If you’ve ever worked in a chilly office or needed to warm up an unheated room, you have probably used a space heater. Space heaters can be wonderfully convenient, but they do present a serious fire hazard—especially when they aren’t used properly.

In fact, the National Fire Protection Association reports that space heaters are the cause of 40 percent of house fires that involve heating equipment and 84 percent of deaths in these types of fires.

These are scary statistics, but I’m not including them to encourage you to swear off space heaters for the rest of your life. The demand for portable heaters isn’t going to disappear any time soon, so instead, let’s focus on the different types of space heaters, how to stay safe when you use them, and some clever space heater alternatives.

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Types of Space Heaters

At a basic level, there are two categories of space heaters:

  • Electric
  • Fuel-powered

Electric space heaters are typically the least expensive and easiest to find; fuel-powered heaters may be costlier, but they have the advantage of not requiring electricity. If your power goes out, you’ll still have a functioning heat source.

Electric room heaters

electric space heaterIdeal for small spaces or warming up a specific area—under your desk, for example, or a corner of the garage—electric heaters work quickly and are easy to use.

Fan heaters use a small fan to blow air over coils of heated wire. Most newer models are equipped with safety features such as cool-touch grilles and auto-shutoff sensors if the heater is knocked over, but it’s still important to keep the unit away from fabrics, paper, and any other combustible materials.

Ceramic space heaters also use a small fan, but they work slightly differently than a traditional fan heater. In a ceramic heater, heat is created by an electric current heating up metal filaments embedded in the ceramic plates.

Radiator-style space heaters look a lot like the accordion-style radiators sometimes found in older homes and apartments. Radiator space heaters are filled with oil; when they’re plugged in, the electrical current gradually heats the oil. This style of space heater is quiet and radiates heat even after the unit has been turned off.

Fuel-powered space heaters

gas-powered space heaterIf you’re looking for an energy-efficient space heater, you may need to look for a fuel-powered heater (also called a combustion space heater). Natural gas and propane are the most common fuels used in combustion space heaters. Combustion heaters are labeled as either vented or unvented, depending on how they’re constructed.

Vented space heaters are intended to be a permanent addition to your home. In most cases, they’re installed on an outside wall with the flue (or vent) routed through the wall or roof. Look for a heater that will connect directly to a gas line to avoid having to manually fill a fuel reservoir.

Unvented space heaters are easier to install than vented heaters, and they tend to be a little less expensive. The primary danger of an unvented space heater is the risk of carbon monoxide buildup in the home.

Carbon monoxide (CO) gas is a poisonous—and potentially fatal—byproduct of inefficient combustion, so it is vital that you inspect and clean your unvented heater annually to ensure that it’s working properly. Install a carbon monoxide detector (and change the batteries twice per year) in your home if you use an unvented space heater.

Chronic headaches, nausea, sore throat, and a stuffy room are all signs of an inefficient, improperly installed, or malfunctioning heater that is releasing poisonous emissions into the house. If you or any of your household members complain of these symptoms, turn off the heater immediately and open windows for ventilation.

Space Heater Safety Tips

space heater in bedroomSpace heaters are not intended to be your home’s sole source of heat. If your heating system isn’t able to heat your home adequately, contact a reputable HVAC contractor first. But for warming up an unheated space from time to time, a space heater can be a perfect solution.

That being said, space heaters create a lot of heat, and electric versions use a lot of power; under the right conditions, this can cause a fire. If you’re going to use a space heater, follow these important safety tips:

1. Never leave a space heater unattended.

You wouldn’t walk off and leave a candle burning or the eye of a gas stove on high, right? Don’t do it with a space heater, either. Turn off your space heater when you leave the room.

2. Never leave a space heater running overnight.

Space heaters should only provide supplemental heat. If your home gets cold at night, bundle up and then call an HVAC contractor or an energy auditor to determine a long-term solution.

3. Keep space heaters away from flammable items.

Flammable items include curtains, upholstered furniture, and other textiles as well as paper, books, and anything else that could burn when overheated. Most sources agree that you should keep space heaters a minimum of three feet away from any combustible items.

4. Place your space heater on a flat, stable surface.

Most space heaters are equipped with a safety feature that will shut the unit off if it’s tipped over. It’s a good idea to test that function periodically, but you shouldn’t rely on it. Never place a space heater on carpet, bedding, furniture, or any other uneven or unstable surface.

5. Do not plug a space heater into an extension cord.

Electric space heaters pull a lot of power, so they need to be plugged directly into the wall. Extension cords and power strips are not designed to accommodate the power needs of a space heater and may overheat, causing a fire.

If possible, plug your space heater into an outlet on a designated circuit to avoid problems with tripped breakers.

6. Inspect your space heater before each use.

Just like any other household appliance, space heaters have a finite lifespan. Heavy use, improper off-season storage, and normal wear and tear can all cause damage to the heater and its cord (if it’s electric).

Carefully inspect the heater before each use. Don’t use the heater if:

  • The cord is damaged or fraying
  • The ceramic panels are cracked or broken
  • The heater or the outlet sparks or smells odd
  • The flame pops or flares too high on a combustion heater

Some space heaters are more expensive than others, but do not try to save money by using a heater that’s in questionable condition. Your life is far more valuable.

Space Heater Alternatives

Have I scared you away from space heaters? Hopefully not, but you do have a few other options to consider, most of which come down to conserving energy. Let’s take a look.

1. Put on a sweater.

stack of folded sweaters and hatsI promise I’m not trying to mother you, but if you’re cold, bundle up a bit before plugging in a space heater or turning up the thermostat. (At my house, we’re big fans of wool socks and base layers—you can find them online and at any sporting goods store.)

You’ll conserve energy by insulating yourself first rather than turning immediately to your HVAC system—this is good for both your bank account and the planet.

2. Close any gaps or cracks in window and door frames.

If you can stand in front of a window or door and feel a draft, the weather stripping likely needs to be replaced. Older wood window frames are notorious for cracking and deteriorating if they aren’t properly maintained; fill any openings—even if they’re small—with caulk.

By sealing your windows and doors, you’ll ease the burden on your HVAC system, lower your utility bills, and make your home less welcoming to critters seeking shelter from the cold.

3. Open curtains and shades during the day, and close them at night.

curtains tied back at window frameTake advantage of the sun’s natural heat energy to warm your home. Leave your window treatments open during the day to allow sunlight into the room, and then close the curtains in the evening to trap the warmth for a while as the sun goes down. This trick works best with thick, heavy curtains and single-pane windows.

4. Cover single-pane windows with thermal window film.

Glass is not a good insulator, so single-pane windows can be the reason your house is chilly in the winter and hot in the summer. But replacing windows is an expensive proposition, especially if you spring for high-quality double- or triple-pane versions. If window replacement just isn’t in the budget this year, install thermal window film instead.

Leave your thermal window film on year-round for maximum energy savings. The film will help keep warm air in the house during the winter and cooled air inside during the summer, and with the newer styles of thermal film, you won’t have to sacrifice a clear view outside.

The Bottom Line

Keeping your home a comfortable temperature can be difficult at times, especially in the winter when cold air seems to seep through even the most microscopic spaces.

Space heaters can be a good option for supplemental heat, but be sure to review all your options—both for heaters and alternative, energy-saving habits and products—before you make a purchase.

If you do decide to use a space heater, use it only when it’s truly necessary, and follow all safety precautions. Keep children and pets away from the heater, even if it’s equipped with a cool-touch grille and other safety features.

For a longer-term solution, contact a reputable HVAC contractor—your current heating system may be inefficient or undersized, and a newer, properly sized system could resolve your need for supplemental heat.