An electric heater is an electrical appliance that converts electrical energy into heat. The heating element inside every electric heater is simply an electrical resistor, and works on the principle of Joule heating: an electric current through a resistor converts electrical energy into heat energy.
Alternatively, a heat pump uses an electric motor to drive a refrigeration cycle, drawing heat from a source such as ground water or outside air and directing it into the space to be warmed. Such systems can deliver two or three units of heating energy for every unit of purchased energy.
They operate silently. Radiant heaters present the greatest potential danger to ignite nearby furnishings due to the focused intensity of their output and lack of overheat protection.
In the United Kingdom, these appliances are sometimes called electric fires, because they were originally used to replace open fires.
They operate with considerable noise caused by the fan. They have a moderate risk of ignition hazard in the event that they make unintended contact with furnishings. This type of heater is a good choice for quick heating of enclosed spaces.
When a home radiant heat system is turned on, current flows through a conductive heating material. For high-voltage radiant heat systems, line voltage (110 V or 230 V) current flows through the heating cable. For low-voltage systems, the line voltage is converted to low voltage (8 to 30 V) in the control unit (which contains a step-down transformer) and this low voltage is then applied to the heating element.
The heated material then heats the flooring until it reaches the right temperature set by the floor thermostat. The flooring then heats the adjacent air, which circulates, heating other objects in the room (tables, chairs, people) by convection. As it rises, the heated air will heat the room and all its contents up to the ceiling. This form of heating gives the most consistent room temperature from floor to ceiling compared to any other heating system.
Water heating by electricity is usually done by an immersion heater. This consists of a metal tube containing an insulated electric resistance heater. Domestic immersion heaters (usually rated at 3 kilowatts in the UK) run on the normal domestic electricity supply. Industrial immersion heaters (such as those used in electric steam boilers) may be rated at 100 kilowatts, or more, and run on a three-phase supply.
With an electrode heater, there is no wire-wound resistance and the liquid itself acts as the resistance. This has potential hazards so the regulations governing electrode heaters are strict .
The efficiency of any system depends on the definition of the boundaries of the system. For an electrical energy customer the efficiency of electric space heating can be 100% because all purchased energy is converted to building heat. However, if the power plant supplying electricity is included, the overall efficiency drops. For example, a fossil-fuelled power plant may only deliver 4 units of electrical energy for every 10 units of fuel energy released. Even with a 100% efficient electric heater, the amount of fuel needed for a given amount of heat is more than if the fuel was burned in a furnace or boiler at the building being heated. If the same fuel could be used for space heating by a consumer, it would be more efficient overall to burn the fuel at the end user's building. Not all fuels are suitable for building heating; for example, emissions controls required for coal combustion are too expensive for household-scale furnaces.
In Sweden the use of direct electric heating has been restricted since the 1980s for this reason, and there are plans to phase it out entirely - see Oil phase-out in Sweden - while Denmark has banned the installation of electric space heating in new buildings for similar reasons. In the case of new buildings, low-energy building techniques can be used which can virtually eliminate the need for heating, such as those built to the Passive House standard.
In order to provide heat more efficiently, an electrically driven heat pump can raise the indoor temperature by extracting heat from (e.g. cooling) the ground, the outside air, or waste streams such as exhaust air in order to use it as a heat source. This can cut the electricity consumption to as little as 20% of that used by resistive heating and thus reduce the environmental impact.
Electrical space heating can still be economic where electricity supplies are low-cost. Where the primary source of electrical energy is hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, or other carbon-free source, it may not be practical to exploit that resource directly in heating applications but grid electricity can be conveniently used. Electric space heating is useful in places where air-handling is difficult, such as in laboratories.
Example: A lunch room in an office setting has limited hours of operation. During low use periods a "monitor" level of heat (50 °F/10 °C) is provided by the central heating system. Peak use times between the hours of 11:00–14:00 are heated to "comfort levels" (70 °F/21 °C). Significant savings can be realized in overall energy consumption since infrared radiation losses through thermal conductivity are not as large with a smaller temperature gradient both between this space and unheated outside air as well as between the refrigerator and the (now cooler) lunch room.
Electric heating is widely used in industry.
Advantages of electric heating methods over other forms include precision control of temperature and distribution of heat energy, combustion not used to develop heat, and the ability to attain temperatures not readily achievable with chemical combustion. Electric heat can be accurately applied at the precise point needed in a process, at high concentration of power per unit area or volume. Electric heating apparatus can be built in any required size and can be located anywhere within a plant. Electric heating processes are generally clean, quiet, and do not emit much byproduct heat to the surroundings. Electrical heating equipment has a high speed of response, lending it to rapid-cycling mass-production equipment.
The limitations and disadvantages of electric heating in industry include the higher cost of electrical energy compared to direct use of fuel, and the capital cost of both the electric heating apparatus itself and the infrastructure required to deliver large quantities of electrical energy to the point of use. This may be somewhat offset by efficiency gains in using less energy overall to achieve the same result.
Design of an industrial heating system starts with assessment of the temperature required, the amount of heat required, and the feasible modes of transferring heat energy. In addition to conduction, convection and radiation, eletrical heating methods can use electric and magnetic fields to heat material.
Methods of electric heating include resistance heating, electric arc heating, induction heating, and dielectric heating. In some processes (for example, arc welding), electric current is directly applied to the workpiece. In other processes, heat is produced within the workpiece by induction or dielectric losses. As well, heat can be produced then transferred to the work by conduction, convection or radiation.
Industrial heating processes can be broadly categorized as low-temperature (to about 400 C (730 F)), medium temperature (between 400 C and 1150 C (730-2100 F)), and high temperature (beyond 1150 C (2100 F)).
Low temperature processes include:
Medium temperature processes include:
High-temperature processes include: