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Space heater safety guide: Turn up the heat -- just without the risk of fire

Space heaters can keep you warm and cozy during the winter months. But they can also be a hazard if used incorrectly.

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Dale Smith/CNET

An inadequate central heating system can disrupt your comfort, especially during the cold winter months. Whether your whole home loses its heat too quickly, or a specific room just won't heat up without turning the rest of the house into a sauna, a space heater can be a simple solution. These small, powerful heating systems can keep your feet toasty -- but they might also be a hazard, if you buy the wrong one, or use it in the wrong way.

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 home. But as long as you follow best practices, space heaters aren't inherently dangerous. Just make sure to use them with care.

Here's what you can do to keep you and your home safe while using space heaters.

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.

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