Electric Space Heater Safety Tips
With winter now here, your house’s heating systems are coming into full-time use. Hopefully you’ve had your furnace or heat pump system inspected this year. But this is also the time to bring out any electric space heaters you plan on using.
These devices can be helpful in a lot of situations, especially as backup heating for any unforeseen problems with your main system. But they also come with risks. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that space heaters cause 44% of home heating fires and 86% of the associated deaths, totaling about 23,773 fires and 412 deaths from 2011-15.
It’s always safest just to stick to your main heating system and have it regularly serviced, but since you may sometimes have no choice but electric space heaters, here are some safety tips that will lower your risk if you follow them.
Make sure it’s certified
Buy a heater approved by certifying company, like Underwriters Laboratories. They are one of the most recognized electrical safety certification companies in the country. Their sticker shows a “UL” inside a circle. If possible, get one with some kind of auto-shutoff feature, in case it falls down.
Check the wiring
Be sure the unit is plugged securely into the wall. If it hangs in there loosely, it could be a hazard. Be aware that electric hears draw so much power that you shouldn’t plug anything else into the same socket, and trying to run any other appliances on that whole circuit might trip the breaker. Most household circuits are limited to 15 amps, and your heater is probably using up 12.5 of that limit, which is on the high end for appliances.
Make sure the power cord is serviceable. Any fraying or breaking of the rubber insulation is dangerous as it could lead to sparks. While the unit is running, check to see if the power cord or wall outlet is warm to the touch. That could be a sign of an unsafe electrical load somewhere, even if the circuit breaker isn’t tripping. Try not to use with extension cords, and use the shortest and most heavy duty cords if you need to at all.
Cords can be a tripping hazard. Keep them out of the way, and don’t run them across passages unless you have a cord protector. Cords can also overheat, so don’t run them under carpets, or any furniture that will not let air circulate around them.
Use in a safe environment
Don’t use space heaters anywhere there is likely to be standing water, dripping water, or higher than usual humidity, including bathrooms and laundry rooms. Don’t hang wet things over a space heater, and don’t touch the unit with wet hands.
The NFPA estimated that keeping combustible materials like curtains and upholstered furniture near a space heater accounted for 53% of home heating fire deaths. Keep your space heater clear of all these things, and monitor it during use for the appearance or smell of smoke.
Put the heater on a solid and level surface like a floor. Avoid anywhere it might be knocked over, like tables, chairs, or counters.
Don’t leave it running unsupervised. If there is no one there to detect smells or sparks, a fire could get out of manageable size before anyone even notices it. For the same reason you should shut it off when you sleep. Only run it in a room with working smoke detectors.
Make sure everyone in your home knows about the space heater and the safety rules we’ve covered.
Most of these rules are similar to what you would follow with electrical appliances in general, but the space heater is different because it draws more power than most appliances other than a toaster or an iron. But unlike those, a heater operates for extended periods and therefore needs even more than the usual care to keep safe.