Sometimes, the cold weather just makes us want to feel extra warm and cozy indoors, and our favorite room doesn’t get quite as toasty as we’d like. Or perhaps the kids cheerfully running in and out the door at your family’s holiday get-together are making the house a little too chilly. Whatever the reason, we usually break out the space heater at some point. Electric space heaters, in particular, are so common that we hardly consider them a risk, but space heaters in general account for hundreds of deaths and thousands of burn-related injuries every year. The following space heater safety tips will help you protect your family and your home this winter.

Types of Space Heaters

There are two classifications of space heaters—vented and unvented. Much like chimneys and wood-burning stoves, vented space heaters are designed to be permanent fixtures. They are installed by placing them near an exterior wall and running the flue or vent through either the wall or the ceiling, and combustible fuel products, such as oil, propane, and coal, are used to heat them. Please note that kerosene heaters have been deemed unsafe for indoor use, and such use is illegal in most states. Because the burning of combustible fuels releases toxic carbon monoxide gas, it is extremely important to have a professional install your vented heater; safe space heater setup depends on seemingly obscure things like altitude, in addition to the fuel you’re planning to use. Be sure to always clean your vented space heater properly, and get it professionally inspected every year.

The only kind of unvented space heater that is safe to use inside is an electric space heater, as electricity doesn’t result in a buildup of any toxic gases. They can still be dangerous when handled incorrectly, however.

Space Heater Safety Tips

Always buy a heater that is an appropriate size for the room you wish to heat. Though it may seem like a good idea to buy a larger-than-necessary heater, too much heat in too small of a space increases the likelihood that something will burn or catch on fire.

Situate your space heater on a flat, even surface—preferably the floor—at least three feet away from anything that can be burned, including people. Avoid putting space heaters on furniture, even when not in use; they’re very easy to knock over, which can damage the internal components and make your heater unsafe to use. Keep the heater well out of the way of foot traffic, and make sure the cord remains over area rugs and in plain sight so nobody will trip over it or stumble onto the heater. Purchase a heater with a tip-over safety mechanism, which cuts it off automatically if it does fall. Also, unless your space heater is intended for use in bathrooms or outdoors, be sure to operate it only in thoroughly dry locations.

Whenever possible, plug space heaters directly into wall outlets, rather than extension cords. If an extension cord is absolutely necessary, use the shortest heavy-duty one you can find—14-gauge or higher. Always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines governing the use of extension cords for your particular heater. Be sure the plug fits into the outlet securely, and avoid plugging anything else into the same outlet. Every once in a while, check to make sure the plug doesn’t get hot when the heater is turned on. If it does, call an electrician; there may be a home wiring issue. Never use a space heater if the cord is damaged. Inspect it regularly for gaps in the insulation or frays in the wire.

Finally, always turn your space heater off before leaving the room or going to bed. Space heaters are intended as a supplemental source of heat, so you should be able to sleep comfortably without one.

An electric space heater is a relatively inexpensive and convenient way to make a room a little warmer. As long as your family knows the right precautions to take, space heaters can be used safely and help keep your home much more pleasant during the winter months.

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Sources: National Fire Protection Association; Underwriters Laboratories; US Department of Energy.

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