Space heaters: safety vs. convenience

With the hustle and bustle of the holidays just ending, we’ll do just about anything to make things easier on ourselves. The convenience of electric space heaters are great, but don’t forget about all of the safety precautions you may have overlooked. 

“Heating equipment is the second leading cause of home fires in the United States,” said John Gasstrom, CEO at Indiana Electric Cooperatives. “We want to remind consumers safety should always be a top consideration when using electric space heaters.”

When bringing your electric space heater out for the winter, here are a few quick reminders that could ensure those in your home stay safe.

  • Check that your space heater has a label showing it is recognized by a testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
  • Inspect heaters for cracked or broken plugs or loose connections before each use. 
  • Plug space heaters directly into a wall outlet. Never use an extension cord or plug any other devices into the same outlet to avoid overheating. That could start a fire.

While there is no risk for carbon monoxide poisoning with an electric space heater, it holds many other safety hazards if not used properly. One mistake homeowners make when using space heaters is placing them near combustibles. Keep them at least 3 feet away from anything that could possibly burn, like curtains, beds or a rug. In accordance with fire safety, install smoke alarms on every floor of your home and outside all sleeping areas. If you already have them, be sure to test them once a month to be sure they’re working properly.

Remember, an electric space heater is a temporary option when looking for supplemental heat. Many homeowners may use this option to heat specific rooms while they sleep, but this is unsafe. When you’re leaving a room or going to sleep, it is important to turn off your electric space heater. If you’re leaving it unattended, it could overheat or fall. A child could also play too close to it and get hurt. 

Place space heaters out of high traffic areas and doorways where they may be tripping hazards. And when not in use, always unplug and safely store the heater.

Tips for safe selection and use of electric space heaters

  • Use only portable space heaters that have an automatic “tip-switch,” which will cause it to turn off automatically if the heater is tipped over or not upright.
  • Make sure it has a guard around the flame area or heating element.
  • Place the heater on a level, hard, nonflammable surface; do not place on rugs or carpets, near bedding or drapes, or on tables or countertops.
  • Keep the heater at least 3 feet from bedding, drapes, furniture or other flammable items.
  • Turn the space heater off if you leave the room, and never leave a space heater on while sleeping or if you leave home.
  • Keep children and pets away from space heaters.

Terms to remember about your electric space heater

  • Volts: a measure of electrical current flow. The higher the voltage, the more current will flow. Most household electrical current powering the TV, radio, lighting and appliances, for example, operates at 110-120 volts. Heavy-duty appliances, such as electric ranges, clothes dryers and air conditioners, may require 220 volts. Most electric space heaters are designed and labeled to operate at 110-115 volts and are plugged into a wall outlet.
  • Watts: the measure of energy conversion. The number of watts consumed is reported on your electric bill. Think of a lightbulb — the higher the wattage, the brighter the light. The wattage delivered by space heaters relates directly to the amount of heat it can deliver. 
  • BTUs: short for British Thermal Unit, a basic measure of thermal (heat) energy. When looking at space heaters, keep in mind that even the smallest units can produce 10,000 BTUs or more.
  • Amperage: the amount of electrical energy flowing through a space heater or any other appliance at any given time (also called current). 
  • Convection heaters: type of space heater that is often selected when you want to heat a larger area occupied by several people.
  • Radiant heaters: type of space heater that transfers heat to individuals or objects when it is not necessary to heat an entire area.