Are Space Heaters Dangerous?

Space heaters and other home heating equipment are the second leading cause of home fires and home fire deaths (cooking and smoking respectively are number one). But to say space heaters are dangerous could be misleading.

I submit to you that a space heater approved by a recognized testing laboratory, used according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and properly maintained by its owner does not pose a threat. The danger lies in the user failing to adhere to safety guidelines.

In this article we’ll look at some staggering statistics concerning fires caused by their unsafe/improper use, and we’ll give helpful reminders and tips on how to prevent such tragedies.

Space Heaters + Carelessness = FIRE

In a five-year span, 2011-2015, fire departments responded to more than 54,000 home fires involving heating equipment. Here are some additional facts concerning civilian fire-related injuries and deaths during this same period:

  • 480 people died in these fires;
  • 1,470 people sustained fire injuries;
  • 53% of home fire deaths resulted from heating equipment and combustibles being too close to each other;
  • 85% of home fire deaths involved stationary or portable heaters;
  • 48% of home fires caused by heaters occurred in December, January and February;
  • more than $1 billion in direct property damage was reported.

Space Heater Types and Safety Tips

Space heaters are often used in the home for supplemental heating. The three basic types along with safety tips and reminders are:
Portable electric space heaters

  • ensure the heater you use or purchase has been approved by a recognized testing laboratory;
  • make sure the heater has an automatic shut-off if tipped over; some also have alarms;
  • before using, inspect the power cord thoroughly; replace if any damage is found;
  • buy new, not used heaters;
  • always position the heater on a flat, solid surface;
  • without fail, make sure there is a minimum 3-foot clearance between the unit and all combustible materials;
  • do not leave the heater on when you are asleep or not present in the room;
  • clean and maintain the heater according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Fuel burning space heaters

  • all new un-vented gas-fired space heaters should have an oxygen depletion sensor that will turn the unit off when there is a reduced oxygen level in the area; if you have an older unit, replace it with a new one to help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning;
  • ensure proper ventilation is present by opening a window when the unit is operating;
  • for indoor heating, only use heaters approved for indoor use;
  • without fail, make sure there is a minimum 3-foot clearance between the unit and all combustible materials;
  • if you smell gas in the heating appliance, do not light it; turn controls off, open windows and doors, and call a qualified service technician;
  • if your appliance has a pilot light and the pilot light goes out, allow at least five minutes before re-lighting it; keep your face away from the opening;
  • only use the type and grade of fuel recommended by the manufacturer;
  • when refueling the appliance, only do so when the unit is cool;
  • always refuel outside or in a well-ventilated room;
  • clean and maintain the heater according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Wood burning stoves

  • a wood stove should have a label affixed to it indicating it has been tested and approved by a recognized testing laboratory;
  • have a professional install the stove, or ensure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the stove, exhaust connections, and exhaust flue;
  • keep stove doors closed unless adding fuel or stoking the fire;
  • ensure embers are completely cooled before removing; use an approved, air-tight container to transport ashes out of the home;
  • without fail, make sure there is a minimum 3-foot clearance between the stove and all combustible materials;
  • use dry, seasoned wood in a wood stove;
  • use dry, seasoned wood pellets in a pellet stove;
  • use newspaper or kindling wood to start the fire, never a flammable liquid;
  • have the exhaust flue, and chimney if applicable, professionally cleaned yearly.

Never Use These For Heating Your Home!

  • oven/cook top burners;
  • propane camping stove;
  • fuel burning heaters designed for outdoor use only;
  • non-ventilated/improperly ventilated gas furnace;
  • old furnace with possible cracked heat exchanger;
  • gas generator used indoors to power electric heater;
  • hot coals from a charcoal grill (don’t laugh, it’s been done!).

Other Heating Equipment Dangers

In addition to fire-related injuries, deaths and property damage, there are other dangers for you to be aware of:

  • improperly placed space heaters can be a trip hazard – place them out of the way while maintaining the minimum 3-foot clearance from combustibles;
  • anyone can be burned by a heater; be extra vigilant to ensure toddlers, young children, the elderly and special needs family members keep clear of it;
  • electrical cords under rugs or in contact with curtains can create a hazard; keep all cords visible;
  • use of extension cords is hazardous; plug heaters directly into a receptacle (outlet) but do not overload it;
  • carbon monoxide is a real threat, especially with fuel burning space heaters, wood burning stoves and wood burning fireplaces; ensure carbon monoxide alarms are installed in your home according to manufacturer’s instructions, but be aware that they are not as reliable as smoke detectors;
  • ensure you have a smoke alarm system installed in your home and that it is working properly.

By the way, according to current standards, at least one carbon monoxide alarm is required in your home if you have a fireplace, gas or propane appliances, or an attached garage. Yes, an attached garage.

Closing Thoughts

Space heaters, wood burning stoves and fireplaces can provide supplemental heat and, in some cases, save you money on your electric bill. You should not be afraid to use them, just be sure to follow all safety instructions.

I use a portable electric space heater in my front room (my office) in the winter months because that room is colder than others in my home. If I were to turn the thermostat up, the furnace would unnecessarily heat my entire home. I also have winter curtains that I keep closed to help keep the cold air out.

This article is not intended to take the place of the safety instructions that come with your heater. You must read and follow them.

Please read – and re-read this article, if necessary – and let me know if you have any questions, comments or recommendation. I’d be interested in hearing from you. If you’ve experienced a tragedy that you would like to share in order to help get my point across here, please do so. I will not be critical of you, nor will I approve any such comments.

Stay Safe and,

Kind Regards,

Comments 2

  1. Hey, Rick!

    Jace again.

    This article caught my eye so I had to give it a read.

    Once again, you have made me feel good about the precautions I have taken with our space heaters and our wood burning stove. I keep a close eye on keeping the creosote build-up down (seasoning my own wood helps) and I have the installers come inspect regularly.

    I don’t take chances with any of the supplemental heaters that are electric. I don’t even rip the warning tags off the cords like most people!

    Great info and helpful reminders, as always.

    Keep up the excellent work!

    1. Post


      I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read, “I don’t even rip the warning tags off the cords like most people!”. I still have all my tags on, too, but to be honest, I can’t tell you why. Maybe subconsciously it’s for the same reason as you, or maybe I just never thought about it, or maybe I was just plain lazy.

      It sounds like you could be writing safety articles – you stay on top of things.

      I had planned on doing research on which smoke alarms are best and posting the results, but I got sidetracked when my wife asked me to check the sofa (couch) to see if it was hot. She thought I had the electric heat dish too close to it. I did and it was – I did check it, that is, and the sofa was rather warm. I was prompted to move the heat dish and to research and write about space heaters.

      Thank you for again taking time to reply. I know your time is valuable.

      Stay safe and

      Best Regards,


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