Space heaters lead to 1,700 fires and 80 deaths a year; here are tips to stay safe

Space heaters can also pose a fire hazard, especially if they are used incorrectly or don’t meet current safety standards.

By Isabel Brown and Hannah Rhodes, Consumer Watchdog Associates

Feb. 2, 2022

In the cold winter months, a space heater can be a helpful way to keep your home at a comfortable temperature. But space heaters can also pose a fire hazard, especially if they are used incorrectly or don’t meet current safety standards.

Each year, about 1,700 fires, 80 deaths and 160 injuries are caused by portable space heaters as estimated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The deadly fire in the Bronx in January is just one example of what can go terribly wrong when a space heater malfunctions. The fire was one of the most deadly fires in New York City in decades, leaving 17 people dead and more than a dozen injured.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), heating equipment is a leading cause of fires in U.S. homes. Logically, these fires are much more common in colder months. The NFPA found that, between 2014 and 2018, nearly half of heating equipment fires occurred in December, January and February. 

In addition to fires and carbon monoxide poisoning, space heaters can cause hyperthermia (overheating), particularly for children, people with disabilities and senior citizens, who may have a limited ability to react to higher temperatures. 

As we prepare for more winter storms across the country, reminders about space heater safety may be helpful. Here’s how to warm up safely: 
  • Space heaters should be kept at least three feet away from flammable materials like rugs, carpets, bedding, curtains, papers, clothes or furniture. 

  • Never run the heater’s cord under rugs or carpeting. This can damage the cord and cause a fire.

  • Space heaters should be placed on level, hard and nonflammable surfaces where they won’t tip over. Many newer space heaters have a safety shut off switch if the unit were to tip over. It’s a recommended but voluntary safety standard.  

  • Never operate space heaters with an extension cord or power strip. Space heaters should be plugged directly into a wall outlet. Be sure the heater plug fits tightly into the wall outlet. 

  • Check wires and plugs for fraying or overheating. If the plug or wall outlet gets hot when you plug it in, there may be an electrical issue with the outlet that needs to be repaired by a qualified electrician. If the heater’s cord gets hot when you plug it in, stop using the heater. Heat can be a sign of an electrical short inside the heater or the cord, which could start a fire.

  • Never leave a space heater on when you leave the room or go to sleep. Leaving space heaters unattended is one of the leading reasons for fires. Space heaters should never be set up near a sleeping person because of the risk of fires and carbon monoxide poisoning. 

  • Shop for a space heater that has been tested to the latest safety standards. A certified heater will have a safety certification mark from testing organizations such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL) , Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or Intertek (ETL). 

  • Other safety features to look out for when shopping for a new space heater include shutoff features if the space heater were to overheat or tip over and a sturdy cord that is at least six feet in length. 

  • Double check the heater, cord and plug to make sure everything’s in working order before using a space heater. Damage to the electrical wiring can cause a fire. You should also clean any lint or debris out of the heater before turning it on.

  • Keep electric heaters away from water. Never touch an electric space heater if you are wet, as this can cause an electric shock or electrocution.

  • If you live in a mobile home, make sure your space heater is made specifically for use in mobile homes. Mobile homes require specially designed heating equipment to prevent fires. 

  • Check your smoke and carbon monoxide alarm’s batteries. Batteries should be tested monthly and replaced yearly. The CPSC recommends having smoke alarms on every level of the home and each bedroom and to have carbon monoxide alarms on each level of the home outside sleeping areas. 

Additional tips for fuel-burning space heaters:
  • Inspect your fuel-burning space heater every year to make sure it’s still working properly.

  • If you have a mounted, unvented fuel-burning space heater in the home, keep the doors to the rest of the house open to allow for air flow. This prevents pollutants like carbon monoxide from building up inside your home and helps the heater work properly. Otherwise, do not use fuel-burning space heaters in the home because of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.