How Infrared Heaters Work

Infrared Electric Heater
Infrared heaters produce heat that’s a product of invisible light.
iStockphoto/Selahattin BAYRAM

­You probably learned about infrared light when you studied wavelengths in science class­. You also might have heard of infrared radiation or infrared technology, just from casual tidbits on TV commercials or in magazines. But to be honest, you've either forgotten or never really understood the science behind wavelengths and light spectrums. So you pretty much draw a blank when you try to figure out what infrared heaters do.

You might remember that infrared light isn't visible because it's beyond the spectrum we can see. That's the gist of an infrared heater: The heat is a product of light that is invisible to our eyes. The reason we get warm from an infrared heater is because our skin and clothes absorb the light [source: Wasch]. It's like the difference between being directly in the sunlight versus sitting in the shade. You feel warm in the sun because the light that hits your clothes and skin keeps you warm, but when you're in the shade, the light doesn't reach you as well.


­There are several kinds of infrared heaters. Some might direct their infrared light straight into a room or space to create heat on the object it reaches. Other infrared heaters contain three parts that create heat: infrared light bulbs, a heat exchanger (such as a good metal conductor like copper) and a fan that blows air onto the exchanger to create the heat [source: Wasch].

Infrared heaters also differ in fuel source and c­onstruction material. There are propane, natural gas and electric heaters. Some are ceramic, and there are also portable ones [source: IQS Directory].

Infrared heaters have certain specifications and should be used only in certain situations. These heaters may be more environmentally friendly. Click to the next page to read more about some of the specifications of infrared heaters.


Infrared Heater Specifications

It's difficult to make general claims about infrared heaters because there are so many different specifications. First, there's the fuel/energy source. As we mentioned earlier, infrared heaters can be powered by electricity, natural gas or propane - if you're looking for an electric model, you should check how many volts and Hz are used. Different heaters also have different heat outputs and maximum operating temperatures. Some heaters also come with timers [sources: Tools For Wellness].

Other specifications include: filter controls, wheels, weight, fan, thermostat and color. Design also plays a role. Usually, you'll find a protective cover over the heating element, which can can be made from as copper, iron, steel or brass [sources: Ramson Solutions, Global Spec].


Read the next page in order to find out why some claim that infrared heaters are more environmentally friendly than other heat sources.

Are Infrared Heaters Green?

It's tough to heat your house and stay green by trying to cause minimal harm to your surroundings. There is not one method of keeping warm that doesn't affect the natural world around you. You could even claim that simply bundling up in layers and layers of clothes would still have an effect on the environment if those clothes were made in a factory. That being said, you can't claim that infrared heaters have no effect on the outside world.

It really depends on what kind of infrared heater you use. Remember how all the heaters use a different source of fuel? You can debate which is greener by asking: Is it better to use electricity or natural gas? When you're considering how green infrared heaters are, be sure to keep in mind the power source of any particular model.


There are other factors that determine the greenness of infrared heaters. For instance, electric infrared heaters don't release harmful fumes into the air or contribute any emissions into the atmosphere. Electric infrared heaters also don't rely on fuel or gas lines, which is another green point [sources: Alabama Power, Tools For Wellness].

Some brands of infrared heaters claim their heaters don't take out oxygen or humidity from the air. The companies attest that their heaters make for easy-breathing, oxygen-rich air while still creating heat [source: Alabama Power].

Click to the next page to learn about where and in what situation it is best to use an infrared heater. Before you even think of buying one, you want to make sure you know when to use an infrared heater!


When to Use Infrared Heaters

Infrared heaters do provide direct cost-efficient heating, but that doesn't mean you should forego central heating. Infrared heaters generally aren't meant to heat your entire home.

Instead, you're most likely to find infrared heating technologies in large spaces that must counteract frequent loss of heat, such as warehouses, garages and airplane hangars. These spaces often have large doors or other cavities that are opened and closed often. Infrared heat works well to keep these areas from cooling too much.


You're also likely to find them along production lines in factories, but infrared heaters aren't reserved for industrial sites and cavernous areas. Because of their ability to focus heat on objects and not just pump hot air into a room, they're useful in home construction or improvement projects, such as helping paint dry. Anytime direct heat is needed, infrared heat may be the answer.

You might even find infrared heaters in use at your local gym or spa -- infrared saunas are beginning to grow in popularity. New technology directs infrared rays toward bodies, warming them in a similar fashion as the sun's rays would, but without the UV rays. Saunas of the past relied on traditional methods of producing large quantities of heat to first warm the air and then the bodies in the sauna. Infrared heat skips the air and directly heats bodies far more efficiently.

For more helpful information, be sure to check out the links on the next page.


Infrared Heater FAQ

How do infrared heaters work?
An infrared heater, also known as a heat lamp, works on the principle of energy conversion. It turns electrical energy into radiant heat in the infrared spectrum, which is invisible to humans. The heat transfer takes place between the higher temperature item (infrared heater) and the lower temperature person or people due to the difference in temperature.
Do infrared heaters use a lot of electricity?
Infrared heaters are safer and consume less electricity than conventional heating units. Generally, a normal infrared heater should require no more than 1500 watts of power.
Which is better: ceramic or infrared heaters?
Ceramic heaters can take a while to heat up the air around you, but they’re slightly more efficient. They also tend to louder because of the fan, but are better suited to larger spaces than infrared heaters. Infrared heaters are quieter and more effective in heating the radius they’re in. However, the area they can heat is relatively small, they tend to be pricier and there’s some unsubstantiated concern that frequent use may be linked to skin cancer.
How much does it cost to run an infrared heater for 24 hours?
Most infrared heaters operate on 1500 watts. So the electricity cost to run it for 24 hours can be calculated as 1500 x 24 x 0.13 ÷ 1000 (where division by 1000 is to convert watts to kW and multiplication by 0.13/kWh is the average American electricity rate). This brings the total cost to run an infrared heater to $4.68 per day.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Alabama Power. "Electric Infrared Heaters." (Accessed 3/2/09)
  • Associated Content. "Can an Infrared Heater Cause Cancer?" (Accessed 3/2/09)
  • Center Point Energy. "Infrared Heaters (Minnesota)." (Accessed 3/2/09)
  • Gatton, Bill. "How to Find the Best Far Infrared Heaters." (Accessed 3/2/09)
  • Global Spec. "About Infrared Heaters." (Accessed 3/02/09)
  • Heater Shop. "Infrared Heaters." (Accessed 3/2/09)
  • IQS Directory. "Infrared Heaters." (Accessed 3/2/09)
  • Ramson Solutions. "ComfortZone Infrared Heaters." (Accessed 3/2/09)
  • Sage Journals Online. "Effect of Thermal Comfort/Discomfort due to Infrared Heaters Installed at Workplaces in Industrial Buildings." (Accessed 3/2/09)
  • Tools For Wellness. "Far Infrared Heater." (Accessed 3/23/09)
  • True Green Technologies. "Frequently Asked Questions." (Accessed 3/2/09)
  • Wasch, Adam. "The story behind infrared heaters." (Accessed 3/2/09)