According to Dr. Wen, space heaters might also have an unexpected psychological effect. Her research suggests that having “perceived control” over the temperature, through, say, a nearby space heater, can increase your “thermal acceptability,” or the range of temperatures in which you feel comfortable.
In other words, when used somewhere you don’t control the heat, like a shared office or an apartment building with a central thermostat, simply knowing you could turn on a space heater might make you more tolerant of cooler temperatures.
That said, be careful. Though safer than in decades prior, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports space heaters are involved in approximately 1,700 fires and 80 deaths each year. To reduce these risks, the group suggests keeping space heaters three feet away from flammable items, plugging them directly into walls and turning them off before bed.
If you’re still not sure what to do, you shouldn’t lose too much sleep, said Jennifer Amann, buildings program director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit research organization.
Similar to Dr. Bailis’ thoughts on the fire pit versus patio heater debate, Ms. Amann said other changes, such as purchasing LED bulbs, adding insulation and regularly changing your air filter could make a bigger difference over time than running or not running a space heater.
Dr. Wen, too, stressed the importance of implementing energy efficiency measures, no matter which heating method you choose. Since homes lose 25 percent to 30 percent of their heat through windows, she said it’s imperative to take steps like weatherstripping, plastic-wrapping and hanging shades or curtains.
“Otherwise,” she said, “you’re just efficiently generating heat that goes out the window.”