How to Choose the Safest Space Heater and Avoid the Risk of Fires
Space heaters, when operated properly, are a safe, low-risk way to provide supplementary heat to your home and reduce your winter heating costs. Only 2% of the residential heating fires that occur in the U.S. annually are the result of portable space heaters - just about 900 fires each year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
But don't let such low numbers lull you into a sense of false sense of security - even a small risk isn't worth taking. If you want to avoid becoming a statistic (and tragic headline on the evening news) take the time to learn how to find the safest space heater available, and follow all the safety guidelines to protect your home, your family and yourself from the threat of fire.
How to Find a Safe Space Heater
Are certain types of space heaters safer than others? Most certainly. Electric space heaters, in particular, have far less risk of fire than gas-fueled heaters, because there is no open flame or pilot light providing heat.
But even among electric heaters, some types provide more natural safety protection than others. In particular, you should look for space heaters that don't have exposed heating elements - metal coils or bulbs that glow when heated. Instead, think about heaters where the heating element is removed from direct exposure, such as:
- Oil-filled heaters - An enclosed heating element warms special heat-conserving oil which radiates heat through coiled fins
- Hydronic heaters - Like oil-filled heaters, these self-contained units use heated water to warm the air
- Ceramic heaters - The metal heating coils are encased in ceramic material, so there's less chance of contact injuries or fires
If you do choose a space heater with an exposed heating element or coil, make sure it has a secure covering of mesh screening it, to prevent small objects (including fingers) from coming in direct contact.
Another class of safe space heaters is the wall heater. Because these are installed on a wall, they avoid many of the risks of portable space heaters that sit on the ground - they can't get knocked over, they can't have things dropped on them, and they're out-of-reach for small children and pets. This makes them a great alternative for preventing space heater fires and injuries.
Necessary Space Heater Safety Features
Whatever kind of portable heater you decide to buy, there are certain, built-in features you should look for to ensure the safest operation. These include:
- Size and shape - A low, sturdily-built unit with a wide base will be less likely to fall over than a tall, thin unit.
- Tilt switch - Almost all portable space heaters today feature a tilt-switch, a safety device that turns off the unit in case it gets knocked over.
- Overheat protection - Many heaters now feature built-in thermostats that monitor the temperature. Make sure yours has an automatic shut-off in case the unit gets too hot and starts to overheat.
- Cool-touch surfaces - Look for a heater that has a cool-touch exterior to protect against contact burns. This is especially important if you have small children or pets.
Space Heater Safety Tips
The most common causes of space heater fires are:
In order to avoid these problems, take the following safety precautions:
- Choose a space heater certified by Underwriters Laboratory, Inc. (look for the UL mark on the label) or another Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory.
- Buy an appropriately sized heater for the space you are heating. A too-powerful heater can cause the room temperature to raise too high and cause the heater to overheat.
- Make sure the electric outlet matches the current and amps needed by the heater (see the manual for specific requirements).
- Make sure there is plenty of clearance around the heater, usually about a foot on each side to allow proper air circulation.
- Keep your space heater on a hard, flat surface to avoid risk of tipping.
- Try to avoid using an extension cord. If you must use one, make sure it is properly rated to handle the electric current demanded by your heater (check the manual for specifications) or it could melt the plug and cause a fire.
- Keep curtains, drapes and other hanging items clear to avoid contact fires.
- Never drape clothing - wet socks or mittens, for example???on your heater to dry them.
- Always supervise kids and pets when a heater is operating.
- Let the heater cool for at least 30 minutes before packing it away.
Here's one last important safety tip for your space heater: watch out for product recalls. Even if you follow all the safety guidelines to the letter, a manufacturing defect can result in tragic consequences. You can sign up for recall alerts with the Consumer Product Safety Commission.