Fire Prevention 52: No Time to Space Out

By Roberta M. Gorman, Structural Fire Program Assistant
glowing space heater

Fall is officially upon us, and though winter is still months away, many folks in cooler climates are already turning on the heat. Almost every home has one room colder than the rest, sometimes needing extra heating help. Here a space heater comes in handy.

Portable and stationary space heaters offer warm, cozy heat wherever and whenever you need it, often at a cost savings. There are many types, including convection, ceramic, or radiant heaters, heater fans, oil radiators, and fuel-burning space heaters. However, using space heaters requires extra safety considerations, because one-third of all home heating fires and 4 out of 5 fire deaths are caused by space heaters.

To keep you family and coworkers safe, follow these important safety precautions with all space heaters:

  • Place the heater on a solid, flat surface to minimize the risk of tipping.
  • Keep the unit 3 feet away from anything that can burn, such as papers, mattresses, drapes, and bedding.
  • Have a 3-foot "kid-free zone" around space heaters.
  • Don't place heaters under desks or other enclosed areas.
  • Keep heaters away from exits, walkways, and other paths of travel.
  • Ensure the space heater you want to use is allowed in your park or local community; some kerosene heaters are not allowed in certain areas.
  • Turn portable heaters off when leaving a room or going to bed.
  • Install stationary space heaters according to local codes and manufacturer's instructions, preferably by a qualified professional.
  • Use only UL-listed units.

Considerations for electric space heaters:

  • Do not use automatic timers to turn the heater off.
  • Plug power cords into outlets with a sufficient capacity for the unit and never into an extension cord.
  • Use portable space heaters with an automatic shut-off, so they will turn off if accidentally tipped by the family dog.
  • Consider investing in a heater that has a proximity sensor, which will turn the heater off if objects are too close to the unit.
  • Do not use the unit in wet areas, such as bathrooms and kitchens.

Considerations for fuel-burning space heaters:

  • Make sure stationary heaters are vented to the outside and that the exhaust vent is kept clear of obstructions. When using portable heaters, open a window to adequately vent the room.
  • Use the proper type and grade of fuel in the unit, as directed by the manufacturer. Gasoline used in the wrong units will cause the heater to burn hotter than it was originally designed.
  • Before refueling, allow the appliance to cool completely and refuel the unit outside or in a well-ventilated area.
  • Ensure your space heater is a newer unit with an oxygen-depletion sensor. The sensor detects a reduced level of oxygen in the area where the heater is operating and automatically shuts the heater off before a hazardous level of carbon monoxide accumulates.

Fire Info for You

Check out the National Fire Protection Association's Heating Safety Talking Points to learn more about home heating fire safety.

Consumer Reports judged the Optimus H-5210 space heater to be a dangerous buy.

Also, check to see if your current space heater is on a recall list.

Park Leadership
Set guidelines for the use of space heaters in government quarters and office areas; be clear about the types of units that are allowed and in what circumstances. Ensure that employees know the guidelines and spot check areas throughout the winter to ensure the heaters are in compliance with park requirements.

Take Action

  1. Ensure your space heater is plugged directly into an outlet, not an extension cord or power strip.
  2. Ensure smoke detectors are installed and working before using space heaters. If you use fuel-burning space heaters, install carbon monoxide detectors on every level of your home, in or near the bedrooms.
  3. Shut off your space heater before going to bed or leaving.

NPS Fire Facts

I've worked in multiple parks where the use of space heaters is a common occurrence. Because many park offices and residences are located in older buildings that are inadequately heated, space heaters are heavily relied upon for additional warmth. I used one myself in a government house when my youngest was born. Her bedroom was freezing in the winter, and I was so worried that she'd catch a chill.

Unfortunately, space heaters are often used incorrectly, under paper-cluttered desks, near cardboard boxes, and with extension cords. Stationary or portable units are often used in chilly maintenance areas where sawdust and flammable materials are nearby. They are left on when employees walk away from their desks. It's a good idea to be aware of space heater fire safety and correct problems in your workplace to protect your coworkers this heating season.

Last updated: November 2, 2016