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How to Safely Run Your Space Heater

Space heaters can keep you cozy during the colder months, but can also be a major fire hazard if used incorrectly.

space-heater
Using care and caution with space heaters is important for avoiding potential disaster this winter.
Hector Roqueta Rivero/Getty Images

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Earlier this year, a horrific fire in the Bronx that killed 17 people once again brought attention to the hazards of home space heaters. Space heaters can be a welcome addition to your central heating system or a handy and inexpensive way to heat a space without fixed heat. But it's also extremely important to exercise great caution and care when using a space heater. 

According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, space heaters are responsible for more than 25,000 house fires every year, in addition to a number of deaths and injuries. With the risks associated with space heater usage, it's no surprise people are hesitant about using space heaters in their homes. As long as you follow best practices, space heaters aren't inherently dangerous. 


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Here's what you can do to keep you and your home safe while using space heaters. (For more winter safety tips, check out everything you should stock up on before a winter storm, and how to keep your pets safe and calm during a winter storm.) 

What types of space heaters are available?

There are four types of space heaters

  • Fan-forced: Warm air is blown over metal coils.
  • Infrared: Infrared light bulbs create heat.
  • Ceramic: Ceramic heating element warms air.
  • Water or oil-filled: Heated water or oil travels through the unit.

No matter which type of space heater you buy, be sure to check that it's a recent model with an Underwriters Laboratories label. Also, check to see what size room the heater is designed for, and generally keep to devices appropriate for the room in which you plan to use them.

honeywell-hce840b-heatgenius-ceramic-heater

Space heaters can be safety hazards in the home -- but they can also be useful if you use them with care.

Honeywell

Space heater safety features to consider

When purchasing a space heater, consider the following safety features: 

  • Tip-Over Switch: Shuts the unit down if it's not in an upright position  
  • Automatic shut-off/Overheat protection: Automatically shuts down the unit in the case of overheating
  • Thermostat: Monitors indoor temperature, which allows the unit to determine when to turn on and off
  • Plastic face: Keeps the grille from heating to the point of burning the skin upon contact

Extra safety features are good to keep in mind -- especially if you plan to use the heater in certain contexts. If you have pets or children, tip-over switches and nonmetal faces are important features to consider. Likewise, if you plan to use the heater without constantly monitoring it yourself, you will probably want to consider an automatic shut-off feature, or a thermostat that allows you to set a certain target temperature.

Space heater safety tips

Space heaters have caused many house fires, injuries and deaths over the years. If you plan to use a space heater during the cold winter months, you'll want to make sure you are using it properly to avoid potentially fatal mistakes. 

To keep yourself and your home safe while using a space heater

  • Review instructions and warning labels to ensure safe operation. 
  • Inspect your heater for damage. 
  • Place space heaters on low, flat surfaces. 
  • Keep out of high-traffic areas or doorways. 
  • Keep space heaters at least 3 feet away from flammable items and objects, such as papers or curtains. 
  • Avoid leaving a space heater unattended -- especially for long periods of time. 
  • Do not plug space heaters into extension cords or power strips. 
  • Unplug space heaters when not in use.

When it's cold outside, a space heater can be the perfect way to create a warm, comfortable living area. Although space heaters can be a hazard, when used correctly they are a convenient, affordable option when you're looking to quickly and easily supplement your home's central heating system.

More on home energy and utilities