Temperatures are falling rapidly, and some regions of the country have already seen snow. With winter settling in, renters and homeowners are cranking up their thermostats to stay warm and cozy while bracing themselves for a big bump in utility bills due to heating costs. Savvy consumers looking for a way to save money without sacrificing comfort might ask: Can I cut down on my winter heating budget if I lower the thermostat and make up the difference with an electric space heater?

The answer: It depends.

Fuel Matters

The first thing to consider is what kind of fuel you use for your main furnace. Natural gas is the cheapest, while electric heat and oil are usually much more expensive. Your specific furnace model and its efficiency rating also play a role. The general rule is the cheaper your heating costs are overall, the less you are likely to save with a space heater.

Savings are possible, though, no matter what kind of central heat you have. According to Grist magazine, if you are using a space heater for less than one half to one third of your living space, and you lower the temperature on your thermostat for the rest of it, you can save money even if your main heater is an efficient gas model. So if your family spends most of its winter indoor time in just a few rooms of the house, go ahead and experiment with a portable heater and see if you can reduce your bills.

For even more savings, don't forget to take other steps to winterize your home, like sealing any drafty areas and hanging heavy curtains. Wear a sweater, too, so you can minimize the amount of time you need the extra boost in warmth from your heater.

Safety First

Electric space heaters are usually quite simple to use; nevertheless, make sure you read and follow all instructions and manufacturer safety precautions. Additionally, take the following steps to ensure that your pleasant heat source doesn't become a fire hazard:

  • Keep your heater at least three feet away from walls, furniture and anything else. Be especially vigilant about combustible material—i.e. anything that burns.
  • Make sure your device has an automatic shutoff in case it tips over.
  • Don't leave the heater on if you leave the house.
  • Be sure the cord isn't cracked, frayed or damaged and doesn't heat up when the unit is in use.
  • Avoid using an extension cord.
  • Keep the heater out of the bathroom or anywhere else it might get wet.

Finally, avoid kerosene heaters if at all possible. They pose a greater fire hazard than electric models and can affect your indoor air quality. If they are your only option, take extra care to comply with the safety instructions. Only refuel outside and be sure the indoor space where it is used is properly ventilated. Some kerosene heaters are even illegal in certain areas, so be sure to check your local laws before you buy.

The federal Energy Star program does not rate portable heaters, but the Energy Department does provide more information about specific types of space heaters.

Your local Mister Sparky® electrician is always available to help with advice on choosing and using your space heater safely.