Comparing infrared heating with storage heaters

Many people rely on electrical heating to keep their homes nice and warm during the colder winter months. Despite the fact the cost of a unit of electricity is 3x the cost of gas (so electric heating is far more expensive than gas) there are a few benefits of electric heating. Firstly it is easy to install and maintenance is very limited – you are never going to get a leak from your electrical heating system! Also you can localise your heating much more effectively without the need for sophisticated heating controls. You can simply turn your electric heating on in the room you are currently sitting in. Obviously this is pretty basic, but for many people it is all that is required.

In the UK, there are a huge number of properties that are heated with storage heaters, but infrared heating is becoming more and more popular as an alternative electrical heating system. In the following article we are going to do a bit of a comparison between the two different types of heating system.

The history of storage heaters

Storage heaters were first introduced in the 1960/1970s when the UK invested heavily in nuclear power plants. These power plants couldn’t be switched off, so continued to produce electricity 24/7. Now as you might imagine, the demand for electricity between midnight and 6am is far lower than the rest of the day because most of us are asleep. It was a result of this lack of demand (but plenty of supply) that led to the formation of the Economy 7 tariff. This was a dual electricity tariff, where one is charged less for electricity during the night (normally midnight through to 7am) and then a higher tariff comes into play during the day (from 7am through to midnight).

The idea was that a storage heater would charge during the night and then release the heat during the day. The electricity at night would be used to heat bricks in a very well insulated core – this heat was then allowed to escape based on the occupant’s requirement. Over the years storage heater technology has improved immeasurably, with improved efficiency and far less heat leakage. This leakage was one of the major downsides of older storage heaters (heat was often lost during the day, so if you wanted to warm your house in the evening the storage heaters had lost their charge).  

The history of infrared heaters

Infrared heaters were introduced around the same time as storage heaters, in the 1960s/1970s. These heaters tended to use near infrared, the radiation closest to red on the light spectrum. These could carry a large amount of heat, (which you may have experienced if you have ever stood under one of those bar heaters), and were often installed to replace coal fires. The issue with them is they could get dangerously hot (approximately 13000c) so were not ideal in a residential setting. They were more commonly found in workshops and factories. With the introduction of full central heating systems in the 1970s, demand for near infrared heaters all but died.

In the late 1990s/early 2000s an increasing amount of research was carried out looking at far infrared. Unlike near infrared, which glows orange/red and is extremely hot (approximately 13000c), far infrared heaters emit much lower temperatures, (typically 1000c) and there is no visible light (the elements don’t glow). While the heat is much less intense, far infrared is absorbed especially well by humans, because we have such high water composition. As such, these have become increasingly popular as an alternative to storage heaters.

How do storage heaters work?

Storage heaters are typically composed of clay bricks or other ceramic materials. These have electrical heating elements inside them that get hot when electricity passes through them, which in turn heats the bricks. As discussed, in an ideal setup, the storage heaters are charged during the night and then this heat is released during the day as convection heat. Convection is where you feel warm because the air is warm; this is the type of heating found in most homes since radiators also use convection to provide warmth. The downside is that if it is cold or draughty, convection heat tends to be lost very quickly. 

How do infrared heaters work?

Unlike storage heaters/radiators that produce convection heat, the reason you feel warm when you stand in front of an infrared heater is radiant heat. Radiant heat passes through the air and heats solid objects directly. The sun heats through the same mechanism and this is the reason you can still feel nice and warm if the sun is out even in the middle of winter. It is also worth pointing out that infrared heat is 100% safe – people can get nervous about radiant heating because it is also known as infrared radiation (a word that understandably rings alarm bells). There really is no need to worry though since it has nothing to do with either ultraviolet radiation (which gives you a sunburn and damages your skin) or atomic radiation (the kind from a nuclear bomb). Far infrared is completely safe and in fact there is research to suggest it can  have positive impacts on your body.

The fact that infrared heats solid objects rather than the air means that to get an equivalent level of thermal comfort you can use a much lower rated infrared heater compared to a storage heater. Typically, 1000w of storage heater would provide the same level of heating as 570w of infrared heating. This could lead to big energy savings.

The cost of storage heaters

We get a huge amount of interest from people who currently have storage heaters looking to replace their old units with new ones. They are often surprised though when we talk about the costs associated with replacing them. The Dimplex Quantum storage heater range starts at about £700 (for the unit – not including installation by an electrician). These are top of the range units – there are obviously cheaper types of storage heater available – but even so the starting prices are about £350.

The cost of infrared heaters

There is a huge range of infrared heaters – so the price really depends on the brand and the look of the panel. If you want a top of the range mirror panel for a 200w unit you are looking at a price of £400, but for a big 1200w unit you are looking at a list price of just over £1,000. If you want an entry model far infrared heater then you can get your hands on one for just £200.

The look of storage heaters compared to infrared heaters

There really is only one winner here – and that is the infrared heaters. Unfortunately based on the fact storage heaters need to have big ceramic/brick cores, they will always be pretty bulky. Infrared heaters on the other hand can come in many different styles depending on what you are looking for; it is even possible to get a family portrait or your favourite photo printed on them! Most infrared heaters are very thin (normally just 2cm thick) which means they don’t take up nearly as much space as storage heaters, so if space is at a premium then infrared is definitely the way to go. They can also have dual functionality – for example I have an infrared mirror in my bathroom and not only does it provide heat, it obviously also acts as a mirror (without steaming up!).

The future of storage heaters

Personally I think the Economy 7 tariff won’t be around for that much longer – I think the premise of them is great and if you are willing to invest in a top end unit then you will have a great heater with great controls. The truth is though that as the nature of our electricity mix changes (with more focus on renewables and gas) there will be less electricity available at night as the energy producers will look to match supply with demand. Most of our nuclear power plants and coal power plants are due to close in the next 10 years and these are the plants that we can’t switch off at night, so unless they are going to be replaced with like for like plants then Economy 7 will sadly be no more!

As such, my advice would be to move away from storage heaters – unless you are creating your own electricity (from solar for example). The units themselves tend to be very high capacity e.g. 3kw or more, so while they are okay to charge under the current Economy 7 tariff because you are charging them during the night on the cheaper tariff –  if that gets scrapped then they are going to be extremely costly to charge.

The future of infrared heaters

Infrared heaters are an efficient form of electric heating, therefore their future seems pretty secure. Electric heating is never going to be for everyone. Many people in the UK have central heating systems (boilers and radiators) and to be honest we would never recommend someone rip out their central heating system and replace it with any form of electrical heating as it will likely cost them more to run in the future. However saying that there are a huge number of properties that are simply not able to have central heating systems.

For those with ageing storage heating who are considering replacing them, I would certainly recommend looking at infrared simply because they are smaller than storage heaters (and in my opinion more stylish), but perhaps more importantly they are far cheaper to run.

If you have any questions on either of these types of heating systems then please drop a comment in the comments section at the bottom of this page and one of the team will try to come back to you ASAP.

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