Whether your space heater runs on gas or electricity, it houses an element somewhere in its housing that gets hot enough to start a fire, and that's a good reason to avoid leaving it on at night. A typical electric heater draws 1,500 watts of electricity, and that much electricity heats the wires through which it flows. If you have older wiring that can't handle the heat, a fire could start behind the walls, and you may be none the wiser until it's too late. Even if you have good wiring, or you use gas heaters, you should turn off the heaters at night to prevent a fire if one should be overturned by accident.
Space Heaters Cause Fires
The National Fire Protection Association cites an alarming statistic: While space heaters are involved in only 32 percent of home heating fires, they are involved in 79 percent of home heating fire deaths. In addition, the Harvard University Environmental Health & Safety Group reports that space heaters are involved in 25,000 residential fires every year. Half of all space heater fires start because something gets too close to the heater and ignites. In addition, older units without safety shutoff devices can start a fire if they tip over, and energy-hungry electric heaters can overheat old wiring improperly protected by out-of-date breakers or fuses. If a fire starts while you're asleep, you may wake to find your escape route blocked.
Guard Against Carbon Monoxide
Owners of conventional and catalytic gas heaters need to be concerned about carbon monoxide, which is released as a result of incomplete combustion and circulates in the house because of faulty venting. Carbon monoxide is odorless, and by the time the levels are high enough to set off the alarm, you may have already inhaled a harmful dose, especially if you operate the heater in your bedroom. This is one reason why the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission joins the NFPA and Lasko, a leading manufacturer of space heaters, in warning against running any type of space heater at night while you're sleeping.
Space Heater Safety
Space heaters -- especially newer ones -- are designed for safety, but no design can completely protect against unforeseen accidents. To keep yourself and your family safe, observe the following safety guidelines:
- Install smoke alarms throughout the house, and clean the sensors regularly with compressed air. Never run propane, natural gas or catalytic heaters unless you have working carbon monoxide detectors.
- Plug your electric heaters directly into the wall, and don't rely on extension cords, which can overheat.
- Place free-standing heaters on the floor -- never on a table or chair from which it can tumble. Even if it shuts off, the element is still hot and can ignite anything with which it comes in contact.
- Keep forced air, radiant and gas heaters at least 3 feet away from flammable materials, including the walls. Oil heaters and those with infrared bulbs can be placed within a foot of the walls, but never allow them to be in direct contact with anything other than the surface on which they stand.
- Inspect any electric heater for damage if it trips the circuit breaker or a ground-fault circuit interrupter outlet. Don't automatically suspect a faulty breaker or outlet.