On first glance, it might seem wise to avoid space heaters. After all, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission attributes 25,000 fires and 300 deaths to their use every year. Another 6,000 people burn themselves on the devices. On second glance, space heaters are not unlike stoves, toaster ovens and even curling irons — other devices that serve a valuable purpose but produce heat that can trigger a fire. There is no doubt space heaters pose dangers, but each one can be mitigated if not eliminated by following sensible safety precautions and preventive measures.
If you're buying a new space heater, check for the Underwriter's Laboratory label, which serves to validate the heater's safety attributes. If you're buying a used space heater, carefully check it for signs of damage or disrepair. Err on the side of caution and purchase one only in pristine condition.
Purchase a space heater suited to the area you seek to heat. Check the box and follow the square footage guide provided so you don't buy one that is either too small or too large.
Prevent Shock and Electrocution
Keep space heaters far away from water, including sinks, tubs and showers. Do not touch a space heater while you are wet.
Prevent space heaters from toppling over and sparking a fire. Place them on a sturdy, flat surface. Never jerry-rig a resting place, even if you plan to use a space heater for only a short period of time. Keep a space heater far away from doors, busy corridors and other places where it can be knocked over as people pass by. Prevent a space heater from triggering a fire by keeping it far away from kerosene, gasoline and other flammable liquids. Create a “clear zone” of at least 3 feet around a space heater so it does not come into contact with nearby objects such as drapes and furniture.
All homes should have working smoke detectors in case of fire.
Demonstrate Cord Safety
Use only those space heaters with undamaged cords; those that are frayed, torn or otherwise damaged can trigger a fire. Take the extra step of never running a space heater cord under carpeting or throw rugs. People might step on the cord and cause its integrity to deteriorate.
Periodically take a space heater's “temperature” while you use it. Run your hand along the plug, cord and faceplate of the outlet. Heat in these regions indicates possible overheating. Promptly unplug the heater and call a licensed electrician to inspect the outlet and perhaps the space heater.
Do not touch the plug, cord or outlet when you check for heat. Keep your hand at least 1 inch from them.
Strengthen the Connection
Plug space heaters directly into an electrical outlet — never into a power strip or extension cord. Space heaters tend to draw significant power, and many light-gauge extension cords are incapable of withstanding the challenge, which could trigger a fire. If the heater plug does not find a secure fit in the outlet, the plug probably is damaged and the heater should be disposed of.
Never Leave Unattended
Pull the plug (don't just turn off) on a space heater before you leave a room, even for a short period of time. Close the door behind you to seal in the warmth until you return and can turn the space heater back on.