Space Heaters: Safety, Energy Efficiency & More FAQs

Winter’s is coming up fast! It’s the time of year we see many homeowners as well as business owners firing up space heaters for added warmth. Some wonder if their space heater is safe to use, while others question if portable space heaters are more efficient than whole home systems. has the answers to these hot questions and more, below!


Are space heaters safe?

Space heaters were responsible for 40 percent of home heating fires from 2009 to 2013, and 84 percent of residential heating fire deaths during this period. These statistics alone are enough to make you question the safety of space heaters. With such fires reported in the media, perhaps you’ve heard of a house fire caused by space heater use, and wonder if they are really safe?

The answer is yes, space heaters themselves are safe to use and must meet certain consumer safety standards. Safety issues arise when space heaters are not used properly or in a safe manner. The top causes of space heater fires are:

  1. Operating a space heater too close to flammable items
  2. Running space heaters unattended
  3. Operating a fuel-burning space heater with a dirty chimney

There are two main types of space heaters: electric space heaters and fuel-burning space heaters. To operate your electric space heater safely and reduce your risk of danger, always follow the usage instructions below:

  • Keep the area surrounding your space heater clear at all times. The 3-foot radius around your space heater should be free of flammable items, such as curtains, blankets, papers, toys, and other materials.
  • Keep children away from space heaters. To avoid accidental burns or tipping the space heater over, keep children away from the space heater at all times. Create a child-free zone in the 3-foot area surrounding your space heater.
  • Never operate a space heater unattended. If a space heater is in operation, a responsible adult should always be present. Never leave a space heater running when the house is empty, or while you’re sleeping.
  • Use the space heater on a flat surface. Sitting a space heater on an uneven surface may cause it to tip over, and ignite nearby items.
  • Always plug your space heater into the wall socket. Do not operate a space heater with an extension cord. Extension cords are not meant to be permanent power solutions. They may overheat, or cause someone to trip, knocking over your space heater.
  • Purchase an electric space heater with added safety features. Models are available with automatic shutoff systems which will turn the unit off if tipped over.

The tips above for electric space heater use are great practices for fuel-burning space heaters, too. When using a fuel-burning space heater, you need to take added precautions due to heating fuel use:

  • Only use appropriate fuels. Fill the heater only with the type and/or grade of fuel recommended by the space heater manufacturer.
  • Use with adequate ventilation. Vent your fuel-burning space heater for your safety, as the combustion process can produce carbon monoxide and other potentially harmful byproducts. Use the space heater with an open window, and only refuel it outdoors.
  • Don’t use the space heater if you smell gas. If you smell gas, do not light your space heater. Open the windows and doors to vent the home or building. Do not use until it is inspected and repaired by a professional.
  • Take precautions when lighting the pilot. If your space heater’s pilot light extinguishes, do not attempt to relight it for a minimum of five minutes. This time will allow gas to dissipate. When reigniting the space heater, light the match prior to turning on the gas.
  • Purchase fuel-burning space heaters with enhanced safety features. Look for models with shutoff mechanisms which detect low ambient oxygen. If you’re using an older model without such features, replace it for your safety.

Are space heaters more energy efficient?

When it comes to indoor heating options, many wonder are space heaters more energy efficient than central and other home heating systems? To determine which is more efficient, you’ll need to examine factors relating to the space heater and the HVAC heating system you’re comparing it to.

  • How much energy is consumed by the space heater? How efficient is your central heating system or other HVAC system?
  • What is the cost of utility power used to run each system, or fuel costs for fuel-burning space heaters?
  • What is the temperature of the home or office?

Generally, electric space heaters are not as energy efficient as an HVAC system. If there are only a few rooms which need to be heated, where it can be more efficient to run space heaters than the central heating system. This is true unless you have a central heating system with great efficiency, such as a geothermal heating system. If your home or business’s heating system has trouble heating a single room effectively, running a space heater in that room only may be a more efficient option than turning up the thermostat across the entire home.

To find efficient space heaters for use in your home or office, purchase one with these features:

  • Choose a space heater with the capacity to heat the size of room you want to use it in. Do not purchase an oversized heater to warm a small room, as overheating the space creates energy waste.
  • Lower wattage models consume less energy.
  • Look for features such as a timer or thermostat, which can help you better control heating output.

Space heater FAQs

Q: What types of space heaters are available?
A: The main types of space heaters available are convection, radiant, and conducive.

Q: What is a convection space heater?
A: Convection space heaters produce heat as air passes over heating element(s). They slowly create heat which lasts quite a while. They offer quiet operation, and may have a fan to circulate heat.

Q: What is a radiant space heater?
A: Radiant space heaters pass liquid through a system of pipes to generate warmth. They are good for spot heating, as they cannot pass heat through obstacles. Radiant heaters are a great option for quick heating production.

Q: What is a conductive space heater?
A: Electric space heaters are conductive, producing heat via heating elements. Electric space heaters can be smaller and easily moved.

Q: Can I use a space heater as my primary source of heat?
A: As discussed above, this isn’t an efficient choice to heat a whole home or office. In some situations, space heaters may be used as a primary heat source for one or two rooms.

Q: My space heater smells like it is burning – is that normal?
A: A burning smell from your space heater isn’t always something to be concerned with. New space heaters can emit a burning smell the first few times they’re used. This usually goes away after a few uses. If you haven’t used the unit in a while, you may have a burning smell as dust and debris are burned off the heating element.

Q: How can I tell if my space heater meets safety standards?
A: Look for labeling from UL (Underwriters Laboratory) which indicates the heater offers safe construction and performance meeting U.S. voluntary safety standards.

Easy Fire Prevention Tips

In 2011, heating equipment related fires accounted for 14 percent of all residential fires which were reported for the year, totaling approximately 53,600 residential fires. These fires caused 400 deaths, 1,520 injuries, and property damage totaling $893 million.

In efforts to keep homeowners and their families safe, here are a few fire prevention tips to ensure safe use of heating equipment, proper maintenance, and safer alternatives.

House on fire

Solving space heating issues

According to the National Fire Prevention Association, space heaters are the leading cause of heating-related fires, contributing to approximately one-third of all heating-related fires. Leading to an estimated 18,000 home fires in 2011, space heater fires caused 320 deaths and 1,180 injuries to civilians, along with $423 million in property damage. Space heaters refer to both portable and stationary equipment, including stoves, gas and electric heaters, and fireplace inserts.

Common causes of space heater fires include storing combustible materials too close to the device, leaving the equipment unattended, failure to clean or maintain the equipment, and turning the equipment on or not turning it off unintentionally. 15 percent of space heater fires start in a flue or chimney, with the buildup of creosote being a leading cause of these incidents.

Many homeowners utilize space heaters to correct comfort issues within the home. Here are some safer alternatives:

  • If your central heating system is not keeping your home comfortable, an undersized unit may be to blame. Contractors can perform load calculations to determine proper sizing for heating systems and recommend upgrading the central heating system or installing equipment such as a ductless mini split to provide supplemental heating for the home.
  • If you are having issues with certain areas of the home requiring the use of space heaters because they are colder than the rest of the home, you may find the installation of a zoning system for independent temperature control in these areas to be helpful. Zoning utilizes the central heating system, eliminating the need for unsafe space heaters. Contractors may also help by evaluating your home’s insulation and making recommended upgrades to help retain more heat.

Space heaters should be used only as a temporary solution, and operating instructions need to be followed. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Always keep the three-foot area surrounding the space heater clear, and remove all flammable and combustible items.
  • Have chimneys cleaned and inspected on a yearly basis.
  • Never leave space heaters running unattended, or while sleeping.
  • Properly vent fuel burning space heaters.
  • Only use space heaters on flat, stable surfaces.
  • Do not use extension cords with space heaters.

Fire prevention for central heating units

According to 2011 statistics from the National Fire Prevention Association, central heating systems were involved in approximately 7,500 residential fires, which was 14 percent of the total heating-related home fires for the year. While there is a much lower risk of fire with a central heating unit compared to portable equipment, they do occur.

Undetermined mechanical failures and malfunctions, as well as automatic control failures are the leading causes of central heating unit fires. Failing to keep the unit cleaned properly and storing combustible materials too close to the heating system are other common causes.

  • If you are wondering about fire risks associated with your central heating unit, contact a contractor and ask about common causes or preventative services that can lower your risk. You may want to look into system cleaning, which removes flammable materials from within the system, such as dust and lint.
  • You may also consider a system inspection, which can allow automatic control issues and other heating system fire hazards to be identified and replaced.

A preventative maintenance service appointment is an ideal time for contractors to correct unsafe behaviors which could contribute to heating fires; identify combustible materials and other items which are stored too close to the unit and talk to the homeowner about making a plan to keep all items at least three feet away from the heating unit at all times.

Whether it is Fire Prevention Month or not, staying safe during heating season should be a priority for every homeowner.