Want to lower your bills? Start with your heating
A look at the main home heating types, and how to cut costs
& Gary Hamer
As our winter heating needs increase, our home energy bills go up. Space heating uses the largest amount of energy in your home, and can account for 50% or more of our electricity bills. So if you think your winter bill is high, start with a look at how to reduce the amount of heat you use.
The first step is to look at how behavioural changes can reduce the amount of heat you need. Before turning up the heat, consider putting on a sweater, sitting on the couch under a blanket, or wearing slippers. If your feet are cold, you'll be more tempted to turn up the heat.
The next step is to understand how to make your heating system the most efficient. To help, we'll look at the main types of electric heating used in B.C. homes, and offer specific strategies for each.
Baseboard heating: Use thermostats strategically
With baseboards, you have the ability to heat individual rooms and turn off the baseboards in rooms you're not using.
Make sure you don't set your thermostat too high. We recommend:
- 21°C when you're relaxing or watching TV
- 18°C when you're cooking or doing housework
- 16°C when you're away from home and sleeping
Most baseboard heaters have manual thermostats that you have to adjust each time you change the temperature. For rooms you are in more often, consider getting a programmable thermostat that will turn itself down automatically when you're away from the home or sleeping.
Ductless heat pump: A cold-weather option
Often installed in homes that already have an electric baseboard heating system, a ductless heat pump can serve as the new primary heating system for the home. Used properly, they can improve the comfort of the home, and they can be more cost efficient than baseboard heaters.
Like a refrigerator, a heat pump moves heat from one space to another. In heating mode, heat is extracted from the outside air and transferred to the indoor air through a refrigeration cycle. In cooling mode, heat moves from inside to outside the house.
See our Should you get a heat pump? infographic to help you decide if a heat pump might work for you.
Check model and manufacturer information to see which temperatures a ductless heat pump operates at most efficiently. These systems are best installed in the main living area to achieve the greatest energy savings (i.e. living room, den, kitchen, dining room). Ductless systems are designed to adjust to changing conditions automatically and efficiently. Once you find a comfortable temperature setting, avoid changing the setting or turning the unit off. Limiting adjustments can lead to more energy savings.
Before installing a heat pump, check out our Home Renovation Rebate Program to find out if you qualify for an $800 rebate on a ductless heat pump.
Electric central air source heat pump
Like a ductless heat pump, a central heat pump moves heat from inside to outside the home. However, a central system heats the whole house rather than a space. A central heat pump system comes with a backup heating system that kicks in when the temperature is too cold to allow heat transfer.
You don't want to vary your temperature by more than 1 degree, or your back up heating system may kick in when the temperature drops and you may not be saving energy.
Again, see our Should you get a heat pump? infographic to help you decide if a heat pump might work for you.
Electric forced-air furnace
Often, an electric forced-air furnace heats the whole house, rather than individual rooms or zones, and that can lead to heat wasted on empty rooms.
It does however allow the heating system to be controlled easily with one central programmable thermostat so that you can follow our recommended temperatures more easily. You can automatically turn the heat down when you are away from the home or sleeping.
To reduce energy costs, homeowners looking to switch to such a heating system, should consider replacing this system with a central air source heat pump.
If you live in areas of the province with natural gas as a heating option, you may want to consider a forced-air natural gas furnace. Before you switch, consider the GHG emission impacts of using natural gas rather than clean and renewable hydroelectricity for your heating. Go to fortisbc.com for information.
Electric radiant heat
This system can use wall, ceiling or floor panels, but floor systems are the most common. Radiant systems heat objects they can "see" rather than the air within the space. That means objects such as cabinets and the floor radiate heat, making our toes feel cozy – even at lower room temperatures.
Electrically-heated radiant floor heating systems are a good choice for smaller spaces such as bathrooms, and are often controlled with thermostats that can be programmed. That allows you to set back the temperature when you're away or asleep, and back to your comfortable temperature when you're using the space.
Portable electric space heater
This is a convenient supplementary heat source for a small room or enclosed space. But it only makes sense on a temporary basis.
Like the systems described above, portable electric space heaters can either heat the air (convection) or the objects in the space (radiant). Here are the key differences between them:
- Convection heaters provide warmth by blowing or pulling air over a heated surface and circulating it through the air. They're the best choice for quickly warming larger spaces and keeping them warm over a longer period.
- Radiant heaters produce infrared radiation that warms bodies and objects rather than the air. They direct heat towards a specific area, acting essentially as "personal" space heaters. They're good for small rooms or spot heating, including placement near one or two people working in a basement or garage.
Regardless of the type of portable heater you choose, make sure you turn it off when you leave the room. If you're using an electric space heater for hours and hours, the costs can add up, as you can calculate with our cost calculator. For example, a 1,500-watt space heater used an average of four hours a day would cost close to $19 a month to operate.
Your best choice might be a smart thermostat
If you're buying a thermostat, consider the "smart" option. A smart thermostat can help you better control your heating costs and – depending on the make – can be smart in different ways. Some thermostats rely on your initial manual programming of the thermostats to "learn" to program your heating efficiently, others use your smartphones to determine when you're in and out of rooms, and a third type uses motion or proximity sensors to adjust temperature.
If you have electric baseboard heaters, make sure the smart thermostat you want is compatible. Not all are designed to be used with these systems.
Kathryn MacDonald is a member of BC Hydro's community team. Gary Hamer is a specialist engineer with BC Hydro's conservation and energy management group.