When I lived in Pittsburgh, my house once lost power for heating for three days in the middle of winter. It was not a pleasant experience, but it would have been much more tolerable if we had an electric garage heater, given how heat could permeate to some other parts of the house.
In this article, we will be talking about heaters that affect garages rather than whole-house heating units.
If you’re looking for specific products to buy, rather than the difference in product types, check out our buyer’s guide for garage heaters.
Types of Electric Garage Heaters
Electric options stand out for their convenience and portability when comparing electric vs. gas heaters. While all of them function similarly, there are three primary options to consider.
Fan-forced heaters. These include an electric heating element with a fan in the back that pushes the air out to help warm up the area. Although a little slow, these can be pretty small and fit nearly anywhere you might want to put the heater.
The second option is infrared heaters. Unlike fan-forced heaters, these don’t heat the air. Instead, they use infrared light to directly heat items within the heater’s range of effect. They work quickly, but anything they heat also cools quickly. Infrared heaters are a good choice when you only need to heat a small area and don’t need to heat the whole garage.
Ceramic heaters are similar to fan-forced options, but they switch the metal heating component for ceramic plates. These are noticeably more efficient than fans and a better choice for heating large garages.
In short, each of the three types of electric heaters has different uses. Fans work for small spaces, ceramic works for large areas, and infrared works for heating specific things for shorter periods.
Many electric garage heaters have optional features that can make them more enticing. These can include:
- Cool Touch: Cool-touch heaters have touch-friendly exteriors, even when they’re running. It’s often easy to bump into a garage heater by accident, so cool touch shells are a valuable safety feature.
- Extended Cords: Extra-long cords make it easy to plug in a heater and use it where you want it. Most garages have limited outlets, so having an extra-long cord built-in can save you from the hassle of finding an appropriate extension cord.
- Wheels: Some larger portable heaters come with wheels. This makes them easier to move around and heat the areas where you want to use them.
- Smart Connectivity: Some modern heaters have wireless connections so you can control them remotely. This is particularly effective when you pair them with smart home control systems that can automatically heat your garage before you get home.
- Control Fins: Control fins can help you redirect the airflow from your heater. This makes it easier to position things correctly.
- Overheating Protection: Overheating protection systems are particularly useful for long-term heater use. These can help your heater avoid damage aside from regular wear and tear. Heaters with smart connectivity can also let you know when they shut down.
- Tip-Over Protection: Many people accidentally knock over heaters occasionally, especially in busy garages and workshops. These functions shut the heater off if it starts falling, helping limit potential damage.
Types of Gas Garage Heaters
Gas garage heaters are the main alternative to electric options. However, there are a few essential details to keep in mind about them.
Natural gas doesn’t burn quite as hot as propane. Realistically, natural gas heaters tend to cap out around 25,000 BTUs. That’s not terrible for a garage, but propane can reach over 100,000 BTUs at the high-end. In short, propane easily wins if you need a lot of heat as quickly as possible.
Gas heaters can come with direct vents outside to remove gases but are also available in ventless versions when you can’t vent them outside your garage. Generally, ventless heaters can be a problem for people sensitive to fumes. Still, they’re also cheaper than getting a vent installed.
Like electric heaters, there are three main types of gas heaters you can choose from.
Forced-air gas heaters actively draw in cold air, heat it, and then send it back into your garage.
Convection heaters function differently, and they only warm the air immediately around them. However, hot air naturally rises, so colder air will sink and move towards the heater. This creates a natural flow of warmth, although it can take time to heat a whole garage.
Finally, radiant heaters direct heat towards a specific area, making them better for small working areas.
Electric vs. Gas Heaters: Durability
Durability is a significant point of concern in the electric vs. gas garage heater debate.
Generally, electric heaters will wear out sooner, even with regular maintenance. Don’t expect them to last more than a few years unless they’re heavy-duty units. Higher-quality options usually cost less over time than replacing several cheap units, so they can be an excellent way to save money.
Gas heaters can last up to twenty years with regular maintenance. They last longer in areas with low humidity, but particularly wet regions may see them fail a little sooner.
Electric vs. Gas Heaters: Maintenance
All appliances need the occasional maintenance to keep functioning at their best.
In the electric vs. gas garage heater debate, electric heaters usually need maintenance more often. Typical maintenance includes cleaning the unit, checking power areas, and replacing worn components. You may end up replacing several parts over the lifetime of a single electric heater.
While most service appointments are individually affordable, the cost can add up if you need to service them several times.
Gas garage heaters don’t require quite as much servicing as electrical heaters, and that’s important if you use them frequently. Individual service appointments may be more expensive than those for electric heaters. Still, because you require fewer of them, you end up paying much less over time.
Electric heaters should get service yearly, while gas heaters can get service every two years. Both of these expectations apply for moderate use. If you use your heater daily, expect to service them at least twice as often.
Costs: Propane vs. Electricity
The second difference is their fuel source. Most gas heaters use either propane or natural gas. Natural gas is usually a better option if you’re on a network supplying that, while propane is a better choice elsewhere.
Notably, natural gas grids can often work without electricity, especially if they have pumps and other systems powered by natural gas. These can make them a viable choice for space heating, even if your electricity goes out.
Electric garage heaters are significantly more affordable than gas units. Most are available for less than $500, and they can go down as low as $150. However, cheap units wear out faster, so it’s essential to consider factors like how much heating power you need and how often you plan to run the heater. Deciding by price alone is a bad idea.
High-end electric heaters can go over $1000 but rarely exceed that by much for home units. Commercial and industrial electric heaters are technically an option, but few people need that much heating power.
There’s also the installation cost for bigger, permanent units. While you can easily buy a portable heater and position it yourself, professional installation usually runs about two hours of work. Expect to pay another $200 for that, give or take a bit, depending on prices in your area. Installers may provide a discount if you buy the heater through them.
Operational costs are usually higher for electricity.
Gas heaters are more expensive, starting around $400 and rising to about $2000 for better models. Many decent models will be over $1000, so you could realistically buy several cheap electric models for the same price as one good propane option.
There’s also the installation cost. This usually hovers between $500 and $800 for a gas heater. That can go higher, depending on whether you need to install extra vents for the cases. Do not attempt to install a gas heater yourself. It’s OK if you only need to screw on a propane tank, but leave it to the professionals if you need to connect pipes.
Operational costs for gas heaters are usually lower than for electricity, especially if you can use natural gas. Propane is usually more expensive and may not be the most cost-efficient choice, but it is the best option if you need a high-power heater.
While costs can vary, the Energy Information Administration offers insights and cost projections. They can help you estimate the costs for running garage heating systems over the next few years.
Special Cost: Insulation
While small heaters are fine if you only need to heat a small area while you’re working, heating your entire garage usually means adding insulation. If you don’t, you’re going to lose a massive amount of heat through the walls, the ceiling, and possibly even the floor of your garage.
Frankly, that defeats the purpose of trying to heat a garage. This is why you may need to install insulation before adding a heater. If you already have a well-insulated garage, then congratulations, you don’t need to worry about this.
The cost of insulating a garage depends on its overall size and what type of installation you add. Most likely, you’ll spend between 50 cents and $1.25 per square foot of wall and ceiling space, not counting any contractor costs if you ask for help. Expect a price between $400 and $1000 for most garages. Huge garages will, of course, cost more.
Most people think mainly about blanket and roll insulation, but you may want to look for rigid foam insulation with a high R-value instead.
Try to avoid installing carpet, though. That can seem like an appealing way to try and insulate a concrete floor. Still, carpet in your garage is a bad idea, especially if you plan to ever open the garage door. If your garage door stays shut at all times, carpet might be a viable choice.
The first difference is that most gas heaters aren’t very portable. They usually mount onto walls or ceilings, rather than being something you can move around your garage as needed. That alone can make them an issue for some people.
You can find portable propane heaters, but these usually need extra fuel tanks or hoses, making them even bulkier than they already are.
When Should You Use an Electric Heater vs. a Propane Heater?
Electric and gas heaters have somewhat different use cases.
While radiant gas heaters exist and can focus heat on an area, most gas heaters work best when you use them to heat larger parts of your garage. They usually have more power and lower running costs than electric heaters and efficiently heat several hundred cubic feet.
Functionally, this means that gas heaters are the best choice if you want to heat your entire garage. However, they can be a little noisy, so they’re not necessarily the best choice if you’re heating the garage because someone’s living there.
Electric heaters are more appropriate for heating specific sections of your garage. This can be something as small as a workbench, but some people use electric heaters to warm up a couch while they watch television in the garage instead.
Smaller garage heaters can also make pets more comfortable if they live in the garage. This can be a good balance between having them sleep outside and staying safe and warm. Ceramic heaters are often the best option since they can heat a somewhat larger area.
One less-obvious case is balancing garage heating with any fridges or freezers you may have in the garage. Those devices have to work much harder if the air around them is too warm, so some choose to heat about half their garage and keep cold storage units on the far side.
The real thing to understand about these use cases is that which heating options make sense depends not just on price and heating power but also where you want to warm things and by how much. Before choosing a heater, consider every detail of your garage, including how heating may affect stuff inside it.
Electric garage heaters are viable almost everywhere. However, their biggest weakness is that they won’t work if you lose power. People who need to keep their garage warm at all times may want to invest in a generator or a backup system.