Space Heater Safety (2021)

Oct 15, 2021

With temperatures starting to drop in the evenings, I find myself using a space heater while I watch TV.  I don’t need to keep my entire home toasty, but I do like to have my living room or office comfortably warm while I’m using the room.  So, a space heater makes sense for me.

Safety is a top consideration when using space heaters. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with the use of space heaters, resulting in more than 300 deaths. In addition, an estimated 6,000 people receive hospital emergency room care for burn injuries associated with contacting the hot surfaces of room heaters, mostly in non-fire situations.

Electric space heaters can more expensive to operate than combustion space heaters, but they are the only unvented space heaters that are safe to operate inside your home. Although electric space heaters avoid indoor air quality concerns, they still pose burn and fire hazards and should be used with caution.

When buying an electric space heater, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends the following:

  • Only purchase newer model heaters that have all of the current safety features. Make sure the heater carries the Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) label.
  • A smart sensor that automatically shuts off a heater when it overheats is a must. You’ll also want a tip-over switch that does the same if the heater is knocked over.
  • Choose a thermostatically controlled heater, because they avoid the energy waste of overheating a room.
  • Select a heater of the proper size for the room you wish to heat. Do not purchase oversized heaters. Most heaters come with a general sizing table.

Having a safe model of heater is only half of the question of safety.  Proper placement and usage of a space heater is also critical.  The National Fire Protection Association offers the following safety tips:

  • Before using any space heater, read the manufacturer’s instructions and warning labels carefully.
  • Place the heater on a hard, level, and nonflammable surface. Space heaters are intended to sit on the floor, not on a table.
  • Establish a 3-foot kid- and pet-free zone around the heater, and never put a space heater in a child’s room.
  • Keep the space heater at least 3 feet away from combustible materials, such as furniture, bedding, and curtains.
  • Space heaters should not be used to dry clothing. 
  • Don’t use a heater in a workshop or garage near paint, gas cans, or matches.
  • Turn it off when you leave the room or go to bed.
  • Always unplug the heater when it’s not in use by pulling the plug straight from the outlet. Check the cord for damage periodically, and don’t use the heater if the cord is frayed or worn.
  • Plug the space heater directly into a properly installed plug.  Do not plug the heater into an extension cord or power strip.
  • Don’t plug another electrical device or an extension cord into the same outlet as a heater—that can cause overheating.
  • Install working smoke alarms on every level of your home and in every bedroom, and test them monthly.

You should not use a space heater in a bathroom or a humid basement, nor should you touch a heater if you are wet or have wet hands, as this increases the risk of electrical shock. If you absolutely need a space heater for an area with a lot of moisture, find a heater that has a GFCI (ACLI) plug.  This special wiring makes the heater safe for use in bathrooms.

Colder winter weather increases the likelihood of heating related fires. These fires are the second leading cause of fire deaths among older adults.  Keep your home safe and warm all year long with these safety tips, and remember to check in with your older friends and family throughout the winter.