Every winter, we hear of at least some space-heater related accidents, sometimes with tragic results. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and based on statistics compiled from 2007 to 2011, one-third of home heating fires and four-fifths of home heating fire deaths involve space heaters. However, when selected wisely and used correctly, space heaters can be quite safe to use.
This report only covers portable electric space heaters, which, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), are the only type of unvented heater that's safe for use inside the home. Combustion space heaters work by burning fuel, be it kerosene, gas, wood, etc., which results in having the byproducts of combustion, including carbon monoxide, enter your home if they are not effectively vented to the outside. According to the DOE, most states have banned the use of kerosene heaters in the home, and some states have banned the use of unvented natural gas heaters. Vented combustion heaters are safer, but since those are designed to be used in a permanent location next to an exterior wall (to allow for a vent to the outside), they are not exactly portable.
However, while there's no carbon monoxide risk, electric space heaters still can be a safety hazard if used improperly. The best space heaters are designed to minimize those risks. Things to look for include a tip-over sensor and switch that will turn the heater off if it is accidentally knocked over. Many heaters have tight grates to keep small fingers from reaching the heating element. Some have sensors that will turn the heater off if it detects an "object" (such as an infant or pet) sitting too close to it for too long. Many also have cabinets that stay cool to the touch. Only buy a space heater that carries UL (Underwriters Laboratory) or similar certification, indicating that it meets current safety standards.
Buying a safe space heater is only half the battle, using it safely is the other half. We found a number of solid, easy-to-follow recommendations from a number of authorities. Those include the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), the NFPA, the DOE and others.
Finding the right place to put your space heater is the first step. Space heaters should be located on a level, hard and nonflammable surface -- a ceramic tile floor is ideal. Don't put a space heater on a piece of furniture. Keep it well away from the normal paths of foot traffic in your home to prevent it from being accidentally knocked over. Keep combustible materials at least three feet away in all directions. Typical combustibles found in your home include draperies, rugs and bedding. Except in cases where a space heater is designed for bathroom or outdoor use, do not use it in damp areas.
Space heaters should only be used under the direct supervision of a responsible adult. Children and pets should be kept away. Turn off the space heater every time you leave the area. Don't go to bed with the space heater on, and don't use it if there's a person sleeping in the room.
There are electrical considerations as well. Avoid the use of an extension cord if at all possible. If an extension cord is absolutely needed, use the shortest length that works and choose a cord designed for high current draw (14-gauge or heavier wire). That said, "Always check and follow any manufacturer's instructions pertaining to the use of extension cords," the DOE advises.
Check the condition of the space heater's cord on a regular basis. Look for tell-tale signs of a hazardous cord, including fraying or burnt or otherwise damaged insulation. If the cord doesn't check out 100 percent, do not use the space heater.