What to consider before buying a space heater—including the risk factor
Always put safety first
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There are so many misconceptions surrounding space heaters, that it’s hard to know whether or not they’re safe to have in your home. And, after reading news headlines like the one earlier this month where 17 residents of a Bronx apartment building tragically died in a fire believed to have been ignited by a space heater, no one is running out to the store to buy one right now.
If you have space heater concerns, but you’re feeling a bit confused as a consumer—because with so many space heaters on the market, can they really be that dangerous?—we are here to help.
We reached out to Captain Alec J. Keenum, the fire marshal from the Oswego Fire Protection District in Illinois, and Kyle Price, a senior engineer and licensed electrician. The information they shared on space heater safety is interesting, to say the least.
A space heater can be useful and economical
One of the most surprising realizations I learned when emerging into the adult world, is the harsh reality of just how expensive utility bills can be. If you live in a cooler climate, have drafty windows, or any number of circumstances that lower the temperature of your home, it’s easy to see why heating a smaller area with an affordably priced space heater could be preferable over raising the thermostat in your entire living space.
For example, if your home office is in the basement or a three-season room of your home, it may not make financial sense to heat your entire house up to a cozy 72°F, when really you only need your office space to remain warm for your eight-hour workday.
Or, if your favorite spot to watch TV before climbing under the bed covers at night is the comfy spot on the sofa next to a drafty window in a home with an older, inefficient furnace, leaving you perpetually cold, then warming the area with a space heater is an enticing way to ward off the chills.
Another popular use for space heaters is in an area that has no primary heating source, such as a garage doubling as a home gym or a shed being used as a hobby space—areas that would often be unusable without a heating source warming the cold winter air.
Price says, “Space heaters are a great heating source option in spaces that don’t have the venting capabilities for things such as a fireplace or a propane heater.”
Still, the question remains: Do the benefits of using a space heater outweigh the dangers associated with them?
Study the facts and act responsibly
According to a 2021 report by the National Fire Protection Association, heating equipment is the leading cause of home fires in the U.S. The report states that “space heaters were most often responsible for the home heating equipment fires, accounting for more than two in five fires, as well as the vast majority of the deaths and injuries in home fires caused by heating equipment.”
In many of those cases, the cause of the fire was completely preventable, such as a space heater being plugged into an overloaded outlet, a child placing a flammable item on top of it, or an older unit without an auto-shutoff feature tipping over onto a flammable item or surface. It’s of the utmost importance to always follow space heater safety tips.
Keenum points out that people will sometimes attempt to use a space heater as a drying tool or a blanket warmer. This is a huge fire hazard, so don’t ever try it.
Price, too, warns, “People don't realize how potentially dangerous electrical appliances can be. Sparks from a faulty cord, connection, or a damaged component on an old space heater can easily ignite a sofa, curtains, or piles of laundry that are sitting within the three-foot danger zone that surrounds a space heater.”
Beyond a fire, children and pets are at an increased risk of being burned if they touch or lean on a unit that has exposed, hot, pieces. If you’re using a space heater in your home, always supervise your children.
Know when and where it’s appropriate to use a space heater
A report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration states that nearly 37% of Americans use a secondary heating source to supplement the main source of heat in their homes, with space heaters being the most common secondary source.
Of these people, many are doing so safely.
Keenum says, “As far as space heater safety, it’s really about being smart and mindful. People should not be scared of space heaters any more than they should be scared of a Crockpot. When used correctly, a UL-certified space heater is a safe product.”
Price agrees, explaining, “Space heaters can be safely used when the necessary precautions are taken. Heating open smaller spaces like a garage, small bedroom, or a small office, [are] good examples. Like any heater, they can’t be placed close to things they can ignite.”
Price also notes that in areas with little venting availability, space heaters are actually the safer option over heating sources that produce fumes, like a portable kerosene heater.
Always put safety first
What it really comes down to, is being thoughtful in where you place the space heater, attentive to monitoring children and pets that may interact with it, remaining cautious in what household items are near the heater, and being aware of the dangers will go a long way in making a space heater a safe, and affordable option.
Above all, safety is key, with both Capt. Keenum and Price reminding consumers to follow a few basic safety rules:
- If you have a very old space heater, consider purchasing a new one and look for the UL symbol that ensures it has been rigorously tested and certified.
- Always plug the space heater directly into an approved outlet (not an extension cord) and do not overload the receptacle.
- Do not run cords under carpets, through walls or under doors where they can be damaged or overheat.
- Ensure there is “safe space”—3 feet is a good rule of thumb—all around the space heater.
- Ensure the unit is stable on a non-combustible surface on which it is located.
- Regularly check the unit and electrical cord for signs of damage or wear that might signal it could malfunction.
Is using a space heater worth the risk?
Yes, according to Keenum, “when it’s used for its intended purpose and according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.”
And he’s right. Realistically, nearly every household product can be dangerous if not used correctly. You could be electrocuted if you drop your hairdryer into a bathtub, you can light your kitchen on fire if you accidentally set a towel on a still-lit stove burner, and you could easily lose a few fingers to your lawnmower if you aren’t paying attention.
Does that mean we should get rid of all our appliances and move backwards in our engineered progress? Absolutely not, we just need to remember that if we want to be warm, we need to be aware of how to stay safe while doing so.
If you're going to buy a space heater
If your situation could benefit from responsible use of a space heater, and you plan to buy one, here are some options that we have lab tested and recommend. For a UL-listed space heater, we like the Infrared Dr. Heater.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.