Space heaters make rooms cozier but can also burn the house down and kill someone, if not properly used.
A space heater is blamed for a devastating fire that claimed a historic home on Indianapolis Avenue in October.
Firefighters arrived within a few minutes of receiving the alarm, but the back of the house was already engulfed in flames and unsalvageable, Mike Baird, Lebanon Fire Department chief deputy, said.
The furnace wasn’t working properly at the Indianapolis Avenue home, and the propane space heater was too close to something combustible, Baird said.
No lives were lost in that fire, but space heaters account for 43 percent of U.S. home heating fires and 85 percent of associated deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Space heaters are self-contained appliances used to heat a room or small space. Most are electrical, but they can be fueled by propane, kerosene or other fuels. Both types can easily turn deadly.
Authorities want homeowners to be aware of the dangers as temperatures dip into the low 30s this month.
“Make sure children and pets are kept well away from space heaters at all times, and remember that space heaters should never be left unattended,” Lorraine Carli, vice president of NFPA’s outreach and advocacy division, said in a news conference. “When you’re ready to go to sleep, it’s time to turn off your space heater.”Space heaters should be placed a minimum of 3 feet away from anything that can burn, and must be turned off when people leave the room or go to sleep, Carli and Baird agree.
Baird knows cold people leave space heaters on while they sleep but suggests caution.
“If you can shut them off, do that,” he said. “If you can’t do that, keep them as far as possible from anything combustible.”
Pets should not be left to roam around during the night when space heaters are in use.
“And don’t leave them running during the day with pets in the house,” Baird said. “Pets knock them over and drag them.”
A pet’s leg may become tangled in the cord and the panicked pet could leave a heater in contact with combustibles as it fights off the cord. Or the pet’s fur may catch fire.
“A cat can jump up on a shelf and knock a lit candle off, and there you go,” Baird said.
The Lebanon Fire Department was once called to a blaze started by a dog who jumped up to get a pizza box on a stove and its paw turned on a burner that lit the pizza box and then the house.
“Firemen are paranoid by nature because we see everything,” Baird said. “You need three things for fire – heat, fuel and oxygen. If you have all three, there can be fire.”
Ceramic space heaters are safer than some types, but still can cause fires if they topple, Baird said.
Electric space heaters should never be used in bathrooms or around water. For one thing, smaller heaters can fall into a wet tub or sink and electrocute someone. They also pose electrocution risk even if they don’t fall into water but just come into contact with a small amount of it.
Most space heaters are not designed for use in moist environments and can arc and cause a fire when moisture in the air contacts certain elements of the heater, Brian Hicks, Gillman Home Center manager, said. Space heaters can be special ordered for moist environments, but the buyer should always check before choosing one for a moist place, Hicks added.
Electric space heaters also pose a danger if they overload an electrical circuit and should never be plugged into an extension cord.
Extension cords are not allowed in businesses, and homeowners should not use them, either, Baird said, adding, “I would never use an extension cord in my home. Even at Christmas, I use a surge protector with a circuit breaker.”
Circuit breakers are acceptable if an outlet is not available.
Extension cords are meant for temporary use only with a tool or something that does not draw much power over an extended or repeated period.
“The little, brown extension cords are really, really cheap – a fire waiting to happen,” Baird said. But even heavy duty extension cords are not for permanent use, he said.
Some homeowners find trouble when they attempt to thaw pipes under their house with a salamander-type heater, one that uses fuel such as propane to make a flame, plus electricity to blow the heat.
“Open flames under your house are not a good thing,” Baird said.
Others become desperate and try to heat with an open oven, but that can cause asphyxiation, injury and fire. Children are prone to falling onto hot oven doors, Baird said.
Similarly, charcoal and gas grills should never be used as indoor heat sources and generators should never be operated in a home or garage, even with the doors cracked or open, because they produce toxic carbon monoxide fumes that have been known to asphyxiate entire families.
If someone’s heat is shut off, or they have an emergency, they should call local authorities and ask where they might find help but not use their oven, grills or generators as alternative heat sources.
Even approved space heaters fueled by kerosene and others can produce toxic carbon monoxide fumes, and the NFPA suggests that homes be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors to avoid tragedy. Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas.
Some smoke detectors also include carbon monoxide detectors, and they are available at home improvement and department stores and online.