Heating equipment is the second most common cause of home fires, and 81 percent of home heating fire deaths are due to space heaters, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Aside from being a potential fire hazard, if your heating element uses propane, kerosene, or natural gas, you face additional risks associated with exposure to excess carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide — all of which can cause serious health problems and even death.
But, you don't need to scrap your space heater — just keep these safety items in mind so you can keep your family safe. By avoiding these space heater mistakes, you can enjoy the convenient and cozy heat provided by a space heater without putting your home, property, or everyone in your household in danger.
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1. Leaving the Device Unattended
One of the most common mistakes people make with their space heaters is to leave the device on while they sleep or when they leave the room. To stay safe, only use your space heater while you are wide awake and within view of the device so you can immediately notice and take action if the unit begins to overheat, short circuit, or if it gets knocked over. Even if you only leave the room for a few minutes, shut it off and then turn it back on when you come back. If you like going to sleep in a warm bedroom, heat up your room before you go to bed and shut off the power before you climb under the blankets.
Even if you're cautious about never leaving the device unattended, you should still ensure you have working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in every bedroom and in the kitchen of your home before using a space heater. Also, double check the batteries on your carbon monoxide and smoke alarms at least once a month.
2. Letting Kids or Pets Get Too Close
Kids and pets are often intrigued by the warmth and glow of space heaters, but while they may enjoy the toasty feeling they get near the device, a space heater can present a serious danger to little ones and critters. Not only could children or pets get hurt by making direct contact with a space heater's heating element but they could also knock it over and cause a fire.
For these reasons, it's best to either leave your space heater locked within an enclosed area, like within a baby gate — or avoid its use around them entirely.
3. Using Gas-Powered Heaters Indoors
Gas- and kerosene-powered portable space heaters are convenient (especially because they don't require finding a suitable power plug), but since these types of convection heaters emit dangerous gases, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide, these are generally best used outside because there is no easy way to ventilate these emissions.
If you're in an emergency situation and do need to rely on the use of a kerosene-powered or combustible-gas-powered space heater for heat, be sure to carefully follow the owner's manual to properly ventilate your home to avoid dangerous exposure to these gases and only run the device in an area with a properly operating carbon monoxide detector. When using a kerosene- or gas-powered heater, always be on the lookout for signs of carbon monoxide exposure, which include headaches, coughing, and excessive tiredness.
4. Not Properly Positioning a Space Heater
First, you should never place a space heater on furniture, including tables, dressers, night stands, or desks. While this may seem like a good way to keep it out of your kid's reach, if the unit falls down it could cause burn injuries to anyone it touches, or it could even start a house fire.
While you should always place the space heater on the ground, only place it on flat, hard-surface flooring, such as wood, laminate, vinyl, or tile and not on a carpet or rug. Unfortunately, fabric-based flooring, like rugs and carpets, trap heat and can catch fire if it gets hot enough.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when placing your space heater is that your space heater needs, well, space. The majority of fires caused by space heaters are a result of flammable items being placed too closely to the space heater. This means clothing, curtains, upholstered furniture, bedding, and other flammable materials, such as paper, should all be at least 3 feet away from the space heater at all times. Never leave these items hanging above your space heater where they could fall down and catch fire, and never use a space heater to dry or warm your clothing or shoes.
Finally, avoid placing the space heater at the main exit of a room. If something bad does happen and you do need to leave the room in a hurry, you don't want a dangerously hot piece of machinery sitting in the middle of your escape route. Place your space heater a few feet away from the doorway.
5. Using an Extension Cord
Portable electric heaters use a lot of power and need to be plugged directly into a wall. However, it's important to never plug one of these devices into an extension cord or power strip because the high power demand can cause overloading or overheating, which can cause a fire. For the same reason, you should avoid plugging anything else into the same wall outlet while your space heater is running.
6. Leaving the Cord Under a Rug
A lot of people end up having to place their electric space heater across the room from the outlet where it is plugged in, which can cause a tripping hazard, but this is far less dangerous than the fire hazard created by trying to reduce trips by covering the cord with a rug. When people regularly walk on a cord hidden under a rug, it can result in fraying or crimping to the cord, which can cause heat or sparks that can quickly turn into a fire thanks to the heat-trapping, flammable rug above.
7. Using Old or Damaged Space Heaters
On that note, before using any electric space heater, always check the cord and plug for damage. A fray or crack in the protective plastic or a plug that doesn't fit snugly in the outlet is a fire hazard.
You should also ensure any space heater you use has proper certification. This means it should bear a certification on the packaging stating that it has been approved by either Underwriters Laboratories or Intertek. These two agencies test home electronics to verify they are as safe as possible, and with the high fire risk associated with space heaters, it is critical that any device you use is certified.
Avoid using space heaters more than 10 years old since these lack the safety features that are standard on modern models. This includes an automatic shutoff feature that will turn off the device if it becomes too hot, is knocked over, or is left on too long.
8. Using Space Heaters in Bathrooms
There are a handful of space heaters specifically designed for use in humid environments, and these are safe for use in bathrooms, but the overwhelming majority of these devices are simply not made to be used in an area with high humidity, so no matter how nice it sounds to step out of your steamy shower or hot bath and into a toasty room heated up by your space heater, don't do it (unless you bought one of those special, rare, bathroom-friendly models).