A car parked in the snow next to an EV charging cable.

How do electric car heaters work?

Read this if you want to learn how EVs keep you warm in winter!
X min
  • EV heaters can be used to preheat the cabin while the car is still plugged in and charging, which can help to conserve battery power for driving.
  • Most new EVs now come with heat pumps, although some budget models (or cheaper trims) don't include it as standard.
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Electric cars have come a long way in recent years, offering a cleaner and more sustainable alternative to traditional petrol or diesel-powered vehicles.

But, as any electric car owner will tell you, one of the biggest challenges with these vehicles is keeping warm during the colder months. Enter the electric car heater! This unsung hero may not be as glamorous as the EV battery or electric motor. Still, it plays a crucial role in making the electric car ownership experience comfortable and enjoyable all year round. Our website visitors are way more interested in EV subscription than non-electric cars, so we decided to research this and write this detailed guide!

In this article, we'll take a closer look at how the heaters in EVs work, their benefits and limitations, and how manufacturers work to overcome some of the more pressing challenges. So, let's dive in and get toasty!

How electric car heaters work

There are a few options available for keeping warm in an EV. The two most common electric car heaters are resistive and heat pumps. Resistive heaters are being phased out, and most early EVs were equipped with them, but we'll explain how they work anyway!

Resistive heaters are similar to the ones you might find in a traditional non-EV car. In simple terms, an engine creates heat by operating. That heat is then used to warm up the car. However, due to the nature of electric vehicles, they are highly efficient and produce little heat, so they are less efficient than heat pumps.

The main advantage of a resistive heater is its simple design, low manufacturing cost and easier maintenance. However, it is less energy efficient than a heat pump, as it converts around 60-70% of the electrical energy into heat, while the rest is wasted as heat loss.

The first generation of the Nissan Leaf (released in 2010) had a resistive heater. Heat pumps were relatively undeveloped technology then, so newer models have switched and completely dropped their use.

Heat Pump System Schematic
Source: Hyundai and Kia

On the other hand, a heat pump works by warming up the outside air and transferring it into the car's cabin. This type of heater is more energy efficient, with a coefficient of performance (COP) of around 2-3, meaning it can transfer 2-3 units of heat for every unit of electrical energy it consumes.

However, it can be more complex and costly to manufacture, requiring additional components such as a compressor, evaporator, and condenser. This also means more things can break. But think of it like a reverse air conditioner for your car! 

Having said that, when the team looked into some of the newer EVs, we found that some come equipped with both a resistive heater and a heat pump. When it goes very cold, think -10C, the heat pumps may struggle a little bit, so the resistive heater can help keep you warm when behind the wheel! 

Looking for a new EV and want one with a heat pump as standard? You should check out the following models:

Advantages of EV heaters

When it comes to electric car heaters, there are certainly some advantages that make them worth considering. Let's take a look at a few of the key benefits.

First and foremost, they are are far more energy efficient than traditional cars with an internal combustion engine (ICE). As we've discussed earlier, resistive heaters convert around 60-70% of the electrical energy into heat, while heat pumps have a coefficient of performance (COP) of around 2-3. This means that, compared to ICE car heaters, EV heaters are more efficient in energy utilisation.

Heat pump system render
Source: Hyundai and Kia

Another advantage of these heaters is that they can help save you money in the long run. Because the car's battery powers them, you won't have to worry about buying and paying for fuel to keep your vehicle warm.  Plus, since electric cars are cheaper to operate, you'll save money in more ways than one.

In some electric cars, the heater can be used to preheat the cabin while the car is still plugged in and charging, which can help to conserve battery power for driving. And you can do that remotely! Now that's handy! This is especially useful when driving in winter (see our latest tips!)

Finally, they can help improve the overall driving experience. With non-EVs, you have to wait for the engine to warm up before you can start enjoying a comfortable cabin temperature. But with an electric car, the heater can be turned on as soon as you get into the car so that you can enjoy a warm and comfortable cabin right away. In addition, electric car heaters are typically quieter, which can improve the overall driving experience.

Challenges and limitations

As with any technology, electric car heaters have a few challenges and limitations. While these may seem like a hindrance, it's important to keep in mind that manufacturers are actively working to overcome these obstacles.

One of the biggest challenges is their impact on the car's range. When the heater is turned on, it can significantly reduce the car's range, as it consumes a lot of energy. This can be particularly problematic in colder climates where the heater is used frequently.

However, manufacturers are working on mitigating this issue, such as using regenerative braking to top up the battery while driving or developing more energy-efficient heaters.

Another challenge is the cost of the heat pump, which is relatively higher than a resistive heater. This makes it difficult for some manufacturers to include it as standard equipment in their cars. However, as the technology matures and economies of scale come into play, the cost is expected to come down.

At the time of writing, we could find heat pumps as optional add-ons on more premium trim levels. So be prepared to fork out anything between £600 and £1,200 for the privilege! Luckily most of the UK doesn't get as cold as North America, but it may be worth it if you live in Scotland.

What do people say about these heaters?

Tips to prolong the life of an EV heater

Like we mentioned above, heat pumps are a bit more complex and perhaps may be harder to fix, so there are few things one can do to make sure problems are avoided:

  • Turning off the heating when not needed can be a simple way of reducing its wear.
  • You should have your electric vehicle's heating system checked, and serviced, regularly to make sure it is operating efficiently.
  • Use your car app to remotely schedule the heating so you have more control over when its used.
  • Avoiding extreme temperatures (hot or cold) if possible by keeping the car in a garage or covered.
  • Overheating can cause damage to the electric car heater's components, so it's important to avoid this by not using the heater at high settings for extended periods of time.

Our conclusion

To sum up, electric car heaters are essential to the electric car ownership experience, especially for those living in colder climates. They provide a comfortable, energy-efficient, and cost-effective way to keep warm during the colder months. 

If you are thinking of switching to an EV, check some of the best electric cars you can subscribe to (without the long-term commitment). Or search for available vehicles today!

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