Are Electric Space Heaters Safe?
With winter on its way and the hunt for potential heaters to ward off the cold begins, a very understandable question is, "Are electric space heaters safe?"
The short answer is, "Yes!"
But that does not do very much to assuage concerns potential shoppers may have. When compared to other heating methods, yes, they can be quite safe. Informed and responsible owners can greatly reduce the general risks associated with heating appliances.
There are two different fronts in which electrical heaters can compete for safety: installed home heating and other varieties of space heater.
Let us address the former first. Installed home heating covers things like central heating and fireplaces and each of these has its own sets of risks.
A Greek study from 1996-8 on central heating shows that of approximately 22,400 cases in which children sustained indoor injuries, about 2.4% were the result of central heating. 63% were caused to children under the age of 5, most being head related such as bumps and scratches. In that study, only 8 total cases were caused by burns.
According to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission study from 2005-8, on average of about 386,000 residential fires, central heating units alone caused an average of 1,100. When radiators, water heaters and even air conditioning units are combined, an average of 3,600 fires could be linked to them. Compare that to fixed and portable electric space heaters which caused a combined average of 4,000 fires. When it comes to central heating, electric space heaters are comparably safe.
However, injuries are more likely to occur with electric space heaters because they are more accessible, especially portable units. Electrical related injures averaged nearly 3,000 a year where central heating accounted for only 10. Fixed and portable heater injuries were much higher, over 300. Burns and shocks are the most common, usually by children who play with or around exposed heating elements and wires. Poor home wiring or even tampering with caused the most shocks in adults, especially if one decides to modify the cord himself.
Fireplaces have a much larger set of risks because they have far more variables, such as fuel source, health complications, ventilation and others. Fireplaces essentially are controlled fires. This may seem like an obvious statement but it is true. Controlled fires and easily and quickly become uncontrolled.
The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that in rural areas 36% of residential home fires are heating related often as a result of creosote buildup in chimneys and stovepipes. If we use the same study from the USCPSC, of the 386,000 home fires nearly half of heating equipment related fires were caused by fireplaces, chimneys and chimney connectors causing an average $128 million in damages. It is quite common for embers to ignite nearby substances like carpet or drapes, drafts coming down the chimney can blow fire and sparks into a room, if surfaces contact a stovepipes they can quickly burn.
Indoor air pollution is also big risk as it is often invisible or barely noticeable. Another USCPSC 2003-4 study Another USCPSC 2003-4 study has annual estimates from 1999-2004 that attribute 865 deaths yearly to carbon monoxide poisoning. Fuel burning heating systems accounted for 450 or over half of all related deaths. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of burning organic compounds such as wood and natural gas. If a fireplace or stove is not venting properly, that poisonous gas can remain indoors where it is colorless, tasteless and odorless.
Comparing fireplaces to electric space heaters in terms of home fires and indoor air pollution, electric space heaters are far safer especially as they cannot produce carbon monoxide and there is no risk of poisoning.
However, death was up to 5 times more likely to occur with electric space heaters (100 deaths annually) than with fireplaces and central heating together. This is primarily due to individuals leaving heaters on while they sleep which makes a very strong recipe for disaster. The good news is that tobacco products average 600 deaths annually, 3 times more than all heating related deaths combined.
Non-electric Space Heaters
When compared to other, non-electric space heaters for residential settings, electric heaters are some of the safest choices. Electrical figure break-downs are harder to find, but even on a strictly design-based comparison, electric units come out on top.
U.K.'s Mersey Fire has statistics from 1994-7 showing that, per million households, of heating related fires 38% were caused by electric heaters usually because flammable materials were too close.Many electric space heaters such as infrared, reflective or ceramic do not expose their heating elements. Most of elements are enclosed or protected by grates, making casual contact injuries such as burns far less likely. But, when non-electric units are brought into the picture other potential risks emerge. Oil-filled or radiator-style heaters have exposed elements where contact injuries are much more likely to occur. Children especially can fit hands and the like between fins and grills of these units and touch very hot surfaces. Gas or kerosene space and patio heaters behave much like fireplaces as they too use open flames with similar chances of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Basic Space Heater Safety
To best protect ones self from electric space heater operator error injuries and fires, here is a some advice.
- Do not cover the heater's power cord as it can damage the cord causing it or nearby objects to burn.
- Don't leave them unattended! Some units may have safety features like a tip sensor that will automatically shut it off if they are knocked over. However, those mechanisms will not replace human intervention and response to prevent a fire.
- Ensure proper clearance, at least 3 feet. Drapes, blankets, carpet, bedding, etc. can all ignite if they are too close to the heater.
- Don't use extension cords or surge protectors. Don't modify the factory installed power source. Check to make sure that the outlet used does not heat up during use. If it does, call an electrician to check for a possibly faulty outlet.
- Warn children never to insert fingers or objects through protective guards because they risk shock as well as burns. It is also important to not leave children unsupervised with electric heaters that have exposed heating surfaces like oil-filled radiators.