Stay safe with space heaters

It's cold outside! Sometimes it seems like no matter how high you set your thermostat, the only thing that really goes up is your bill at the end of the month. In a drafty house, this might really be the case, as the hot air that you're paying for is escaping to the outside. The first and best thing you can do is to try and seal up leaks and cracks, but sometimes what you need is a band-aid solution. Space heaters are just that. They aren't as efficient as a well-maintained furnace - meaning that they use more energy to produce the same amount of heat - and they're only really effective at warming a small area, but space heaters can be an great way to lower heating costs and stay warm if used effectively.

Safety is a primary concern with space heaters, which are associated with 33 percent of all home fires and 81 percent of all civilian fire deaths according to The National Fire Protection Association's Home Fires Involving Heating Equipment report. This makes space heaters the second largest cause of home fires behind cooking, and the second leading cause of civilian fire deaths behind smoking. If you use a space heater with a good safety rating and are careful to adhere to safe usage guidelines, you and your family can enjoy the warmth provided by a space heater without worry.

Remember the three feet rule
The most important rule with space heaters is to keep anything flammable at least three feet away. This includes paper, carpeting, furniture and anything else that could catch fire with prolonged exposure to a heating element. Allowing bedding or other flammable material to rest too close to a space heater accounted for 53 percent of home fire deaths, according to the NFPA.

A common mistake that homeowners make is thinking, because the heat being produced by a space heater feels safe only a foot or two away, that this is a safe range. Prolonged exposure can cause something flammable to accumulate a dangerous level of heat, so play it safe. Children should also be subject to the three feet rule – they won't catch fire, but contact with certain kinds of space heaters can cause burns in only a few seconds.

Install a carbon monoxide detector
Fuel burning space heaters are less popular these days because of the safety concerns, but there are still a number on the market. Fuel burning space heaters have the advantage of working even during a power outage, but the trade-off is that you have to be very careful about toxic fumes. Make sure that your heater is properly vented if it burns kerosene or propane, and install a carbon monoxide alarm just in case.

Turn it off before bed
No one likes cold toes in bed, so the temptation to fall asleep with a space heater keeping your bedroom toasty is understandable. An unsupervised space heater is the most dangerous space heater, however, and the practice leads to preventable fires every year. Turn space heaters off before bed and before you leave a room to keep yourself and your family safe.

Insist on automatic shutoff
Automatic shutoff is a crucial safety feature that many, though not all, space heaters include. The function turns your space heater off in the event that it tips over, preventing countless fires every year. This is particularly important in heaters that are hot to the touch, because they can be extremely difficult to pick back up after falling without sustaining burns. To be safe, you should make sure that any space heater you buy includes the feature.

Place the heater on a flat, solid surface
This advice sounds a little obvious, but it bears repeating – only place your heater on a flat, solid floor. This means that space heaters should not be used in rooms with wall-to-wall carpeting and should never be placed on top of furniture.

Look for the label
Reputable space heater manufacturers get their products tested by recognized testing laboratories to ensure safety. The Consumer Reports article on space heaters recommended that consumers look for labels by laboratories like the Underwriters Laboratory, ETL (Intertek) or the Canadian Standards Association to make sure that the space heater they are buying meets voluntary U.S. safety standards.