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Are Portable Heaters Dangerous? Safety Tips to Avoid House Fires

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Are Portable Heaters Dangerous? Safety Tips to Avoid House Fires
December 16, 2019
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Are Portable Heaters Dangerous? Safety Tips to Avoid House Fires

Frontpoint Security offers important tips for staying

safe and warm this winter

With chillier temperatures gripping the country (hello puffy coats and winter boots), portable space heaters can be a welcome source of supplemental heat in a home. But as reports of triggered house fires continue to grab headlines, many people are wondering: are portable heaters dangerous?

The news reports are fairly common and often tragic: A space heater is blamed in a Kentucky house fire that killed a mother and eight children. Clothing ignited by a space heater sparked a fire that killed a mother and her son in Georgia. An 85-year-old woman was killed after a towel spread on top of a heater burst into flames in Rhode Island. A fire caused by a first-floor space heater in Pennsylvania killed a grandmother, two preschoolers, and two toddlers, who couldn’t escape because their windows were nailed shut to prevent break-ins.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) states that heating equipment ranks as the second-leading cause of home fires in the U.S. and the third-leading cause of home fire fatalities. Nearly half of home heating fires between 2011 and 2015 were caused by portable and stationary space heaters—as well as an alarming 85 percent of home heating fire deaths. And portable electric space heaters are blamed for two of every five deaths in space heater-related fires.

Not surprisingly, most space heater fires occur between December and February. And while only 18 percent of space heater fires occur between midnight and 8 a.m., these sleeping hours account for nearly half of all deaths, the NFPA reports.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission asserts that portable heaters contribute to an estimated 25,000 fires every year.

But here’s the thing: in most cases, the problem isn’t really that portable heaters aren’t safe, it’s that they are used in an unsafe manner. The leading cause of space heater fires is heating equipment placed too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses, curtains, bedding, paper, or flammable liquids. If ignition is sparked by a heater left on and unattended, a major fire can easily result.

Watch this Good Morning America video for a demonstration of how quickly a fire caused by a space heater can spread:

Choosing the right portable heater for a home

Space heaters are typically used when a home’s main heating system is inadequate or central heating is too expensive to install or operate. People appreciate space heaters’ potential for saving money and energy because they only heat the space they are in. They can also serve as a handy way to boost the temperature of rooms used by people sensitive to cold without overheating an entire home.

Space heaters generally rely on electricity, propane, natural gas, or kerosene to operate. However, the U.S. Department of Energy warns that unvented portable combustion units should never be used inside a home, as burning fuel can deplete oxygen and pollute indoor air with toxic chemicals like carbon monoxide.

Most space heaters work by convection, circulating air throughout a room. Others emit infrared radiation that directly heats objects and people in its path. These heaters struggle to heat a whole room but can be more efficient and save energy if occupants only need to warm themselves and their immediate surroundings.

There are four main types of space heaters:

  • Fan-forced heaters. Popular in offices or small workspaces, these convection heaters warm air over metal coils and circulate it around a room with a fan. The fan ensures the heat is distributed quickly.
  • Ceramic heaters. Also a type of convection heater, ceramic heaters warm air over a ceramic heating element. Their bodies generally stay cool to the touch, making them a popular choice for homes with kids and pets.
  • Radiant heaters. Heated oil or water travels through the heater, which heats objects near it or in its path. These are often used in living rooms, bedrooms, or dens because they can retain heat for long stretches, even when the power is turned off.
  • Infrared heaters. A type of radiant heater where heat is created by infrared bulbs. They are most effective for warming a person or small area instead of a larger space. For instance, people might place one under a desk in a chilly office.

Modern space heaters incorporate safety features designed to minimize the risk of fires. When shopping for a new space heater, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends choosing one that sports the UL label, indicating that its design has been safety tested. UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories) is a global safety certification company.

Other important features can include:

  • A “tip over” switch that shuts the unit down if it deviates from its normal upright position
  • Overheat protection that shuts the unit off if internal components become too hot
  • A thermostat that monitors room temperature, turning the unit off and on automatically
  • A good handle with a safe and comfortable grip
  • For combustion units, a low-oxygen sensor that shuts the heater off before a room loses too much oxygen

Wondering if that old space heater you keep in the garage is still safe to use? Take some time to examine it.

Is the cord frayed or stiff? It’s time to splurge on a new one. You should also check to ensure that the heater isn’t compromised with cracks or dents, the plug doesn’t have any loose connections, and the grill remains firmly in place so small children can’t stick their hands inside. And, of course, keep in mind that it’s wisest to use space heaters that incorporate the most modern safety features.

Picture of a house firePicture of a house fire
Portable and stationary space heaters accounted for 43 percent of home heating fires between 2011 and 2015, and 85 percent of home heating fire deaths.

Tips for using portable heaters safely to prevent

house fires

With proper use, portable heaters can be effective, safe tools for generating heat in a home. Here are some tips for using them correctly:

  • Only buy products with a UL tag. Before using the space heater, read the manufacturer’s instructions and warning labels
  • Inspect the heater, cord, and plug for damage before each use. Pay special attention to cracked or broken plugs or loose connections. If you see any signs of fraying, wear, or damage, do not use the heater.
  • The placement of space heaters is critical. Commit these catchy rules to memory: three feet from heat or a meter from the heater. Heaters should be located a minimum of three feet from anything that can burn like bedding, rugs, or furniture. You should also mandate a three-foot kid-free and pet-free zone around space heaters and supervise both pets and children carefully when heaters are on.
  • Place heaters on a solid, flat surface. Never place them on cabinets, tables, furniture, or carpet, which can overheat and start a fire.
  • Never leave a heater unattended. Turn it off if you leave the room, feel yourself getting sleepy, or are ready for bed.
  • Always unplug the heater after turning it off, and store it safely away.
  • Space heaters are only meant to provide supplemental heat. They should never be used to warm bedding, cook food, dry clothing, or thaw pipes.
  • Heaters draw a lot of power. Plug electric units directly into a wall outlet that isn’t shared with other devices. Never run an electrical cord underneath a rug or carpet, which can damage the cord and cause it or nearby objects to burn. Don’t use extension cords or power strips, which can overheat and cause a fire.
  • During use, check frequently to determine if the heater’s plug or cord or the wall outlet or its faceplate are hot. If any outlet or faceplate is hot, discontinue use immediately and have a qualified electrician replace it. If the cord or plug is hot, disconnect the heater and have it repaired by an authorized repair person.
  • Don’t turn space heaters into a tripping hazard. Place them out of the way of foot traffic and doorways where they can get knocked over.
  • Place electric heaters in dry locations. Moisture can cause electrocution, as well as damage to your heater’s components. Never touch an electric heater if you are wet.
  • Always use the type of fuel rated for a fuel-burning space heater and specified by the manufacturer—and don’t use the heater indoors. Wait until the heater is cool before refueling it. Store extra fuel away from the heater and in designated containers.

Smoke and heat sensors can catch space heater fires

before they cause serious harm

Of course, even with the strictest precautions, accidents can happen. Installing smoke and heat sensors connected to a smart home security system is an important step you can take to keep your home and loved ones safe from space heater fires this winter.

Frontpoint’s smoke and heat sensors can detect small amounts of smoke, high temperatures, or a suspicious rise in heat—sounding an alarm before fires spiral out control. Modern homes are filled with synthetic materials that cause fires to burn hotter and faster than in the past, leaving people as little as two minutes before it’s too late to escape. If you fall asleep and your space heater ignites your bedding, catching the fire at its earliest stage is critical to helping you and your loved ones get to safety.

Traditional smoke detectors become nothing more than noisemakers if no one is home to hear the alarm or can’t call for help. Smoke and heat sensors connected to a smart security system ensure help is always on the way during an emergency. And unlike other security system components, they don’t need to be “armed” to protect you from fire.

Smoke and heat sensors instantly alert 24/7 monitoring professionals if a problem is detected. They also notify the homeowner or renter, who can quickly check real-time video feeds to determine if there is a threat if their system includes home security cameras. The monitoring service also contacts the homeowner or renter as soon as an alert is received, sending the fire department if they can’t be reached or they confirm the fire.

Picture of the Frontpoint Smoke and Heat SensorPicture of the Frontpoint Smoke and Heat Sensor
Smoke and heat sensors connected to a smart security system ensure help is on the way during a fire—even if you can’t call for it yourself.

Connected carbon monoxide sensors are another way smart security systems can help keep people safe during the winter heating season. These sensors will sound an alarm and alert the monitoring service if unsafe levels of the odorless, toxic gas are detected in a home. They also trigger email, text, and push notifications to the homeowner or renter so they can get themselves and their families to safety.

Carbon monoxide is produced when natural gas, propane, and other fuels are not completely burned during use. Combustion space heaters increase people’s risk of exposure to the odorless gas, as do the smoldering fires that can be triggered by any type of space heater.

Home security cameras connected to a smart security system are another essential tool when portable heaters are used. Offering a unique ability to check on your home and loved ones at any time and from anywhere, cameras provide peace of mind that portable heaters are being used safely when you aren’t home. And if a problem is spotted, the camera’s two-way audio capabilities allow you to speak to the people in the house and instruct them on proper usage.

Are portable heaters dangerous? Not if they

are used safely!

As temperatures drop, portable space heaters can be an effective way to give your home’s heating system a boost. But things can go devastatingly wrong if they aren’t used properly. Following our space heater safety tips—and installing fire safety devices connected to a smart security system—can keep you warm and safe this winter.


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