Avoiding the space heater

With increasing frequency I am contacted with cost saving ideas related to energy consumption on campus.   The current financial situation has pushed Williams and other institutions around the country into making some very difficult decisions about programs that can no longer be supported.  It has also  forced us to think carefully about how and why we consume energy.  This is, at least, one positive outcome of the crisis, particularly if you are concerned about global climate change.  This week I have been prodded to find a way to help us think about the use of space heaters in offices.

Electric space heaters are banned in student rooms due to the risk of fire.  The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with the use of space heaters, causing more than 300 deaths.  We allow, or probably more accurately, do not confiscate them from faculty and staff offices.  Admittedly, some of our offices, particularly in our older buildings, are at times drafty and not the most comfortable spaces in which to work.  Inevitably space heaters sprout up in these buildings as a means of fending off the winter chills.

But space heaters are also found in offices that are maintained at our building temperature standard of 68 degrees.  We all experience temperatures somewhat differently and our comfort levels are dependent upon a number of complex factors – including air movement, type of heating system, our age, weight, and health.  In the class I teach, I see students sitting in T-shirts, while others wear heavy sweaters or even winter jackets.  Thermal comfort is clearly a personal experience.

Electric space heaters are energy intensive appliances.  The table below shows approximate electricity demand of some common appliances.   The first column (Watts) notes typical electricity usage when the appliance is on.  I have converted this data to the equivalent number of compact fluorescent lights and estimated a cost assuming the unit was on for 5 days per week, 8 hours per day for 20 weeks.  You might not think these values represent an unreasonable cost but an institution like Williams could have 100 units turned on at any given time with a potential annual cost of $18,000.  At a time when every penny counts… well its worth considering.

In addition to the energy cost and potential fire hazard, electric space heaters can overwhelm our electric system causing breakers to trip.  And all that electricity that is used to keep these units running results in the burning of fossil fuels at our power plants.

What can you do if you are chilly in your workspace?

  • Dress for the weather.  Keeping your neck and feet warm with wool scarves and socks, and an extra sweater is advisable during winter months.
  • If your space seems unreasonably uncomfortable, call Facilities to check that the heating system in your building is functioning properly and assess whether drafts can be reduced.  The Zilkha Center also has thermometers you can borrow if you want to check the temperature in your office.
  • Where possible, move your seat away from windows.

So you still can’t live without the heater.

  • Opt for energy efficiency. According to the Department of Energy – most space heaters rely on convection (the circulation of air in a room) to heat a room, some rely on radiant heating; that is, they emit infrared radiation that directly heats up objects and people that are within their line of sight. Radiant heaters are a more efficient choice when you will be in a room for only a few hours, if you can remain within the line of sight of the heater They can use as little as 170 watts of electricity compared to the 1800 watt units that we have seen in some offices.  This is a big improvement.
  • Only purchase newer model heaters that have all of the current safety features. Make sure the heater has the Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) label attached to it.
  • Choose a thermostatically controlled heater, since they avoid the energy waste of overheating a room.
  • Select a heater of the proper size for the room you wish to heat. Do not purchase oversized heaters. Most heaters come with a general sizing table.
  • Locate the heater on a level surface away from foot traffic.
  • Make sure you use them only when necessary.  Turn them off whenever you leave your office.

Your support of our conservation efforts is appreciated!!!  If you require more information, please contact me: [email protected] (Note: this is an archived, older post, please contact the Zilkha Center at [email protected]).


Equivalent to … 15 Watt CFL Bulbs

Annual Energy Cost

Electric Space Heater – high



Electric Space Heater – medium



60 Watt Incandescent



60 Watt Equivalent CFL



AC window unit



Whole house fan



Coffee Maker



42″ Plasma TV