Fire Departments around the country roll out a similar message each year as the cold weather arrives and lingers: Use greater fire safety caution with home heating equipment. Nashville’s Fire Department notes that you should never use an oven to heat the home, keep flammables away from heat sources and get your chimney inspected each year. And rising to the top of their list of hazards: “Portable heaters can be particularly dangerous.” Using a space heater should be coupled with essential fire prevention safety practices.
Space Heaters Do Catch On Fire
The US Department of Energy records about 25,000 house fires every year that are linked to space heater use. Many result in trips to the emergency room, with more than 300 fatalities each year. Property damage from these fires can be devastating, requiring extensive professional fire damage restoration.
The Risk of Electric Shock with Space Heaters
When used correctly, electric shock hazards associated with space heaters are greatly diminished. But when you’re in an environment with water or moisture buildup (like a bathroom), the potential for electric shock increases.
Electrical safety should be promoted where children are present so they firmly understand, “never put a fork or other metal near that.” And where too much power is demanded from an outlet, or worse, a power strip, the potential for a surge, spark, smoking, burns, electric shock and fires get elevated.
How Space Heater Fires Begin
The most common reasons space heater fires get started include:
- Flammables like curtains or blankets were too close to the portable heating unit and caught fire
- The Space Heater did not have a Safety Auto Shut Off function and malfunctioned when left on too long OR the unit tipped over and then ignited the floor or nearby flammable materials.
- The heater was plugged into a power strip that a) melted, causing a live wire to touch carpet and ignite it, b) overloaded the circuits, sparked and lit a fire, c) was used in a wet area, sparked and caused a fire
- The space heater was not properly maintained and developed worn, faulty or torn wires that resulted in a spark and fire.
Best Safety Practices for Electric Space Heaters
Put safety first with space heater use. Implement the following safety plan to better prevent fire hazards:
Choose the Correct Size for Your Space
“Do not purchase oversized heaters.” That’s the warning from the US Department of Energy. Large, powerful heaters used for smaller spaces increase fire risk. The general rule for sizing heating equipment: for about every 200 square feet of well-insulated property, you’ll need about 4,000 BTUs (approx. 1,200 Watts) of power in your system. You may require more electrical power for poorly insulated spaces.
Read the Manual and Warning Labels – They Matter
Read the safety labels on your portable space heater. It should provide specifics to that unit. It’s also important to verify that the equipment has undergone and passed an inspection process, often citing a testing lab.
Use Cables, Cords & Outlets Properly – No Shortcuts
Pay attention to safety features and how you are using cords, plugs and outlets:
- Inspect the plugs and cords for damage – Especially important for the first use each season of new or refurbished space heaters. Be on the lookout for damaged or worn materials – which are flammable and combustible. Make sure there is a firm connection to the unit without any fraying.
- Plug space heaters directly into the wall – In other words, avoid power strips and extension cords. That’s because most extension cords and strips are not designed to take on the amount of electricity demanded by portable heaters. The Missouri Office of the State Fire Marshall adds, “If an extension cord is necessary, use the shortest possible heavy-duty cord of 14-gauge wire or larger.”
- Smart Plugs Are Not Equipped to Handle Space Heaters, Yet – While they do provide a great way to schedule power off functions or remote use to power off when you forget, most Smart Plugs are not yet recommended for use with space heaters.
- Choose a Dedicated Outlet – Many manufacturers recommend not plugging any other electrical devices into the same outlet as the space heater. Just dedicate that one outlet to space heater use only.
- Don’t bury cords under rugs – It may be convenient to run that cord under a carpet, but these areas quickly build heat.
- Unplug the unit when not in use – Space heaters should not run overnight and should not be left on when the room is vacant. Take time to unplug the power cord after each use — a small habit that could prevent fire.
“To prevent the risk of fire, NEVER leave a space heater on when you go to sleep or place a space heater close to any sleeping person. Turn the space heater off if you leave the area.” – US Consumer Product Safety Commission
Use The Portable Heater in a Safe Location
Choosing a safe location to operate the space heater means paying attention to surrounding objects, traffic and water hazards. Here are some location tips to keep in mind:
- Avoid wet or typically humid spaces like bathrooms or areas where flammable and combustible liquids may be
- Aim for a distance of at least three feet from any space heater (or other heat source) for curtains, blankets, books, papers and anything else that can burn. Even walls can get too hot, so give that space heater some room to work
- Space heaters belong on flat surfaces that are level, so avoid tables, furniture, carpet and rugs and aim for concrete, tile or hardwood floors.
- Be sure to never block doorways or escape routes and avoid high traffic areas where they may pose a tripping hazard
- Pets and children should always be supervised around space heaters and not left attended
Remember that portable heaters are only intended to provide heat to a specific area. They should never be used to dry clothing or other tasks for which they were not designed.
Use Space Heaters Sparingly – Not for the Entire Season
Space heaters perform a valuable service, but were not designed to operate for long periods of time. Doing so increases the risks of overheating and short circuiting. If you’re continuing to use portable heaters to do the job that really should be accomplished by a reliable HVAC system, it’s probably time to consider alternatives to space heaters that provide warmth to targeted areas within your home.
Oil and Gas Space Heater Safety
If you’re not plugging in your space heater in a wall outlet and using electricity, pay close attention to portable heaters that use oil, kerosene or gas. When not used properly, or when they potentially malfunction, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning increases.
Protect yourself, family and pets from home fires by using regularly tested smoke alarms and carbon monoxide monitoring systems. These save your properties and lives.
Learn more about preventing electrical fires in your home.