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Are Infrared panel heaters a good way to heat a room?

Posted by Alex Barrett on 9 May 2017 at 2:50 pm

Infrared panel heaters are a relatively new way to heat your house. They work very differently to radiators, and have some advantages when it comes to energy efficiency.

Infrared panel heaters use radiation to heat the room instead of convection. This means that they deliver heat directly to people and furnishings rather than trying to heat the entire space.  Electricity is expensive, so electric heating is often considered an uneconomical option, but by transferring heat more efficiently panel heaters can provide a good alternative to conventional central heating systems.

So what is the difference between convection and radiation? And what are the advantages of one over the other?

Heat always moves from hotter objects to colder ones. There are several ways in which heat can be transferred from one place to another. The most common are conduction, convection and radiation.

  • Conduction primarily occurs through solids. Thermal energy is passed from one atom to another, and so moves rapidly through an object. Some materials, such as metal, conduct heat very efficiently. This why the outside of a radiator quickly warms up when hot water is pumped through it. Other substances transmit heat much less efficiently, and so make good insulation.
  • Convection is the movement of heat through a fluid, such as air or water. When a fluid becomes hot its density decreases, this is why hot air rises. When it cools down again it becomes denser, and sinks. This sets up a circulation, and heat is moved from one place to another by the moving fluid.
  • Radiation is the transmission of energy by electromagnetic waves. Heat is primarily transmitted by photons in the infrared range of the spectrum. These carry the energy from its source, and deliver it to any object which absorbs them. This means that radiation can pass through any transparent medium, including a vacuum.

Most central heating systems rely on convection to distribute heat. Despite their name radiators warm up the air around them, which circulates through the room. They emit some thermal radiation, which is why we can feel heat coming off them. However this isn’t their primary purpose.

Infrared panels rely on radiation, which makes them quite an efficient heating system so long as we do not try to use them in the same way as a normal radiator. Rather than heating the air an infrared panel delivers heat directly to the occupants and furnishings of the room. Anyone sitting in front of a panel will feel warm, even if the air around them is still fairly cold. This means that much less electricity has to be used than if the entire volume of the house has to be heated in order for the occupants to be comfortable.

This means that infrared panel heaters are particularly effective in older buildings which have draughts or poor insulation. Lack of insulation makes a conventional heating system massively inefficient. The heat produced by the boiler is constantly lost through the fabric of the building. This isn’t a problem for infrared heaters since the heat is delivered directly to the occupants of the room. It is also absorbed by walls and furnishings, which store heat much more effectively than air.

Infrared heaters can be used to set up temperature zoning within a room, since only the area in line of sight of the heater receives energy. This can be an advantage in large and draughty rooms, particularly if you will be sat in the same place for long periods of time. Since the panels are standalone units, with no pipes, they can be positioned to fit the layout of the room, even being hung on the ceiling so that they point down at the people below.  

The main strength of infrared panels can also be their largest weakness; they provide a directed heat source, rather than a space heating solution. This means that they are very reliant on line of sight. If you are directly in front of the panel you will feel warm, but once you switch off the heater or move to a different area you will be cold again.

This means that they work best if you plan to stay in the same area for a while, but aren’t as good if you are going to be moving around a lot. Infrared panels can’t be mounted in the same places as traditional radiators, since furniture will easily block the panel. Walls and furnishings will reemit energy for a short time after the heater stops running, but for the most part you will need to keep it on in order to feel warm.

References

  1. The Green Age: Heating Panels, 10 advantages of infrared heating panels
  2. Infrared4Homes: Infrared heating vs a gas central heating system, Why is radiant infrared heating so efficient
  3. Low Tech Magazine: How to keep warm in a cool house.

 

Image credit: VonHouse Ceramic Flat Panel Heater 450 W by Designer Habitat Ltd via Flickr

If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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Comments

4 comments - read them below or add one

Eco Andrew

Eco AndrewComment left on: 6 June 2017 at 11:07 am

So clearly the answer to the question is, 'No, infrared panel heaters are not a good way to heat a room!'

One practical use I can imagine is in a garage in winter where mechanics need to keep the doors open to allow engine fumes to escape.  They would need several panels, otherwise every time they moved out of the 'line of sight' of a heater they'd get cold again.

In the days when cars were simple enough to self-maintain I remember being glad of a bit of radiant heat from a halogen lamp while crawling under the car on a freezing cold day!

Maybe they'd be justified in places that are occupied only for VERY short periods, at unpredictable times, to get instant heat without having to wait until the whole room heats up, so don't waste loads of energy keeping the room warm constantly for hours when no-one is there.

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Sussex Solar Ltd

Sussex Solar LtdComment left on: 4 June 2017 at 6:53 pm

This is another double glazing, pressure selling rip off. I've had two PV customers swindled into fitting these heaters. They were on gas and they were told they would cut their energy bills by 80%! Of course what happened is that their energy bills tripled.

It is interesting that the energy saving is explained by the fact that they don't heat air, only objects in the room. However the fact that they are controlled with a sensor that measures air temperature means that they will only switch off once the radiated objects have heated the air by convection!

Basically you cannot defeat physics. It takes the same amount of kW to keep you house warm weather they are delivered by an electric heater or a boiler. The only way you can get more kW out than what you put in is by fitting a heat pump.

Thats why the government is increasing the RHI for heat pumps and doesn't support infrared heating at all. 

Please don't fall for the salesmens' patter. 

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jonwalker

jonwalkerComment left on: 31 May 2017 at 7:24 pm

I'm rather surprised by this blog about electric panel 'infrared' heaters and couldn't agree more with Ben Whittle's reply.

Electricity is around three times the price and three times the carbon content of heat from a new gas condensing boiler. So for similar running costs and carbon emissions the air temperature difference to outside would have to be one third for the same running costs and emissions. So instead of 20C inside and 8C (delta of 12) outside it would be 12C inside and 8C outside (delta of 4C). Or heat only one out of three rooms, which you can do anyway by turning radiators off.

It reminds me of my student days when we 'enjoyed' the orange glow of 100% efficient radiant electric bar fires in our freezing overpriced digs.

The only exception I can think of when they might be be of some value would be in a well insulated, intermittenly used room, controlled by PIR sensors.

 

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Ben Whittle

Ben WhittleComment left on: 31 May 2017 at 6:38 pm

@ Alex Barrett, I have to say I am a bit confused after reading this. You always have to be careful when using the word "efficient". Normal electric heating with an oil filled electric radiator is pretty much 100% efficient, as is a kettle or an immersion heater in a hot water cylinder, but it's not better for the environment than a gas boiler. Its also not a great idea to source most of the info from your article on websites which actually sell the technology you are reviewing, which pertains to 2 of your 3 sources.

Heat is lost through the fabric of the building whether the heat comes from central heating or panel heaters - if you have the room up to a comfortable temperature the heat will be lost either way. There is an argument to say that you might lose a little more heat through the walls with you radiators at 75 degrees mounted on them, but I think its really unfair to suggest that you only lose heat through the fabric with wet heating systems.

Panel heaters are only cheaper to install compared to a wet system on a new build - I can't imagine people would put them if they already had a wet system. But if you are talking about new build then you need to compare them with heat pumps, not old draughty houses with oil or gas boilers.

Given a heat pump will potentially be 400% efficient if you put it in properly, they will be 4x more efficient than a radiant panel heater which cannot be more than 100% efficient. So all you are saying is that you would need to put in 4 times as many of them to achieve the same heating output, your carbon emissions would be 4 times higher and your running costs 4 times higher - unless you are really happy with sitting around the radiant heater "line of site" when you want to be warm. I struggle to think this would be considered acceptable by most people! You could also argue that it would be cheaper to super insulate the home and have no heating at all in the long run.

If we are to truly make a genuinely well informed decision you need to compare annual running costs of one against the other in two similar houses  - I just can't imagine that many people would be happy living in a house which got hotter and colder as you walk around the room - or "zoning" as you have described it. Zoning sounds like another way of saying "massively reduced comfort levels".

 

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