What do Heating Experts Think of Infrared Panels?

Infrared heating panels are still somewhat of an unknown form of heating. The technology may have been around for decades, but recent advancements and conversion into residential settings are sparking a number of questions.

Are infrared heating systems one for the future? Will they become mainstream? Are they worth the investment? 

These are all big, complex questions. To help us out, we’ve gathered the thoughts of heating and energy experts in the UK to shed more light on infrared heating systems.

What do experts think about infrared panels?

Managing Director of The Renewable Energy Hub, Richard Burdett-Gardiner thinks “Infrared heating is very much the future of energy efficient electric heating.”

He thinks the smart controllability, simplicity of the single unit and highly efficient electric nature of infrared panels means they’ll grow in popularity. Because of their efficiency, IR panels have less of an energy demand when compared to other heating methods. 

Sitting on the other side of the fence, senior energy policy professional Dr Richard Lowes says infrared is “unlikely to be an important future heating technology.”

In his article, Dr Lowes says there may be “significant comfort issues associated with infrared heating although actual research is limited. In general, only things which are hit by the infrared radiation will get hot although some heat will be emitted by the things which get hot and heat up the surroundings (effectively negating the benefit of the direct heating).”

Does infrared create comfortable internal environments?

There are arguments for and against whether IR heating creates a truly comfortable environment. 

Burdett-Gardiner says, “The rise in temperature of the walls, floor and furnishings is only a few degrees but is enough to make the room feel comfortable and cosy. The air will become evenly warmed too as there is no convection or rise of hot air and fall of cold air.” 

This is similar to the way in which a wall facing the sun acts as a ‘sun trap’ and stays warm. The thermal mass of the wall soaks up the infrared wavelengths from the sun and re-emits them back out. Although this re-emitting of energy isn’t the headline advantage of infrared, it’s still an advantage to consider. But it’s only true to the extent of the room’s insulation levels and draught-proofing. If this is sub-par, the room may not feel as comfortable as you desire.

Dr Lowes says, “By reducing the overall heat demand of a building and targeting only certain items, while you may use less energy, overall the building will be colder than if you maintained a constant air temperature.” 

So, what’s the right answer?

Research into infrared comfort

There isn’t much first hand research out there, but luckily it’s a topic that the University of Salford’s Energy Lab is testing for in their future homes experiment. This is being conducted in collaboration with the Leeds Sustainability Institute (LSI) at Leeds Beckett University.

As Professor David Glew, Director of the LSI, explained “The theory is that the user can heat the whole house to a lower temperature than normal but still feel comfortable. The aim of this project is to provide robust evidence to investigate if this theory turns to reality in people’s homes, which could result in less energy use, lower fuel bills and fewer carbon emissions”. 

When I attended an Energy House open day, I spoke to Building Physics researcher Ben Roberts who told me that the infrared heating experiments are essentially testing for levels of discomfort. This is because comfort is so subjective from one person to the next. 

In simple terms, the energy house experiment is looking for a total comfort rating of 80% or more to classify an environment as comfortable. This means that 20% of individuals may still find the heating uncomfortable, but most people will be happy with it. 

The results aren’t out yet, but they will shed a lot of light on whether IR panels will work effectively in the highly insulated, smart homes of the future.   

What the experts say on other areas of infrared heating

If the ambient air temperature of a house is indeed lower with infrared, Dr Lowes states that this will result in more damp and mould. This is true and backed up by the Centre for Sustainable Energy. 

On the other side of the coin, the direct heating of infrared is a good way to keep damp and mould at bay. This is thanks to the indirect benefits of raising the temperature of solid objects, such as walls, which absorb the IR wavelengths. You can read more about infrared and damp, plus the use of IR in bathrooms

However, Dr Lowes says this “defeats the object of only heating bodies. You might as well use basic electric heaters.”  

When paired with excellent levels of insulation, the air temperature of a room doesn’t necessarily have to be lower than a room heated by convection heating. And we expect all future homes to have very high levels of insulation. 

The effects on things such as damp and mould also depend on where you put infrared panels. The primary object is to put them in the best position to avoid furniture and solid objects, so they can heat people. But if the panels can also face a cold, external wall at the same time, you may be killing two birds with one stone. 

Costs to run infrared heating

However, a real concern with IR heating is that it’s being mis-sold to people as cheap, says Dr Lowes. 

“Some housebuilders seem to be latching on to the idea of these as they are cheap to install but have high running costs relative to heat pumps. There is specific mention of this issue in the future homes standard consultation as the government is worried that running costs will be ignored by housebuilders and so a metric on running costs is being considered, which is something I strongly supported.”

Burdett-Gardiner says “infrared heating can be a cost-effective way of heating your home” and “when you don’t heat up your whole house, your heating bill will become considerably lower.” 

But there’s a problem here. If infrared heating is costly to run for the whole house, homeowners will need another form of heating to go with it. Does this defeat the point?

Instead of infrared heating systems, Dr Lowes says heat pumps are a much better, more efficient and less carbon intensive option. They can also produce hot water when paired with a water cylinder. A compatible hot water system wouldn’t be possible with IR panels.

In terms of running costs, the National Energy Action recommends that infrared heaters are installed only into well-insulated homes and are avoided where residents are at risk of fuel poverty. The NEA also states that infrared heaters are more suitable for dwellings which do not need to be continually heated. 

The conclusion is clear: infrared heating is a good way to heat inefficient spaces that need to be heated occasionally, but generally not good for the continuous heating of most buildings.

Is infrared heating worth the investment?

Infrared heating can be installed in multiple ways in both commercial and residential spaces. IR panels can be installed on walls, on ceilings, as one-off single units to heat a specific zone or as a series of connected panels to heat larger areas.  

Taking a look at the home setting, a single IR panel may be enough to provide energy-efficient warmth for someone who just wants to heat a very specific zone or room. Good examples here include home offices, conservatories or other spaces that require specific heating at certain times. 

To buy a single panel, prices start from around the £250 mark. This shouldn’t represent too much of an investment for most. 

Running costs

The running costs for a single IR panel aren’t too high for these one-off panels either. For example, you could heat yourself in a home office for less than 50p for the whole day. 

Ultimately though, running costs come down to the size of the panel, how long you run it for and the electricity cost price. And the investment with infrared panels starts to mount when you scale up your heating operations. 

To install a whole house system of IR panels, you’ll need anywhere from 9-18 panels for a 3 bedroom house. As an estimate, this will cost in the range of £5,000-£10,000. Compared to traditional heating and even to air source heat pumps, this is fairly expensive. 

You then have the running costs of multiple panels. With the currently high electricity rates, it’s not cheap to run multiple infrared panels for hours on end. As mentioned, running costs are kept low for specific zones of the house, but for living areas and kitchens, you’re likely to run larger wattage panels for longer periods of time. 

Let’s take a conservative estimate of 12 x 600W panels across your home. If you run each panel for two hours, there’s a total cost of £4.20 per day. Across the year, that’s a running cost of £1,533. And that’s without energy costs associated with cooking and hot water. Whole-house infrared heating systems aren’t cheap to run.  

To put this example into perspective further. In the University of Salford Energy House experiment, there’s a total of 17 infrared panels installed (combination of wall and ceiling) with a total power of 11,520W. This gives an average panel power of 677W. This would bump the running costs in the example above up to £2,419 for the year.

Of course, these costs are if you’re buying all of your electricity from the national grid. Generating your own renewable energy, via solar panels for example, will bring the running costs down.   

Crucially, a whole house IR heating system will only be effective in highly insulated homes with very little heat loss. Think Passivhaus standards. The exceptional thermal performance of these structures retains heat far more effectively. Air stays warmer for longer after infrared panels cycle off, lowering costs. Relying on infrared panels to heat an older or poorly insulated home is likely not worth the investment at this time. 

In our view, infrared heating delivers the best return on investment when used as a supplementary heat source for specific zones or smaller spaces.

Are infrared panels projected to become more mainstream?

Based on the technology advances and benefits of infrared heating panels when installed in a super-insulated eco home, there’s a possibility that they will become more widely adopted in the coming years. This is because infrared panels offer excellent energy efficiency and allow for zone-based heating control which minimises energy waste.

But it’s not a foregone conclusion. It will very much depend on how the housing market adapts to lower carbon emissions. With the Future Homes Standard in operation for new builds from 2025, there’s hope the industry will move towards decarbonisation much quicker. If this is the case, then infrared panels will play a part in heating new sustainable, low-carbon homes. 

This last point is important. I don’t think infrared panels will become more mainstream on their own, but in combination with other sustainable housing measures.  As we’ve seen with the running costs, it makes sense to run infrared panels from renewable energy generated at source i.e. from solar photovoltaic panels, rather than run from the high prices of the national grid. 

You can read more on whether infrared panels are the future here. 

Is there any research into how efficient infrared heating is?

While infrared panels themselves convert 100% of consumed electricity into radiant heat, research is ongoing into how efficient this heat energy is at providing human comfort. There’s little published research on this at present, but scientists are currently conducting experiments to measure infrared heating efficiency in a simulated home environment.

In conjunction with researchers from Leeds Beckett University and various building partners, a team of energy specialists at the University of Salford are working on a full working ‘Energy House’ test structure. 

This building serves as a highly controlled lab for assessing different heating systems. To test effectiveness in real life, 120 volunteer subjects are individually occupying the Energy House for multiple days at a time. Participants experience infrared heating as well as various alternatives like air source heat pumps and electric radiators. The subjects provide detailed feedback on their thermal comfort, which is quantified through skin temperature and other biometric data collection.

By gauging human comfort across these heating systems, the University of Salford study aims to rate real-world efficiency and intends to inform UK policy and consumer adoption of technologies like infrared as part of the transition towards net-zero carbon buildings.

About the author 

Ben Hardman

Ben is a professional writer and the creator of sustainable living website TinyEco.com.
It's here where he helps people to reduce their environmental impact through simple, everyday choices. Away from the laptop, Ben loves spending time in the natural environment with his young family and Murphy the cocker spaniel.

First Class BSc Biology degree (environmental and climate change focus)
Six years of working and writing in the environmental sector, including two years working at an international sustainability consultancy
Written for Ethical Consumer magazine, My Mother Tree, Unsustainable Magazine, Happy Eco News, Emission Index, PeakDistrict.org
Commented in The Independent, The Guardian, GreenMatch. Also featured on Radio 1's environmental special 'Minute of Me'

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