Are Electric Flame Effect or Fireplace Heaters Energy Efficient?

A reader recently asked whether 'fake fireplace' or electric 'flame effect' heaters are more energy efficient than reverse cycle air conditioning or other types of electric heaters. Here's my answer:

Firstly, what are flame effect heaters?

Flame effect heaters are basically an electric fireplace. They have a heating element just like a regular electric heater but give you that 'fireplace' look without needing to use natural gas or wood.

They generally range in price from $200 to $400. Brands include FlameGlow, Dimplex and DeLonghi (see Choice Review). They also occasionally crop up at ALDI under their Lumina brand (see image below). 

Are they more energy efficient than reverse cycle AC?

In short: no.

Reverse cycle air conditioning or 'heat pump' systems essentially move heat from one location to another. As a result they are often able to 'create' 3 to 4 units of heat inside your building for just 1 unit of electrical input.

On the other hand, a conventional electrical heater of any sort, including flame effect heaters, will only ever create 1 unit of heat from 1 unit of electrical input.

So, on paper, heat pumps are more energy efficient than electric room heaters.

But, are electric flame effect heaters cheaper to run?

This will require you to look a little deeper. If you look at the picture below you will notice this heater has two heat settings (800W and 1,600W):

This means the unit has an electrical input and equivalent heat output of about 1,600 watts on the high setting.

Now, all you need to do is find the specs of the heater you wish to compare it against.

For example, on a reverse cycle air conditioner there will be two numbers on the box outside. One is electrical input and the other is heating capacity or heat output. The input relates directly to your cost (lower is better) and the heating capacity represents the heat output (higher is better).

Summary and better options

A heat pump or AC with an electrical input rating of 1,600W heating the same space as an electrical fireplace with a rating of 1,600W should always cost less to run.

But the heat pump vs. electrical heater comparison is usually more complex than that.

For example, you may already have a large heat pump or reverse cycle AC installed which heats your entire home. If you only really want to heat your living room, then in cases like this it can be more efficient to switch to an electrical heater such as an electric fireplace.

TIP #1: Use a plug-in thermostat to accurately control room temperature, thereby reducing the power consumption of any electric heater (such as a flame effect heater). 

TIP #2: Consider other energy saving options such as this foot mat heater and this solar air heater.

TIP #3: Use a plug-in power meter or wireless energy monitor to better understand your energy usage from heating.

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