Full Disclosure: I've played through New Home, Ark and Refugees on Normal difficulty. But, I'm trying to prepare for the transition to Hard and eventually Extreme difficulty. I know that research takes a lot longer on higher difficulties, so I've been trying to figure out which techs I can live without. I have not completed Hard or Extreme, so maybe my understanding of the game and scenarios is incorrect.
From guides I've read and videos I've watched it seems like a lot of people use Heaters. I've typically used it a lot as well, but I just finished up Arks without touching Heaters at all, and instead just used Steam Hubs. After considering the math behind it, I think that Steam Hubs are significantly better than Heaters, and Heaters should only be used when you need to survive colder temperatures than what a power maxed generator can survive.
Heaters use 1 coal per building per hour per heat level, and each heat level requires research time/resources. Steam Hubs use 3 coal per hour per heat level, and the heat level matches what the generator is set to (no additional research needed). As a critical difference, Steam Hubs can heat housing, while Heaters cannot. You could also build a "work-district" Steam Hub that would only turn on during work hours to get the overnight coal savings from not running 24/7. Also, Steam Hubs create a radius of heat, so any workers passing through it, or building structures in it aren't exposed to cold. While you can't set a different heat level than the generator, temperatures rise and fall globally, so you're generally looking to adjust all of your buildings by the same heat level.
As long as you are able to get 3 buildings within the Steam Hubs reach, you are getting the same efficiency as Heaters within those buildings, and if you pack more than 3 buildings then you are getting better efficiency than heaters (which isn't particularly hard to do). The upgraded range doubles usage, so you'd have to pack in more than 6 buildings (which still isn't very difficult to do). You could live without doubling the range by building more Steam Hubs (which would just cost more metal). The Steam Hub efficiency upgrade is comparable to the Heater efficiency (and you might not need it if you have a robust coal economy).
In Arks where you need to heat 4 distant buildings, steam hubs also provide more locations for Automaton's to recharge, reducing the time they spend away from the job. Heaters might reduce the coal consumption, but steam hubs give you locations to build your buildings once the first ring of the generator is full, so I'd only use Heaters to optimize my coal usage once my economy is established, and my research is about optimizing not surviving.
Steam Hubs are reliant on the Generator Power increases being researched, but I don't know of any situations where researching housing and workplace insulation upgrades is going to be more efficient than being able to use the next generator level.
Are there scenarios I'm not considering where Steam Hubs aren't a superior choice to Heaters (and my question is more targeted at higher difficulties where you really have to reduce the total number of technologies you can spend time researching).
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