Space heaters – whether portable or stationary – accounted for two of every five (40%) home heating fires and 4 of 5 (84%) home heating fire deaths. (National Fire Protection Association, based on 2009-2013 annual averages.)
Do not let your space heater’s cozy comfort become a devastating disaster.
Heating-related fires most often occur in December, January, and February. Simple space heater use precautions include keeping the heater at a safe distance from other objects, plugging the heater directly into an electrical outlet and turning the heater off while you are sleeping.
“Space heaters are intended for use as short-term zone heating,” Lisa Braxton, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), says. “Today’s space heaters have important safety features that weren’t often found in older heaters. However, any heater can be unsafe if it isn’t used properly.”
One space heater safety issue is placing the heater too close to combustible materials. Beds, household furnishings, clothing, etc. all pose a fire hazard if they are within three feet of a space heater.
“NFPA recommends keeping a three-foot zone of safety around the heater,” Braxton says. “Anything that could burn should be outside that three-foot zone. Curtains, bedding and any furniture are among common combustible materials typically in areas where space heaters are used.”
Extension cords are another critical safety hazard related to space heater use. When extension cords are used continuously, they can deteriorate rapidly, increasing the risk of electric shock or fire hazard. With items such as space heaters, overload is often a safety issue.
“Using extension cords with space heaters just isn’t advisable,” Braxton says. “Most extension cords easily overheat with the volume of electrical power space heaters require. There’s a real risk that the person using the heater can fall asleep while the heater is running and not even realize that the extension cord is failing.”
Space heaters should always be plugged directly into an electrical outlet. When the heater is running, no other electrical appliance or device should be plugged into that receptacle.
Selected electrical outlets should be inspected to ensure they are in good condition. Outlets should not be loose or have cracked or broken plates. If sparks fly when a heater is plugged in, that receptacle should not be used.
“It’s also important to make sure the space heater cord isn’t on a walkway where there’s a risk that adults or children will trip over it,” Braxton says. “Make sure there are no chairs near the cord that could accidentally roll over or rest on top of the cord, causing a fire hazard.”
Cords should never be placed under carpeting, rugs, or any fabric. Keep liquids well away from both the cord and the heater. Never touch a heater if you are wet.
Space heaters must be set on a level, stable surface, so they are not easily tipped over. Children should never be allowed to adjust heater controls or move the heater.
When selecting a space heater, consumers are advised to purchase a heater that features temperature controls, a feature that helps reduce fire risk in some ways.
“Always reduce the space heater temperature when you’re out of the room and turn space heaters off when you go to bed,” Braxton says. “Don’t use an old space heater and don’t purchase a heater on a yard sale because you’ll have no idea how long it’s been used or how safe it is. Buy a heater with modern safety features from a reputable retail establishment.”
Nationally recognized testing laboratories test space heater models to verify their quality. Reputable models will have a testing lab tag verifying their safety features. Among those labs are Applied Research Laboratories, Inc. (ARL), Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), and Wyle Laboratories, Inc. (WL).
“When you’re buying a new space heater, you might consider visiting with the retailer to obtain some guidance about a recommended heater for your specific space,” Braxton says. “The retailer should be able to provide information about the level of heat you need and provide some insight into safety features such as automatic shutoff when a space heater’s internal heat levels are unsafe.”
Functioning smoke alarms are another key safety element for the use of space heaters. The alarms can quickly alert the household of any smoke or flames.
“Smoke alarms should be installed on every level of a home,” Braxton says. “A smoke alarm should be located inside each bedroom and outside each separate sleeping area, as well as in the basement.”
Homeowners will find electrical safety information and tip sheets at www.nfpa.org/education.
• Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from heating equipment, such as the furnace, fireplace, wood stove or portable heater.
• Have a three-foot “kid-free zone” around open fires and space heaters.
• Never use your oven to heat your home.
• Have a qualified professional install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters or central heating equipment according to the local codes and manufacturer’s instructions.
• Have heating equipment and chimneys cleaned and inspected every year by a qualified professional.
• Remember to turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed.
• Always use the right kind of fuel, specified by the manufacturer, for fuel burning space heaters.
• Make sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to stop sparks from flying into the room. Ashes should be cool before putting them in a metal container. Keep the container a safe distance away from your home.
• All fuel-burning equipment should be vented outside to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
• Test smoke alarms at least once each month.
• Install and maintain carbon monoxide alarms to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
(Source: National Fire Protection Association, Public Education Division, Quincy, MA)