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Comparing Infrared Heaters and Heat Pumps

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Space heating is one of the top energy expenses for building owners, especially in regions farther with colder winters. According to the US EIA, space heating represents 42% of energy consumption in homes and 36% of consumption in buildings. Space heating systems have been traditionally designed to use fossil fuels like #2 fuel oil, natural gas and propane. However, fully electric heating is growing in popularity, now that more governments and companies are concerned with their environmental footprint. Conventional resistance heaters are very expensive to run, but infrared heaters and heat pumps are cost-effective. Here we will compare both technologies.

Heat pumps and infrared heaters are both electric heating systems, but there is a very important difference in how they operate.

  • An electric heat pump can be described in simple terms as an air conditioner or refrigerator operating in reverse. An air conditioner uses a refrigerant to capture indoor heat and release it outside, while a heat pump uses the same principle to capture outdoor heat and bring it inside.
  • An infrared heater provides harmless and efficient heating with infrared light, as implied by its name. Unlike a traditional resistance heater, which requires air circulation to heat a room, an infrared heater can radiate heat directly towards surfaces and objects.

Traditional resistance heaters must first heat indoor air, and then you need a ventilation system to circulate the warm air. This is a very inefficient process, since you need electric power for both heaters and fans. A heat pump also requires air circulation, but air can be heated with only a fraction of the electricity used by a resistance heater. Finally, an infrared heater does not depend on air circulation, since heat can be delivered directly with infrared light.

Since they are electric heating systems, both heat pumps and infrared heaters can be powered with onsite renewable energy. This means they can achieve synergy with solar panels, wind turbines, or any clean generation systems in your building.

Electric Heat Pumps: Pros and Cons

Electric heat pumps are a promising technology, since they can achieve the same heating effect as resistance heaters, while reducing electricity consumption by 50% or more. Depending on their configuration, heat pumps can be classified into two main types:

An ASHP extracts heat from the outdoor air even during the winter, while a GSHP extracts heat from the underground, which has stable temperatures all year long. Compared with traditional resistance heaters, ASHPs can reduce electricity consumption by over 50%, while GSHPs can save over 70%. Many electric heat pumps are also reversible, which means they operate as air conditioners during summer, and you can combine two building systems.

However, heat pumps have their limitations in spite of their energy efficiency. Air-source heat pumps become less efficient as the outdoor temperature drops, and may require a resistance or gas heater as backup during the coldest winter days. Ground-source heat pumps are not affected by this, since they use underground heat, but they are very expensive.

Electric heat pumps are a great option for new buildings, especially if you use a reversible system that also operates as an air conditioner. However, installing heat pumps can be technically challenging and expensive when you retrofit an existing building. This is especially true for geothermal systems, which have many buried components.

Electric Infrared Heaters: Pros and Cons

Infrared heaters are characterized by their simplicity. They can be described as heating panels that use electricity to produce infrared light, which delivers heat to objects and surfaces. Unlike heat pump systems, infrared heaters don’t require refrigerant lines or water piping loops.

Infrared heaters may seem similar to traditional resistance heaters, but there are two major differences that make them more efficient:

  • A traditional resistance heater actually heats indoor air, and fans are then used to distribute this warm air. You need extra power for the fan, and some heat is lost when the air circulates.
  • An infrared heater emits heat directly towards the point of interest, without depending on fans and with much smaller losses.

According to the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), infrared heaters save 30-50% of electricity compared with forced air heating systems. Although heat pumps are capable of greater savings, their installation is more expensive and their maintenance is more complex. When you consider all the costs involved, not only electricity consumption, infrared heaters can often achieve a quicker payback period and a lower lifetime cost.

Another advantage of infrared heaters is their consistent performance, regardless of outdoor temperatures. On the other hand, air-source heat pumps suffer a major drop in their efficiency when the weather is very cold.

Using Renewable Energy for Electric Heating Systems

Heat pumps and infrared heaters can both achieve synergy with solar panels and other renewable generation systems. In this case, you’re getting two types of electricity savings:

  • The savings achieved by lowering the power consumption of your heating systems.
  • The savings achieved by using your own renewable energy, instead of consuming kilowatt-hours from the grid.

The combination of electric heating systems and renewable energy can also help decarbonize the building sector faster. If you live in a place where the grid depends on fossil fuel, electric heating simply replaces furnace and boiler emissions with power plant emissions. However, when the power source is an onsite renewable generation system, heating emissions are eliminated.

Source US EPA ENERGY STAR AHRI

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