Space heaters take the chill out of cold winter nights, but sometimes at a terrible cost. In January 2014, a flammable material left too close to an electric heater started a house fire that killed nine members – including eight children – of a Muhlenberg County, Kentucky family.
About one third of all home fires, and more than 80 percent of all heating fire deaths, can be traced back to a space heater. Most often, fires start when the heater is placed too close to clothing, bedding, upholstered furniture, curtains, or another combustible material. Fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, kerosene heaters, and other heat sources can also pose a fire risk if used incorrectly.
You don’t have to sacrifice warmth, as long as you take a few precautions to safeguard your heater. First, choose the right product – ideally, one that carries an Underwriter’s Laboratory mark, which means a nationally recognized laboratory has tested it, and it meets current U.S. safety requirements. Look for a model with a tip-over safety switch, which will turn off the unit if it topples, and a sensor that shuts the heater down if it gets too hot. It should also have a guard around the heating unit. Any gas-fired heating unit should come equipped with a sensor that detects when oxygen levels in the area drop too low, and shuts itself off.
The heater you buy should fit the space you’re trying to warm. Putting a large heater into a small room will only waste energy. Buy a heater with a built-in thermostat so you can set the temperature to only turn on when you need it.
Put the heater on a flat surface, and plug it directly into the wall – don’t use an extension cord. Position it as far away as possible from children, pets, and anything flammable. “Keep heaters and things that can burn at least three feet apart,” said Lorraine Carli, vice president of communications for the National Fire Protection Association. “And always turn off a portable space heater when you go to sleep or leave the room.”
If you’re using a wood burning stove for heat, make sure it’s vented to the outside of your home. In your stove or fireplace, burn only dry, seasoned wood and start the fire with newspaper or kindling, never kerosene or gas. Put a screen in front of the fireplace to prevent embers from flying out, and keep stove doors closed unless you’re loading it or stoking the fire. Give the ashes time to cool before you throw them out. “Whether your chimney supports a wood or coal stove or just a fireplace, be sure to have it cleaned and inspected at least once a year to reduce your risk of having a fire,” Carli added.
Fireplaces and stoves can give off carbon dioxide, an odorless but very deadly gas. Install a carbon monoxide detector outside your bedroom to check for high levels of this gas in your home. Also make sure you have a working smoke detector on every floor.
You’ll be less reliant on space heaters if your home heating unit can keep up with the weather. Have your furnace professionally checked at the start of the season to make sure it’s working properly.
A thick layer of insulation in your attic, walls, and throughout your home can prevent heat from escaping. Ask your energy company about scheduling a home energy inspection to search for any leaks and drafts (they’re normally free). Seal up any leaky windows and doors with caulk, spray foam, or weather stripping before the temperature drops. Install storm windows and doors as an extra layer of protection against the cold. And add a few ceiling fans to distribute warm air more evenly around your home.
January 07, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN