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Are space heaters dangerous? Here's what to know.
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8 Dangerous Space Heater Mistakes To Avoid, According To Experts

Especially if you have kids or pets.

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As temperatures drop outside, many families rely on portable space heaters to help keep toasty and warm in the winter. However, while they can provide cozy warmth in the chilly winter weather, space heaters are dangerous if used incorrectly. If you do use them to heat your home, experts advise that there are certain space heater tips and tricks you should keep in mind if you want to avoid making what can end up being a dangerous mistake.

It may come as a surprise that heating is the second leading cause of home fires in the country, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. And space heaters alone are estimated to cause 81% of home heating fire-related deaths each year, as found by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Overall, the NFPA states that home heating fires have resulted in annual losses of 500 civilian deaths, 1,350 civilian injuries, and $1.1 billion in direct property damage.

Most space heater danger, though, is very avoidable if you take the right steps to ensure fire safety in your home. For more about how to safely use space heaters to keep your home warm this winter, below are eight dangerous mistakes to avoid, according to experts.

Don’t: Leave Space Heaters On Unattended

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One big mistake that many people make is leaving their heaters on unattended, including overnight while they are sleeping, but doing so is incredibly unsafe. “Never leave a space heater unattended,” a spokesperson for the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control (NYS OFPC) tells Romper. “It is safest to only use them while you are awake and attending them.” Additionally, they recommend always unplugging your heater when not in use to avoid a possible electrical fire.

Don’t: Use Non-Lab Tested and Approved Space Heaters

It may be alluring to buy the cheapest space heater you can find on the market, but that doesn’t mean it’s the safest. One of the best things you can do to ensure electrical and fire safety in your home is to purchase an Underwriter Laboratories (UL) approved space heater, as Robert O’Brien, the co-owner of NY Fire Safety Institute and vice president of NY Fire Consultants, tells Romper. “There are a lot of space heaters on the market that are very, very poorly made, and very dangerous,” O’Brien says. “Only buy ones that are UL approved.”

Well-respected in the fire safety industry, UL is a global safety consulting and certification company, and UL certification on a space heater means it has been tested for safety in a qualified laboratory and includes protective features to lessen the risk of burn or fire hazards. Along with UL certified heaters, the NYS OFPC also recommends using Intertek's Electrical Testing Lab (ETL) approved ones. Buying a model and brand that is vetted will make sure you’re not bringing a poorly made and dangerous piece of equipment into your home.

Don’t: Place Space Heaters Near Flammable Items

According to the NFPA, half of the home heating fire deaths from 2014 to 2018 were caused by having heaters too close to things that can burn. In order to prevent anything from catching fire because of a space heater, “make sure that it's at least three or four feet away from any flammable material,” O’Brien says.

Examples of flammable items include upholstered furniture, blankets, clothing, towels, curtains, mattresses, and bedding. To be safe, simply make sure that nothing is in a three-foot radius from your heater — and that includes children and pets. Additionally, although it may be tempting and seem like a hack to heat things up, never use a space heater to dry or warm up clothing or shoes, as that also poses a fire risk.

Don’t: Let Your Kids Near A Space Heater

This might seem like common sense, but O’Brien’s NY Fire Safety Institute and the NFPA warn parents to keep their kids away from space heaters. This means you shouldn't let them touch them at all, play with the buttons, or move them, even if you are around to supervise. Instead, you should teach your children about the dangers of touching a heater from a young age. And if anything, it's best not to use one if you can't keep your kids a safe distance away.

Space heaters can be a dangerous choice for heating a nursery or child's room. As the NYS OFPC representative explains, “children are at higher risk of burn injuries related to space heaters.” However, if you do decide to use a space heater in a household with children in it, they recommend choosing a space heater with an outside that stays cool to the touch even while in operation and with enclosed heating elements. If you want to be extra safe for a household with children (and pets) in it, opt for a heater that has a tip-over switch, which automatically turns the heater off if it ever does tip over.

Don’t: Place Space Heaters On Top Of Things

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The U.S. Fire Administration advises that you keep your space heater on flat ground, which means avoiding placing them on carpet or rugs that may slip, as well keeping them off of dressers, tables, or other pieces of furniture.

Unless it is specified by the manufacturer, you should avoid putting your space heater on a countertop. And even if the owner’s manual states you can, you might want to steer clear of putting one up high, anyway, especially if you have children. While placing your heater on top of something may seem like an ideal way to keep them out of your kids' reach, it could fall or be pulled off and start a fire, become unplugged, or result in burns or other injuries.

Don’t: Plug A Space Heater In Anywhere But The Wall

According to O’Brien, one of the biggest mistakes people make with space heaters is not plugging them directly into the wall. He advises against plugging space heaters into power strips, surge protectors, extension cords, or anything that's not an outlet in the wall.

Space heaters can pose a risk of electrical fires, and plugging them directly into the wall will help prevent overloading your circuits. Often, extension cords are not built to handle the amount of electricity a space heater requires, and sharing a power strip with a space heater may overwhelm it, even if it features a surge protector.

Don’t: Use Gas Or Kerosene Indoors

Gas and kerosene space heaters are inexpensive and portable, which make them popular this time of year. However, according to the NFPA representative, “Gas-fueled heating devices, particularly space heaters, pose a higher risk of death due to non-fire carbon monoxide poisoning than other heating equipment.”

Unlike gas or propane furnaces and fireplaces, their space heater counterparts aren't vented to the outside, and so they can release harmful gases into the air that include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide, all of which can cause symptoms including headaches, coughing, sleepiness, and even death. In fact, it is illegal to use kerosene or propane space heaters indoors in some places, including California, Massachusetts, and New York City.

Electric space heaters are a safer choice for indoor use, as they don't emit carbon monoxide or other pollutants. If you do use a gas or kerosene portable heater, make sure it is outside, such as in your front or back garden, and follow the owner's manual. And to be safe, make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector installed in your home.

Don’t: Forget About Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detectors

The ultimate way to keep your family safe from home-heating dangers during the winter months is to install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. The NFPA recommends installing interconnected alarms — which will all go off at the same time — inside and outside each bedroom on every level of your home, and to test them monthly. Working alarms will notify your family of the fire or toxic gas, providing you precious time to get out.

“Smoke alarms are a critical defensive tool if a fire starts in your home,” the NYS OFPC tells Romper. “In a matter of minutes, a room can be totally uninhabitable, or an entire house may be filled with smoke and flame.” In fact, most people that die in fires don’t die from heat and flame, but rather from inhaling the toxic gasses from the smoke produced by the fire. And just a breath or two can prove lethal.

A carbon monoxide detector is also essential, as it will alert you if the otherwise undetectable poisonous, colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas is present. According to the NYS OFPC, carbon monoxide poisoning is cumulative, so inhalation over time advances its effects. “In a fire, inhalation causes dulling of the senses and reduces the likelihood of reacting properly and doing the right things to escape,” the spokesperson says. “It may even cause unconsciousness in sufficient doses.”

Overall, space heaters can pose many threats if you don’t follow the recommended safety tips — especially if you have little ones running around. However, as long as you are cautious and mindful when using one to heat your home and stay cozy in the cold months, you should be fine.

Experts:

New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control

Robert O’Brien, retired firefighter, co-owner of NY Fire Safety Institute, and vice president of NY Fire Consultants