Which heater is best for your home?

Living Well | Andrea Beattie | Posted on 28 August 2020

A guide to the pros and cons of the most common home heaters on the market.

After a winter marked by several “coldest” and “wettest” milestones – not to mention the recent icy blast brought by the so-called “Antarctic blob” extreme low-pressure system – having good, reliable, energy-efficient heating has never seemed more important. Even more so if you factor in the extra cost of all-day heating for home workers and remote learners

If you’re renovating or building a new home, or simply in the market for a new heater, there are myriad home-heating options to choose from. The best choice for you will depend on your budget, the size of the space you want to heat, how you use your home, decor and personal preference. 

Electric fireplace lit up in living room

But regardless of the type of heating, it’s worth doing all you can to keep the heat in – especially as heating and cooling account for around 40 per cent of the average household’s energy consumption. So to avoid having your heating working overtime, make sure your door and window seals are up to scratch, consider investing in double glazing on windows, and draw the curtains and blinds at night. And dress appropriately for the weather – wearing a T-shirt and thongs in the middle of winter is a surefire way to overcook your heating bills. 

Here’s a run-down of the most common heating options on the market.

How to choose the best heater for your home

Ducted gas heating

Also known as central heating, this is the big gun of home-heating options. A heating unit is installed either underfloor or in your roof with ducts placed in each room, either in the floor or ceiling. 

This type of system is a big investment, costing from about $7000 to set up, but its advantage is that it will work to heat the entire house at once and maintain a set temperature. Of course, this can also be a downside as you may be heating rooms you’re not using. Some systems can be zoned, which means you can shut off vents to rooms when they’re not in use and cut the running costs. 

Sustainability Victoria estimates it costs about $1250 annually to heat a medium 160-square-metre Melbourne house with a three-star energy-rated gas ducted heating system, while a six-star system costs $950 annually. (These estimates are a guide only, as some areas of the state will be warmer or colder than the average and energy costs vary).

Best for: Heating a whole house to a constant temperature.   

Oil heaters

A reliable, cost-effective and efficient way to heat individual rooms, portable oil heaters come in various sizes, with prices from $120 for a basic 1500W model up to $300 for a 2400W model with timer and thermal cut-off.

Oil-filled space heaters pull in cooler air, which is warmed by a heating element at the base. The warm air rises and radiates through the top, warming a room in around 15 minutes. They produce an even source of gentle, radiant heat, are quiet and will continue to warm a room for up to 30 minutes after they have been turned off. 

They also use less power than electric heaters, with a 1700W model costing about 50 cents per hour. Oil heaters don’t actually burn oil, so have a very low carbon footprint. Of course, some bigger oil heaters can be quite heavy, so make sure you get one with decent castor wheels if you want to move it from room to room.

When it comes to choosing a portable heater, oil heaters are a more energy-efficient choice than electric fan heaters, which can be inexpensive to buy but expensive to run. 

Best for: Heating small areas that can be closed off, and for people with breathing ailments or who suffer from dry eyes or skin rashes. 

Close up of hydronic heating coils on concrete slab
Close up of woman heating hands over oil burner heater

 Left: Hydronic heating coils for under-floor heating. Right: Oil burner heaters are a cost-effective and efficient way to heat individual rooms. 


Hydronic heating

One of the most efficient forms of home heating, hydronic systems are environmentally friendly, cost-effective and unobtrusive. A gas, electric or solar powered boiler heats water that is pumped around the home through small pipes into floor slab heating or radiator panels to create consistent radiant heat. 

The main drawback is the high installation cost. While costs will vary from home to home, installation for an average three-bedroom home will cost from $1100 to $1600 per radiator (including the cost of the boiler), with most rooms requiring at least one radiator. Many people prefer in-slab underfloor heating which costs about $70 per square metre to install plus the cost of the boiler. An in-screed underfloor heating system, where circuits are installed on insulation boards on top of the slab, costs around $100 per square metre to install plus the cost of the boiler. The range of boilers is extensive; you can choose internal, external, heating and domestic hot water combined, or heating only. As such, prices vary, but expect to pay between $2000 and $4500.

Although hydronic heating isn’t cheap, once it’s up and running it’s very energy efficient and costs roughly two-thirds less to run than a gas-ducted system. Energy ratings for hydronic systems are generally calculated on a scale from A to G with A operating at above 90 per cent heating efficiency, and G at below 70 per cent efficiency. 

Sustainability Victoria estimates the annual cost heating a two-star 160-square-metre home with a C-rated hydronic system (82 per cent efficiency) is around $1005 per year, dropping to around $920 a year for an A-rated system (90 per cent-plus). Another advantage is that hydronic heating can be zoned, so you can fire up the radiators only in the rooms you’re using. It will take up to 15 minutes for panels to start warming a room. Hydronic heating is also quite safe – radiators don’t get very hot and can be touched without burning.

Best for: High-end homes where budget is less of an issue and for those with allergies or asthma – there are no fans to stir up dust particles or allergens.  

Split system

Split-system heating units are electric reverse-cycle cooling systems too (hence the ‘split’), so you get more bang for your buck. They are generally mounted high on a wall, taking up less living space, and are connected to an external airflow compressor. 

They are generally cheaper to run than ducted heating, for example, but slightly more expensive than an oil heater that is also designed to heat a single room. The cost of a five-star rated 2.5kW cooling and 3.2kW heating reverse cycle split system comes in at under $1000 and, according to Sustainability Victoria, would cost about $170 per year on average to heat a medium-sized 30-square-metre room. Split systems are ideal for apartments, and are also often installed in large home extensions with open-plan living and kitchen, where a separate heating system from the existing house is required.  

Best for: Those who want the convenience of cooling and heating in one unit.

Split system heating cooling unit on wall
Hydronic heater on wall

Left: Split-system heating units are a cost-effective solution for heating or cooling a single room. Right: Wall-hung hydronic heaters are one of the most efficient ways to heat a home.


Open fireplace

It’s rare for home owners to install open fireplaces these days, they are most likely to be a legacy of older homes. While there’s a certain romance about an open fire and the warm glow of the flames is appealing on a wintry evening, this is a fairly inefficient form of heating and the environmental cost is high. For an equal amount of heat, burning wood releases more CO2 than burning gas, oil or coal. The Australian government also advises against using wood-fired heaters in urban areas due to the air pollution they produce.   

If you do want to use a fireplace, EPA Victoria recommends burning only dry, seasoned and untreated hardwoods, and you can minimise the environmental impact by making sure the wood is sustainably harvested. Wood costs vary but as a guide, sustainably farmed redgum firewood – slow-burning and with a high heat output – sells for around $400 a tonne. If you’re using your fireplace every day, you may need at least two tonnes to get through the winter – depending on the size of your setup. Safety-wise, open fires are a risk for those with young children.  

A more environmentally friendly and low fuss option for those committed to flame-fired ambience is a gas-powered fireplace. Priced from around $2500 and up, these can vary greatly in energy efficiency so look for models with a high efficiency star rating. Avoid electric powered fireplaces which tend to be for decorative use only.

Best for: Country homes and creating a cosy ambience. 

Slow-combustion wood heaters 

More popular for flame-fanciers are enclosed wood-burning heaters. Costing around $1500, these combustion-style, box-like heaters have a swing-out glass door to allow you to load in the wood, and a flue for smoke to leave via the roof.  

Sustainability Victoria says slow-combustion wood heaters can be one of the lowest-cost options for heating large areas and are much more efficient than open fireplaces. You can also minimise the environmental impact by using only sustainably sourced timber.  

While there are no energy-rating labels for this type of heater, the general rule of thumb is that the unit should be around one-tenth the size of the floor area to be heated – so a 150-square-metre area would require a heater with a 15kW output.  

But before you commit to a wood-burning heater, check with your local council first as there may be restrictions in place. It’s also essential to have the flue cleaned regularly to prevent the build-up of creosote – a dangerous by-product of burning wood.  

Best for: Smaller homes or where there are other forms of heating throughout.