The coldest months of the year can quickly turn hot and tragic. Heating equipment was involved in nearly 53,600 home fires, 400 deaths, 1,520 injuries and about $900 million in property damage last year, according to the latest report by the National Fire Protection Association. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reports only 2 percent of these involve portable heaters, but account for 25 percent of the fatalities.
"Many deaths or injuries can be avoided easily by making portable heater safety a priority," said Michael Getman, safety manager at Clark Public Utilities. "After taking a space heater out of storage, check its coils for dust and pet fur that can ignite when you turn the heater on. Also, examine the cord for cracks, breaks or exposed wires."
Getman advises purchasing only Underwriters Laboratory or equivalently certified models. When buying a new electric space heater, choose one that's the proper size for the room you want to heat. Most come with a general sizing chart. Select a heater with temperature controls, because it will prevent you from wasting energy by overheating a room. Consider one with a programmable timer that turns the heater on and off.
Don't be misled by advertising promising energy efficiency. All electric space heaters are 100 percent efficient. The wattage of a heater determines how much heat it will produce. A 1,500-watt heater (a common wattage) will produce the same amount of heat whether it costs $40 or $400. An electric heater produces about 3,400 BTUs of heat for every kilowatt-hour of electricity used. Instead, compare safety and control features.
"When selecting a portable heater for indoors, make sure that it's electric and has an automatic shut-off switch, so if it's tipped over, the unit shuts off," said Getman. "Electric heaters emit no toxic fumes and are safe for indoor use. Only use propane or kerosene heaters outside in a well-vented area, like a porch, and never indoors."
While safer, even electric heaters do require some caution. Consider the environment you're operating one in. Plug the heater directly into the wall and never use an extension cord that someone might accidentally trip over. If you have pets or children, purchase one with guards to prevent burns. Make sure any portable heater is at least three feet from bedding, draperies, furniture or any combustibles. Never use a portable heater in damp areas such as the kitchen or bathroom. Water is a conductor of electricity and a faulty cord or damaged unit could cause an electric shock or injury.
Understand your home's electrical system. If your lights flicker, adding a 1,500-watt heater to the mix will only make the problem worse. Flickering lights are a signal you should have your home's electrical system checked before plugging in anything new.
Never leave a space heater unattended or go to sleep with one on. Unplug it when it's not in use. Keep pets and children away from it. Getman suggests training all household members about heater operation and safety.
Smoke inhalation causes many fire deaths and injuries. If you don't have a carbon monoxide monitor, it's a good idea to install one. If you have one, make sure that the batteries for it and your fire alarms are fresh and working.
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.