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What's the Difference Between Convection and Radiant Heaters?

By Kris Jensen-Van Heste

If you're looking for a portable heater to decrease the chill in your workspace or a small room in your home, you have two general options: convection and radiant. Choosing one over the other depends primarily on whether you want to heat people or the space: Convection heaters will warm the air in a space, while a radiant heater will transfer heat to the nearest objects.

Convection Heaters

The convection process involves blowing air across a heating element. The air absorbs the heat and is then blown out to heat the air in a room. Thus, this is what you want for a small, chilly, enclosed office or a room that lacks sufficient heat.

Generally, an internal fan blows the air across the heating element inside the heater. The warmed air circulates into the room, raising the ambient temperature until the unit's thermostat senses its goal has been reached and shuts off the heating element. When the air temperature drops enough, the thermostat will trigger the unit to turn on again.

You'll find convection heaters in a variety of shapes and price ranges. Oil-filled heaters look like old-fashioned radiators; ceramic heaters have ceramic disks or plates inside that retain heat for the air to move past and are available in both tower and small box shapes. Some models oscillate, further helping to move the air around the room.

Radiant Heaters

Radiant heaters simply radiate the heat they generate to surrounding objects, much like a campfire. A radiant heater won't raise the air temperature in a room, so it's best for small spaces where most people are comfortable, but one feels chilly due to proximity to a drafty window or other circumstance. Radiant heaters have been around for a long time, and older models with exposed heating elements pose serious safety hazards, especially if you have pets or children.

New flat-panel heaters can be mounted to a wall and plugged in; they're silent and safe and typically cost $50 to $100. Though they're radiant, they do a good job of warming a small room without heating the rest of the house.

Space heaters are notorious for starting fires, so whether you choose radiant or convection, please heed these important safety tips:

  • Clear the area around the heater; ensure there are no papers, fabrics, trash, paints, cleaning lalala supplies, nail polish remover or aerosol cans near the heater.
  • Avoid using an extension cord for the heater. If you must use one, the cord should be marked No. 14 or No. 12 AWG. A regular household extension cord will have 16- or 18-gauge wire, and you'll be at serious risk for an electrical fire if you use one with a space heater.
  • The heater should bear a tag or stamp of approval from an independent testing company such as Underwriters Laboratories.
  • Choose a heater with an automatic shutoff that will engage if the unit is tipped over.
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