In our recent space heaters report, we discovered that nearly every professional comparison test included some measure of safety -- we love that. Usually, though, these reports also offered strongly worded warnings about potential fires, burns and worse.
Sure, we think it's important to be cautious any time you operate an electronic appliance that produces heat, but are space heaters really so dangerous you should be worried about them? We did some digging.
The good news: According to the National Fire Protection Association, the number of residential structure fires in the U.S. has decreased significantly over the past 35 years -- by nearly half. Over the same period, the number of deaths from home fires also decreased by nearly 60 percent from its peak in 1978.
Though many assume space heaters are a big cause of fires, the number one cause of residential structure fires for the past couple of years has been cooking-related incidents. The entire category of "heating" (including everything from fuel boilers to fireplaces) accounts for a quarter as many fires per year in the U.S. And of those 50,000-odd residential heating fires, nearly 9 in 10 are contained and cause little damage.
To put the numbers in perspective, in 2009 there were a total of 160 deaths from all forms of in-home heating; car accidents in the U.S. caused nearly 36 thousand deaths that same year. Certainly, 160 unnecessary deaths is a tragedy and we absolutely don't want to discount that -- especially if they could have been prevented by more cautious use of heating elements. But you certainly shouldn't cower at the thought of turning on your space heater. Simply use it safely with these helpful guidelines:
Don't mess with carbon monoxide: Fuel-burning space heaters can produce carbon monoxide or other deadly gases. If you're using a combustion heater, it's extremely important to only use a model that's properly vented and intended for indoor use.
Buy a safe unit: If you're using an older model, you may want to consider upgrading. This doesn't always require a big financial investment. There are safe, inexpensive options available. Make sure your heater has the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) label. Also look for an automatic shut-off feature for tip-over accidents and overheating.
Consider the surroundings: Only place space heaters on sturdy, nonflammable, hard surfaces, like a tile floor. Don't place them on carpet or on top of furniture where they may get knocked over.
Don't use them while sleeping: This may be easier said than done, but experts recommend only using space heaters when someone is present and awake. If that sounds impossible for you, look for a heater with a timer, so you can fall asleep to heat without having the heater running all night.
Keep it away from flammable materials: Drapes, blankets, carpets and clothing are all prime fire starters. Keep your heater a safe distance from any flammable materials, especially fabrics.