If electricity is the only choice, heat pumps are preferable in most climates, as they easily cut electricity use by 50% when compared with electric resistance heating. The exception is in dry climates with either hot or mixed (hot and cold) temperatures (these climates are found in the non-coastal, non-mountainous part of California; the southern tip of Nevada; the southwest corner of Utah; southern and western Arizona; southern and eastern New Mexico; the southeast corner of Colorado; and western Texas). For these dry climates, there are so few heating days that the high cost of heating is not economically significant.
Electric resistance heating may also make sense for a home addition if it is not practical to extend the existing heating system to supply heat to the new addition.
Types of Electric Resistance Heaters
Electric resistance heat can be supplied by centralized forced-air electric furnaces or by heaters in each room. Room heaters can consist of electric baseboard heaters, electric wall heaters, electric radiant heat, or electric space heaters. To learn about electric radiant heat and electric space heaters, see radiant heating and small space heaters. It is also possible to use electric thermal storage systems to avoid heating during times of peak power demand.
Electric furnaces are more expensive to operate than other electric resistance systems because of their duct heat losses and the extra energy required to distribute the heated air throughout your home (which is common for any heating system that uses ducts for distribution). Heated air is delivered throughout the home through supply ducts and returned to the furnace through return ducts. If these ducts run through unheated areas, they lose some of their heat through air leakage as well as heat radiation and convection from the duct’s surface.
Blowers (large fans) in electric furnaces move air over a group of three to seven electric resistance coils, called elements, each of which are typically rated at five kilowatts. The furnace’s heating elements activate in stages to avoid overloading the home’s electrical system. A built-in thermostat called a limit controller prevents overheating. This limit controller may shut the furnace off if the blower fails or if a dirty filter is blocking the airflow.
As with any furnace, it’s important to clean or replace the furnace filters as recommended by the manufacturer, in order to keep the system operating at top efficiency.
Electric Baseboard Heaters
Electric baseboard heaters are zonal heaters controlled by thermostats located within each room. Baseboard heaters contain electric heating elements encased in metal pipes. The pipes, surrounded by aluminum fins to aid heat transfer, run the length of the baseboard heater’s housing, or cabinet. As air within the heater is warmed, it rises into the room, and cooler air is drawn into the bottom of the heater. Some heat is also radiated from the pipe, fins, and housing.
Baseboard heaters are usually installed underneath windows. There, the heater’s rising warm air counteracts falling cool air from the cold window glass. Baseboard heaters are seldom located on interior walls because standard heating practice is to supply heat at the home’s perimeter, where the greatest heat loss occurs.