A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: The risks of space heaters; avoid being one of the many victims of home heating fire deaths

Last weekend’s winter storm Elliot’s death toll is still rising and is expected to surpass 40, as the northeast starts to unthaw and dig out from the storm. The blizzard was predicted and proved to be a once-in-a-generation event that had many of us scrambling to supplement our heat sources at work and at home, by pulling out our space heaters.

Did you know that half of the home heating fires are reported during December, January, and February?

January is the month when winter has settled in and many of us are binge-watching our shows on Netflix, Hulu, Primetime or Disney curled up either in front of a warm fireplace or space heater.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com

Most of us all at least own at least one space heater, reserve for emergencies for when your furnace might quit working, or heat your bedroom or that one room you spend the most time watching your shows. Portable electric space heaters can be a convenient source of supplemental heat for your home in cold weather, but they also increase the risk of fire and electric shock if not used properly. But did you know that heating equipment is one of the leading causes of home fire deaths?

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), more than half (53 percent) of all home heating fire deaths resulted from fires that began when heating equipment was too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses or bedding. Heating equipment is a leading cause of fires in U.S. homes. Local fire departments responded to an estimated average of 52,050 fires involving heating equipment each year in 2012-2016.

These fires resulted in annual losses of 490 civilian deaths, 1,400 civilian injuries, and $1 billion in direct property damage. The homes include one- and two-family homes (including manufactured homes) and apartments (including townhouses and other multi-family dwellings).

Heating equipment fires accounted for 15% of all reported home fires in 2012-2016 (second behind cooking) and 19% of home fire deaths.

The leading factor contributing to home heating fires (27%) was failure to clean, principally from solid-fueled heating equipment, primarily chimneys.

The leading factor contributing to ignition for home heating fire deaths (54%) was heating equipment too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattress, or bedding.

Most home heating fire deaths (86%) involved stationary or portable space heaters.
Space heater safety is not just a residential concern. Portable electric space heaters are also used in workplaces across the country and can pose a major workplace safety hazard. Fires can be caused by space heaters without adequate safety features, space heaters placed near combustibles, or space heaters that are improperly plugged in.  
Heaters are primarily used seasonally and are often stored for long periods of time between uses. Prior to its use, inspect the equipment. It may be damaged from being hauled from one location to another. It is critical that each heater is examined for signs of damage before operation and is watched closely during initial operation to ensure that it functions properly.

Another safety precaution is to make sure the heater is approved for the environment in which you plan to use it. For example, is the unit approved for direct contact with wood floors? Does it consume oxygen? Does it radiate heat or force heated air across the room? The manufacturer’s specifications will explain how and where the heater may be safely used.

Finally, make certain there is adequate ventilation in the room in which the heater will be placed. When the natural supply of fresh air is inadequate, mechanical ventilation must be provided.

If an employer does not have a written policy specifically forbidding the use of space heaters on company property, it is critical that they establish and publish guidelines for their safe use.
Safety should always be a top consideration when using space heaters. Here are some tips for keeping your home safe and warm when it’s cold outside:

Before using at work, employees should be required to obtain approval from a supervisor or facility manager prior to using a space heater at work.

Make sure your space heater has the label showing that it is listed by a recognized testing laboratory.

Replace older space heaters with newer, safer models.

• Make sure the unit has an emergency tip-over shut-off feature and heating element guards.
• Before using any space heater, read the manufacturer’s instructions and warning labels carefully.
• Proper placement of space heaters is critical. Heaters must be kept at least three feet away from anything that can burn, including papers, clothing and rugs.

• Make sure the heater is clean and in good condition.
• Inspect older or used space heaters for cracked or broken plugs or loose connections before each use. If frayed, worn or damaged, do not use the heater.
• Never leave a space heater unattended. Turn it off when you’re leaving a room or going to sleep, and don’t let pets or children play too close to a space heater.
• Space heaters are only meant to provide supplemental heat and should never be used to warm bedding, cook food, dry clothing or thaw pipes.
• Install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors on every floor of your home and outside all sleeping areas and test them once a month.
• Locate space heaters out of high traffic areas and doorways where they may pose a tripping hazard.
• Plug space heaters directly into a wall outlet. Do not use an extension cord or power strip, which could overheat and result in a fire.
• Do not plug any other electrical devices into the same outlet as the heater.
• Place space heaters on level, flat surfaces. Never place heaters on cabinets, tables, furniture, or carpet, which can overheat and start a fire.
• Always unplug and safely store the heater when it is not in use.
• If your space heater is plugged into a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) and it trips, don’t assume there is something wrong with the GFCI. Immediately stop using the heater until a professional can check it— if not, a serious shock could occur.

Be Safe My Friends!

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