by the numbers: A room heated with an infrared heater will usually show a floor-to-ceiling temperature disparity of only 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Heated with an ordinary space heater, the temperature differential between floor and ceiling will be much greater.

While an infrared heater will not, on it own, heat your home for any reasonable number of “pennies a day,” it will keep several hundred to a thousand square feet comfortable, which is more than its 5,119 BTU’s are “supposed” to be able to do. This makes it an outstanding source of supplemental heat.

Supplemental heat from a portable device can be used in a couple of different ways to cut your energy bill. First of all, the coverage area of an infrared heater may actually be large enough to heat the parts of your house where you spend the majority of your time while at home. You can then leave the thermostat down on the rest of your house, with an obvious potential for energy savings.

Also, many homes have one or more “cold spots” in the central heating. If such a cold spot is in a frequently-used area, you may find that it’s causing you to run the central heat higher than necessary for the rest of the house. Infrared heaters excel at bringing these dead areas up to par with the rest of the system, enabling you to run the whole thing at a more reasonable temperature.

Infrared heaters aren’t magic. They’re just really good electric space heaters with incredible coverage. Used properly as a part of your overall heating strategy, they have the potential to make a good-sized dent in your energy bill.