Do you have a room in your house that's always cold? A portable electric space heater is the easiest solution, of course (for how to choose one, see “Radiant or Convective Heat?” below). But portables have their drawbacks: They can burn the fingers of curious kids, and they're often unattractive obstacles. Larger models take up a lot of floor space and may overload an electrical circuit. If not used carefully, many portables become a fire hazard. This article describes other supplemental heating options, one of which might be the perfect solution to your chilly room.
6 Questions to Ask First
If you have a room in your home that is always cold in winter or has developed a sudden chill, ask yourself these questions first. You may find that the solution is simple.
1. Are the registers open? Every furnace technician has a story about a cold room that was cured by opening a register or two. Don't make yourself the star of one of those stories.
2. Are the registers blocked? Rearranging the furniture or shoving a rug aside can block airflow.
3. Are the dampers open? Some ductwork contains dampers to adjust airflow. Look for handles and markings on the ductwork such as “summer” and “winter.” Set the damper handle parallel to the duct line for maximum airflow.
4. Is the furnace filter filthy? This is the most common cause of heating (and cooling) troubles. Change the filter and the problem usually disappears.
5. Are the radiators clear? Whether you have electric or hydronic baseboard units or old-fashioned radiators, they won't throw maximum heat unless air can flow through them. If you move the bed against a baseboard unit or toss a blanket across a radiator, the room might get chilly.
6. Is the radiator air-locked? If you have a hot-water radiator that's not heating, the cause is usually trapped air. Getting rid of it is simple. Use a radiator key, 1/4-in. 12-point socket or a flat screw- driver (depending on your valve type) and slowly turn the valve counterclockwise until water drips out. This will release trapped air and let hot water flow. While you're at it, repeat the process on your other radiators. Bleeding the radiators will lower the pressure in your system, so you might have to slowly add water to increase the pressure. Do this by opening, then closing, the valve on the water pipe above the boiler.
If you're unfamiliar with your system, call a pro. How much pressure you need depends on how high the water has to rise. The basic rule is 1 lb. of pressure for every 2 ft. of rise. Your gauge may read in pounds, feet, or both. A basic two-story house, with the boiler and expansion tank in the basement, needs 12 to 15 lbs., or 25 to 30 ft., of pressure.
These small heaters ($140 to $300) with blowers fit into the hollow space under kitchen cabinets, stair treads and vanities. This can be a good solution for a bathroom or kitchen where chilly feet are the main complaint. You can install a toe-kick heater (also called a “kick space heater”) under an existing cabinet by prying off the toe-kick.
To power the heater, you'll need to run a dedicated circuit from your main electrical panel. You can control most units using a switch or a thermostat. It's worth getting a model with a temperature control (or a high/low switch). Powerful units can blow so hot on the high setting that they could overheat your feet or even soften vinyl flooring. Also, some models are noisy when the blower operates on high. Hydronic toe-kick heaters that connect to hot water heating systems are also available. Type “toe kick heater” or “kick space heater” into a search engine or visit mysoninc.com, beacon-morris.com or broan.com
DIY Success Story
“I recently remodeled my drafty 1926 kitchen and nearly killed myself taking out a huge cast iron radiator to free up space for cabinets. Then the question became, what could I do about heat? A friend told me about a toe-kick heater, and it was the perfect solution. It was easy to install and kicks out more heat than the radiator did. It cost me $200, and despite my aching back, I love my warm kitchen!”—Carl Benson
If you have forced-air heat, you can take advantage of several types of duct booster fans that are designed to increase the flow of warm (or cool) air through your ducts into a problem room. In-line duct booster fans fit inside standard-size metal ducts (Photo 1). You mount the blower near the outlet end of a duct and then install a pressure switch (some models have one built in), which senses air pressure from the furnace and turns on the booster fan whenever the furnace or A/C blower turns on. Some in-line duct boosters simply plug into an available outlet, while other models are hard-wired. Cheaper units can be noisy, so it's worth buying a quality model with a powerful motor and heavier gauge housing. In-line duct booster fans retail for $30 to $150.
A “register” booster fan is much easier to install (Photo 2). Depending on the model, it either sits on top of or replaces a floor or wall register grille, and plugs into an outlet. A built-in thermostat switches on when the furnace operates. Register duct boosters cost $40 to $70. Many different manufacturers make duct booster fans of both types. Search online for “in-line duct booster fan” or “register duct booster fan” to find manufacturers and dealers.
For a bedroom or TV room, cove heaters can be a great choice. They operate silently (no fans) and since they're radiant panels, they emit heat downward to warm people and objects directly instead of heating the air (see “Radiant or Convection heat?” below). Because they mount near the ceiling, they're unobtrusive and kids can't burn themselves. They work well in rooms where drapes and furniture make baseboard heaters inconvenient.
To power a cove heater, you'll have to run a new circuit from your main electrical panel and install a thermostat. A larger unit will require a 240-volt circuit rather than a standard 120-volt circuit. Cove heaters range in length from 34 in. to 132 in. and cost $85 to $300. Visit qmarkmep.com, king-eletric.com and radiantsystemsinc.com.
This can be a great choice for a small-scale retrofit project like heating a mudroom or kitchen, or warming up a cold bathroom. Under-tile radiant systems are still the most common, but many companies offer systems that work equally well beneath laminate, carpet and engineered floors. There are two basic types of systems: “loose wires” that you run across the floor and “mat” systems, with the wires prearranged inside a mesh or fabric mat.
Laying the floor cable is a budget-friendly project. Adding electric radiant floor heat for a typical bathroom when you install a new floor adds about $200 to $300 to the cost of the project. The electrical connections require only basic wiring know-how. Since these systems generally draw only 10 to 15 watts per square foot, you can usually connect them to an existing circuit to heat a typical bathroom. Get step-by-step radiant floor heat installation instructions at www.familyhandyman.com.
Like cove heaters, radiant ceiling panels heat the occupants of a room from above. These inch-thick panels mount on the ceiling and can be an energy efficient option in a room where you want to “spot heat” people in a specific area. The panels heat to 150 degrees F within five minutes of being switched on, and they cool down just as quickly. If you mount one directly above a worktable or a desk, you can work comfortably without having to heat the entire room and get heat when and where you want it.
The panels range from 1 x 2 ft. to 4 x 8 ft., and you can screw them directly to the ceiling or install them in a suspended ceiling grid. Installing a small panel is similar to installing a fluorescent light fixture. You can connect the panel, along with a thermostat, to a standard junction box, and you can power a single panel from an existing circuit. Larger panels require separate 120- or 240-volt circuits. The panels are textured and some can be painted. Panels designed specifically for bathrooms include a built-in exhaust fan, light and night-light. The panels cost from $200 to $500 depending on the size. Visit sshcinc.com, calorique.com, marleymep.com or runtalnorthamerica.com.
Radiant or Convection Heat?
Electric space heaters break down into two basic types: radiant or convection (with or without a fan). Which heater is right for you depends on what you're trying to heat.
Radiant models—such as ceramic and quartz portables, under-floor systems, cove heaters and ceiling panels—emit infrared radiation that heats up objects and people directly within their line of sight. They're designed for ultra-quick heating and are best for:
- Heating one or two people
- Large rooms where you don't want to heat the entire space
- Open rooms without a lot of furniture or obstacles between you and the heater
- Spot heating and sporadic use
- Workshops and home offices where you mostly want warmth for yourself while you're at your desk or workbench. Or a TV room where the occupants are sitting in one area.
Convection models include oil-filled radiators, electric baseboard and toe-kick heaters, and flat panel wall-mounted units that warm the air around the heater and rely on the room's air circulation to heat the room. Fan-forced convection models are the most popular type of supplemental heater. They have a heating element and a fan that blows the warm air around the room. These heat a room more quickly than a unit without a fan; however, when the fan shuts off, the room cools down quickly. The fans can be quite noisy and are a serious concern for people affected by allergens blowing around the room.
Convection models are best for:
- Rooms with doors so you can contain the warm air
- Whole-room heating
- Constant operation
- Rooms where you move around instead of sitting in one spot
When you're shopping for a portable electric space heater, look for models that offer advanced safety features like child-resistant controls, an overheat shutoff, and a tip-over safety alarm and shutoff. Also consider models with energy-efficient options such as thermostats, occupancy sensors, automatic timers and multiple power settings.
The Reiker Room Conditioner installs just like a regular ceiling fan and provides fast, even heat over a large area. This combination light, ceiling fan and space heater pumps out warm air through the ceiling-mounted heater, and the fan blades circulate it throughout the room. During the summer, the unit functions as a conventional ceiling fan.
It's available in manual and remote control units, and can be wired to an existing circuit. The unit is available in a variety of finishes. Manual models cost $269, and remote-controlled units cost $339 to $369, depending on the finish.
Get step-by-step ceiling fan installation instructions at www.familyhandyman.com.
Here's an economical approach to warming up a cold room: Instead of paying to generate more heat, move existing warm air from one room to another. This is a great solution if you have a stove or fireplace that generates a lot of heat but doesn't circulate it evenly through your house.
Through-the-wall ventilator fans use the space between stud walls to move warm (or cool) air from one room to another. The Aireshare ventilator (shown) uses an intake blower that draws air into an open stud cavity and a diffuser that mounts either high or low on the opposite side of the wall to distribute the air. There's also a level-to-level Aireshare ventilator that moves air between floors.
Ventilator fans can be installed with simple hand tools within any unobstructed interior wall. Most come in two versions: a plug-in type with the power switch on the unit itself and a hard-wired type controlled by a wall switch or thermostat. These fans can also move cool air through the living space during the warmer months; they range from $50 to $200 depending on the model. Search online for “through the wall fan” or visit tjernlund.com, broan.com or suncourt.com.
Room-to-Room Ventilation System
Room-to-room ventilators circulate air from a warm room to a cold one.
Before You Buy a Heater
First ask yourself this: Has the room always been cold? If the answer is no, something has probably gone wrong with your heating system. Troubleshoot furnace problems at www.familyhandyman.com. If you can't solve the problem yourself, it's time to call in a pro. If the answer to the question is yes, check that your ductwork, windows and walls are properly sealed and insulated. Get information about installing insulation at www.familyhandyman.com.