Guide to Using Your Space Heater

Dec 27, 2022 | Energy Conservation & Savings

Winter is here, and that means colder temperatures, even in the Lone Star State. We can do a few things to warm up when it’s chilly — turn up the thermostat, grab a sweater, wrap up in a blanket, drink a cup of a hot beverage. Another convenient and cost-effective method that many people use to heat a specific area or room in their home is with a space heater.


Space heaters are easy to get a little more heat right where you need it. Is the home office a little drafty? Is your bedroom colder than the rest of the house? These are common scenarios where people use a space heater to raise the temperature in a room rather than turning up the heat for the entire home. Let’s take a closer look at the types of space heaters, their benefits, and what you need to know to operate them safely.


What Is a Space Heater?

Space heaters are just that — small portable devices used to heat an area. While some outdoor and industrial heaters use propane, the Department of Energy advises that only electric space heaters are safe for inside, at-home use. These types of heaters are available in a few variations, including micathermic heaters, fan heaters, oil-filled heaters, and infrared heaters. However, the size of the area the heater can warm up and the amount of electricity it uses will depend on the specific make and model of the heater in question.


  • Micathermic Heater: They have a heating element covered in mica, a rock-forming mineral, to produce both convection and radiant heat. These heaters are efficient and able to heat large areas. These space heaters are silent and have no glowing parts, making them very safe to use.


  • Fan Heaters: These heaters use fans to blow air over metal heating coils or ceramic heating plates. The warm air then circulates throughout the area to raise the temperature. A disadvantage of fan heaters is that the fan generates noise. So while they’re efficient at heating up a room, the sound can be disruptive.


  • Infrared Heaters: Also known as radiant heaters, they use invisible infrared light waves to transfer heat to surfaces and skin thus heating objects and people in a space.


  • Water or Oil-Filled Heaters: Similar in appearance to the metal radiators found in older homes and also known as an oil-filled radiator or column heater, these units use electricity to heat oil which produces radiant heat. Most units are energy-efficient, portable, quiet, and easy to use, but they can also be hot to the touch.


The Dangers of Space Heaters

Space heaters can help keep you warm and cozy, but they are not without their downsides — primarily related to fires and burns. In fact, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) warns that heating equipment is the leading cause of fires in the United States.


The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates approximately 25,000 residential fires and 300 deaths yearly due to space heaters. More than 6,000 Americans go to the emergency room to care for burn injuries associated with room heaters. 


The National Fire Protection Association drove the point home, noting that space heaters are involved with over 40% of home heating-related fires and 85% of the resulting deaths.


But many of these risks can be reduced with responsible use and safety features. Let’s look at some of those safety features to look for when you’re in the market for a space heater.


Safety Features to Look For

In addition to using a space heater properly, they also include various safety features such as the following. 


  • Tip-Over Switch: This will turn the space heater off if it tips over or is otherwise not upright.
  • Automatic Shutoff: This sensor will monitor the temperature of the unit and turn it off automatically if it becomes too hot and is at risk of overheating. 
  • Plastic Front: This one might surprise you, but a plastic grill is much less likely to burn your skin than a metal grill.
  • Adequate Cord: You can’t use extension cords or power strips with space heaters because they can cause overheating, so make sure that the cord on any space heater you’re considering is long enough for where you want to use it.
  • Certification: Look for a safety certification from an independent testing organization, such as Underwriter’s Laboratory, the ETL label from Intertek, or certification from CSA International.


How to Use Your Space Heater Safely

If you use a portable heater for supplemental heat, it’s crucial to prioritize space heater safety. Start by reading your particular model’s warning labels and owner’s manual. Make sure you understand all usage instructions. In addition, our favorite safety tips for safely using a space heater at home are listed below.


  • Place the heater on a low, hard, level, and nonflammable surface like the floor, not a table.
  • Establish a 3-foot perimeter around the heater where pets and kids are not allowed.
  • Do not use space heaters in kids’ bedrooms.
  • Don’t use space heaters near curtains, bedding, or upholstered furniture. Not to mention flammable materials, household chemicals, or matches.
  • Never leave space heaters unattended, as that dramatically increases the risk of fire. Turn them off when you leave the area.
  • Avoid plugging other devices into the same outlet as your space heater, this can cause overheating.
  • Unplug space heaters when not in use.
  • Routinely check the power cord to ensure it’s not frayed, worn, or damaged.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy recommends plugging space heaters directly into the wall outlet. Never use extension cords or power strips with space heaters, as they can also lead to overheating.
  • Don’t place space heaters in high-traffic areas of your home.
  • Test smoke alarm functionality and batteries regularly. You should do this every month anyway, but a space heater gives you another reason. Pro-tip, check the detectors when you handle another monthly task, like paying the rent or mortgage, and you’ll never forget to do it.
  • Keep it away from water.
  • Watch the cord! Don’t step on it or kink it.
  • Finally, when the space heater is running, check it often. That includes the cord, plug, and outlet faceplate. If anything is too hot to touch, shut it all down immediately. 


What if It DOES Cause a Fire?

If the worst case scenario happens and your space heater causes a fire, don’t panic. Stay calm. Realize this is an electrical fire, so cutting the power is a priority. Pull the plug, flip a switch — basically assess and act. Use baking soda or a fire extinguisher to put out the flame. Do not throw water at an electrical fire, especially while any electrical cords are plugged in.


Stay Safe!

A space heater can create a warm, comfortable living area when the weather gets chilly and temperatures drop. While they do have risks, they can be a convenient way to supplement your home’s heating system. Plus, they’re efficient! If you are looking to save even more, check out 11 other ways to save energy this winter.


And, of course, look to see what size room the heater is designed for. Follow manufacturer instructions and expert guidance from resources like the United States Department of Energy.

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