In January 2022, close to 200 New York Fire Department members responded to a five-alarm blaze in a Bronx high-rise. A space heater malfunctioned in an apartment bedroom, and the 19-floor building was filled with smoke. By the time the fire was out, 63 were injured and 19 died. Nine of the deceased were children.
It was one of the deadliest space heater incidents in recent memory, but smaller events happen more than you might realize.
According to the Canadian Red Cross, heating devices are the most common cause of home fires in the winter.
That doesn't mean space heaters are always dangerous. Designers and manufacturers have created many types of heaters that you can use safely and comfortably in your home:
Fan-forced convection heaters push warm air into the room, heating the space quickly
Radiant heaters provide direct heat to a person, animal or object without warming the air, making them great for outdoors
Oil-filled heaters efficiently provide heat to entire rooms
Micathermic heaters radiate warmth for longer periods
When used safely, these heaters are a comfy and welcome addition to your home.
However, if you own a space heater, read on for five tips to keep your heater from becoming a hazard this winter.
1. Give it space
In summary, heaters need their space.
Space heaters are cozy, but they're bad news for flammable objects that may be nearby.
The winter of 2022–2023 is only weeks old, but news outlets have already reported fires caused or worsened by space heaters being too close to flammable materials.
What to do
To avoid any issues, place your space heater at least one metre away from anything flammable. That includes rugs, curtains, upholstered furniture, paper or blankets.
Put the heater on the floor — not on a shelf or table where something might jostle it. Face it into the open room, not toward any other object — even if you don't think that object will catch fire.
2. Keep an eye on it
Space heaters make your home warm and cozy — but can be dangerous when unsupervised.
It's early morning in January, and you turn on the space heater in your home office to warm the room before you start work. You turn it on high and hop in the shower or go to make breakfast.
As the fan kicks on, it starts to rustle the papers in your ever-growing to-do pile. The paper sparks and causes a fire.
What to do
Treat your space heater like an open flame and only use it while in the room. If you need to preheat a space, stay nearby so you can check on the heating unit every few minutes.
Make sure it doesn't fall over, and nothing falls on it. Also, keep an eye out for electrical red flags such as sparking.
3. Plug it into the wall
It can be tempting to plug your space heater into an extension cord or multi-plug adapter.
Unfortunately, space heaters and extension cords are a no-go.
According to Technical Safety BC, an authority in British Columbia, extension cords and adapters can't handle the energy required to run a space heater. The constant flow of intense power can burn through the wiring and start a fire.
What to do
Plug your space heater directly into a wall outlet. If possible, don't plug anything else into that outlet.
If you have other appliances you need to run in the same room, use your extension cord or adapter for those items. Reserve one plug for the heater.
4. Take advantage of smart controls
Many of today's space heaters come with built-in safety features, which can lower the risk of operating a heater.
You can place your space heater far away from anything flammable and plug it into its own outlet, but what happens if someone knocks it over or an object falls onto it?
The same goes for electrical problems. Even if you ensure it's working correctly every time you plug it in, something could go wrong, and the unit could overheat.
What to do
Buy a space heater with an automatic shutoff feature. These safeguards will disable the heater if it tips, falls over or exceeds a safe heat level.
5. Only use what you need
Space heaters make a room super comfy, but don't overdo it.
Extra heaters can increase your risk of fire — not to mention your chances of a high electricity bill. Don't pack multiple space heaters into a room because you want some extra warmth.
What to do
Space heaters pack enough power to warm the air in small to moderately sized areas. The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) recommends approximately 100 watts of heating power per square metre of space.
Final tips and tricks
Here are some quick tips to keep you and your home even safer:
Check it every time. Before you plug it in, examine the cord for breaks or exposed wiring — especially if it's your first time using the unit this season.
Verify certification. Provincial law requires all electrical items sold to have some kind of certification. Before purchasing, especially online, check the ESA's list of recognized Canadian and international certification and testing authorities.
Put it out of the way. Most space heaters are low and easily kicked over. Place yours in a low-traffic area to reduce the risk of someone walking into it.