As temperatures begin to drop across the country, some people are using space heaters to warm up their homes. But these devices can be dangerous: space heaters are a leading cause of fires in American homes and other countries The vast majority of deaths from heating fires occur in private households According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), these were stationary or portable space heaters.
Despite their risks, electric space heaters are popular. But what concerns should you have about space heaters and how can you use them safely? Experts break it down.
Space heaters are continually linked to tragedy. According to NFPA, between 2016 and 2020, local fire departments responded to an average of 44,210 home fires caused by heating equipment, including space heaters, each year. Fire departments across the country repeated to warn about potential hazards associated with space heaters and encourage people to use them safely.
Should I be worried?
Both fire safety and consumer product safety experts say it’s important to at least be aware of the potential dangers of space heaters. “I served as a fire investigator for the state of West Virginia for 23 years.” Mark Lambert, director of fire services at West Virginia University, tells Yahoo Life. “I would never allow myself or a loved one to go to sleep with a space heater on or leave one unattended with children or animals. They’re just too dangerous.”
There are a few reasons why space heaters can pose a fire hazard, says Lambert: The devices themselves can overheat and catch fire, and they can also cause materials around them to ignite. Using an extension cord with a space heater increases the risk of fire, as does plugging the device into a power strip, Patty Davis, spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commissiontells Yahoo Life.
Lambert emphasizes that many people also use the same space heater for years. “Older space heaters may not have modern safety features,” he says. This also increases the risk of causing a fire, he says.
Space heaters also pose a hidden danger: They can cause overheating Hyperthermia — especially in children, people with disabilities and older adults who may have difficulty leaving a room that is too hot, says Davis. “Hyperthermia can cause death,” she adds.
If you have allergies and asthma, keep in mind that space heaters can affect indoor air quality. Dr. Purvi ParikhAllergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network, tells Yahoo Life. These devices can burn dirt and dust that builds up on their filters, producing a distinct odor and releasing this residue into the indoor air. “It can worsen both allergies and asthma,” says Parikh.
Overall, Lambert says there are “too many variables” with space heaters for him to personally feel comfortable using one. “I have caused more than one fatal fire involving a space heater, affecting families and children,” he says.
What can I do?
Despite the potential dangers of using a space heater, experts say you don’t need to avoid them if you rely on space heaters for warmth. “I don’t think you should freak out and throw away your heater if you need it, but it is a tool and you need to be aware of the dangers associated with it,” says Lambert.
“Most heater fires can be avoided by ensuring that heaters are in good condition, that they are used and maintained properly, and that flammable items – furniture, blankets, bedding, curtains – are kept well away from the heaters,” Susan McKelvey, communications manager at the NFPA, tells Yahoo Life.
She also recommends monitoring your space heaters carefully and using them according to the manufacturer’s instructions. “Always stay in the room when space heaters are operating and turn them off when you leave the room, leave your home, or go to sleep,” says McKelvey.
You should also place your space heater on a sturdy, level, flat, and nonflammable surface—”not on rugs or carpeting,” says Davis.
If your space heater is five years old or older, you should check to see if it has modern safety features like automatic shutoff if the unit tips over or overheats, says Lambert. If not, consider investing in a new one.
“Choose a space heater that has been tested and certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as UL – Underwriters Laboratory – or ETL – Electrical Testing Laboratories,” says Davis. “These heaters meet certain safety standards.”
The most important takeaway
Space heaters can and do cause fires, so it is important to be careful when using them. However, experts say it is possible to use electric space heaters safely. If your model is new, in good working order, has safety features like auto shut-off if it overheats or tips over, and you never leave it unattended when it’s on, you should have no problem using a space heater.