Space heaters can be useful when trying to stay warm throughout the colder seasons, but they come with many safety risks.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), portable space heaters are the cause of 1,700 residential fires per year, which result in approximately 80 deaths and 160 injuries annually. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) cites space heaters as the reason for the majority of residential fire-related deaths between 2016 and 2020.
It is important, then, that you know how to use your space heater wisely. Here are ten safety tips for just that:
1. Choose a Stable, Safe Position
The most important point is to set your space heater on a hard, even, and non-flammable surface.
Second, keep it on the ground and not in an elevated space, such as on a stool or bed. Heat rises, so a space heater on the floor provides heat to the areas higher up too.
Putting the heater on an even floor reduces the chances of it tipping over and causing a fire. Even though newer models have a safety shut-off feature that activates when tipped over, it will not hurt to be overly cautious.
Keep the heater off and away from combustible materials, such as rugs, blankets, a stack of magazines or newspapers, a book shelf, wicker basket and other burnable items.
It is not safe to put a space heater on a carpet or rug. A heater on carpet poses the same risk as when it is on a rug: the heat build-up can start a fire. This is especially true if the carpet is plush with a high nap. If the space heater sinks into the plush nap a little bit, the heating element might be on the same level – and super-hot nap will melt or catch fire depending on what material it’s made from.
Be safe! It is best to keep your heater on wood, laminate, vinyl, or tile.
2. Maintain the Three-Feet Rule
The CPSC came up with the three-feet rule, and it makes a lot of sense. The three-feet or 3-foot rule says to keep all flammable objects outside of a three-foot diameter (at least) from your space heater. These flammable objects include:
- Couches and other upholstered furniture
And while it may be tempting, never use your heater to warm up or dry clothing, towels, shoes, or anything that can burn once it is dry.
Our fire safety experts even recommend keeping your heater three feet from the wall it is plugged into, as the heater can damage it.
3. Never Leave It Unattended
It is never safe to leave a space heater unattended, as unexpected issues can occur. For instance, the heater can
- Get bumped by an animal or child and fall over – Yes, it will probably turn off because of the safety shut-off switch, but then you’ll lose the heat until it is set back up. Plus, the element might be hot enough at first to melt or damage whatever the heater falls face-first onto.
- Experience an electrical short and spark or catch fire. Remember, space heaters are a leading cause of house fires, so vigilance might be a life-saver.
- Overheat a room (which costs you extra money in bills).
It is also dangerous leaving an infant, a toddler, a person with disabilities, or a senior citizen alone with a space heater while it is in use. If you do, the person can develop hyperthermia (overheating), experiencing muscle cramps, dehydration, exhaustion, and/or heatstroke. In a worst-case scenario, the person can die. This is true for pets too!
Do not leave a space heater on overnight, either. It is best to stay awake when the heater is operating in case of emergency.
If you know you will be leaving the room or the house for an extended period of time, switch off and unplug your heater until you return.
4. Avoid Wet Areas
It may be obvious, but water and electricity do not mix well. The result can be electric shock or electrocution resulting in injury or death.
Keep your heating appliance away from water. Not only can water damage the appliance’s internal components, but a fire can start.
For this reason, it is best to avoid using your heater in any room where water is commonly found. This includes but is not limited to:
- The kitchen.
- The bathroom.
- The dining room.
- Laundry area.
5. Regularly Inspect, Clean and Maintain Your Space Heater
Depending on how often you use your heater, it will experience natural wear and tear. When this happens, you may notice your appliance overheating, fraying, or functioning less efficiently than usual.
You can do simply things to maintain your appliance’s lifespan, such as:
- Keeping its cords away from an animal’s reach. Many pets like to chew on things, and many space heater cords have been made a chew toy by rambunctious or bored pets.
- Ensuring its cords do not get pinched, crimped or crushed to the point that the housing covering the internal wiring is damaged.
Are you familiar with that hot, dusty smell when you start your space heater after it’s been off for a few weeks or longer? That’s dust on the element getting burned off.
You should clean off the appliance before using it if it has been out of use for weeks. A vacuum’s wand attachment is a good choice for the task.
As for the electrical components, space heaters should be professionally inspected at least once a year, but most HVAC professionals will tell you twice a year.
6. Keep Children and Pets Safe from a Space Heater
This has been mentioned but bears repeating. A large number of children and pets are burned each year by space heaters!
Keep your kids and pets away from space heaters at all times.
Accidents happen, especially when curiosity sets in. Therefore, it is better to avoid accidents by ensuring your kids and pets stay at least three feet from the heater. If needed, put a child gate or fence in front of or around the space heater.
We encourage this distance even if your specific model has safety features, like a cool-touch surface. Compared to adults, children are still at risk of serious burns when touching lower-temperature surfaces due to their thinner skin.
Do not use a space heater that is missing a guard over its heating component. The guard will make the heating component inaccessible from your children or animals, acting as an extra precaution on top of the three-feet rule. Fortunately, newer models tend to come with guards already on them, which means you should have plenty of brand options to choose from.
If you already have a space heater and do not plan on buying a new one, know that guards can be purchased separately that fit most space heaters.
7. Use the Outlet Safely – No Extension Cords!
Space heaters require a lot of energy to function. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), they use anything from 10,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) to 40,000 BTUs per hour.
The CPSC recommends that you use a wall outlet for your heater. The CPSC also recommends that you plug it directly into the outlet without any added layer of electrical resistance, such as a power strip, a surge protector, or an extension cord. The reason being, these extras are not designed to handle the amount of electrical current space heaters require. Instead, the resistance creates heat build-up, which increases the chances of overloading the heater.
8. Choose the Right Heater
Only use space heaters that have been tested and certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL).
Heaters with safety certifications are more reliable than non-certified heaters since they have the following safety features:
- A safety shut-off switch when tipping over.
- Different heat settings (Low, Medium, High, Echo).
- A built-in thermostat.
- A cool-touch exterior.
- An automated safety shut-off system.
According to the DOE, when considering a gas burning heater, the safest type of space heater is a sealed combustible heater, as it only uses outside air for the fuel-burning (combustion) process. This makes it more efficient than other types of space heaters, and its fuel-burning process restricts the gas burning to the outdoors, protecting your home’s indoor air quality.
The majority of space heaters purchased for use in homes are electric space heaters rather than gas or propane heaters. The safest type of space heater has the safety features listed above, especially a tip-over switch and an exterior that remains cool to the touch even when running.
Should I use a garage sale space heater? No, using a used space heater, especially an old one without safety features or a label showing it is UL-certified is not recommended.
9. Understand the Instructions
Read your space heater’s instructions manual. Using your heater may seem self-explanatory, but it is better to be safe than sorry. Different companies provide different kinds of warnings, depending on the heater’s type and model.
10. Use Smoke Detectors and a Carbon Monoxide Detector
Since space heaters have the risk of overheating and starting fires, it is imperative that you have a smoke detector and that it is up-to-date and working.
Test your smoke detector once a month to ensure it still works, and replace the batteries regularly. As the NFPA recommends replacing your smoke detector every 10 years, keep tabs on when your detector will expire. If the expiration date is getting close, it would be best for you to purchase a new smoke detector as soon as possible.
You should also have a carbon monoxide detector. Portable gas-fueled space heaters can emit carbon monoxide in poorly ventilated—or unventilated—rooms.
How Long Can You Run a Space Heater?
There is no specific amount of time you can leave a space heater on without potential risks. A space heater can have issues five minutes after being turned on, or after five hours, or it may have no issues at all.
The key is making sure you take the proper precautions to reduce risk and injury, such as only having the heater on when you are in the room and awake.
How long does it take a space heater to heat a room?
Consumer Reports found that the highest-rated models can warm up an average-sized room (approximately 200 square feet) in about 15 minutes.
However, this answer can change depends on a few factors:
- What type of space heater are you using? Infrared and electric heaters, for example, are the two fastest types on the market. Gas and oil heaters, on the other hand, take the longest to heat up.
- How big is your space heater? The larger the space heater, the more area it can heat up.
- How big is the room in question? Depending on your space heater’s size, it may not be able to heat up a large room as quickly as it would a smaller room.
- How many people are in the room? The more people you have in a room, the warmer a room gets naturally. This means you will not have to set your heater on a high setting.
Can I leave a space heater on overnight?
No, it is unsafe to leave a space heater on while sleeping. Even with new safety features built into space heaters today, it is better to have your heater on only when you are awake so that you can be ready if something dangerous occurs.
Can you plug a space heater into an extension cord?
No, you should never use an extension cord with your space heater. Extension cords add an extra layer of heat resistance, which can overtax the heater, causing a fire.