Space heater safety tips: Experts explain how to properly use them this winter

A space heater sparked the inferno that killed 17 people, including eight children, in the Bronx over the weekend.
PHILADELPHIA -- The tragic fires in New York City on Sunday and in Philadelphia last Wednesday underscore the importance of safety as more people look to crank up the heat in their homes.

A space heater sparked the inferno that killed 17 people, including eight children, in the Bronx.

"It started in a malfunctioning electric space heater, that was the cause of the fire," said New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro.

Sadly, fires ignited by space heaters are all too common. The National Fire Protection Association said space heaters account for 44 percent of home heating-related fires and 85 percent of associated deaths.

There is no question: if you are using one, you need to be extremely careful.

"You want to look at it and make sure that it's got appropriate screening around the heating elements that you know small children and pets can't easily get burned," said Acting Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook.

Also, choose a space heater with a thermostat, overheat protection, and auto shut-off when it tips over.

Other tips:

  • Put your space heater on a bare, smooth floor.
  • Do not set it on a shelf, stool or cardboard box
  • Keep off rugs and carpet
  • Never tilt your space heater
  • Never keep it in a wet location like a kitchen/bathroom unless it is designed for it
  • Manufacturers advise you to plug your space heater directly into a wall outlet instead of a surge protector or extension cord
  • Keep your space heater a few feet away from the wall where it's plugged in.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends using the three-foot-rule: keep the heater three feet away from anything flammable including furniture and curtains.

Also keep it three feet away from people, especially kids.

And never leave a space heater on in a room that's unattended. Turn it off and unplug it when you go to bed.

And an important reminder about smoke alarms: never take out the batteries unless you're replacing them, and never disable alarms. Alarms with built-in batteries can be permanently disabled with a tool.

"You can see it here on the back of this alarm and it has some very detailed instructions and this is only to be used at the end of an alarm's life," said Sharon Cooksey of Kidde.

Once it's disabled, the detector will not work anymore. It must be thrown away and immediately replaced.

Also, New York City officials said the residents who fled the fire where the unit started left the door open and that allowed the fire to spread through the building.

In Philadelphia, some buildings are required to have self-closing doors. Make sure your building is compliant. Read the rules and talk to your building supervisor.

National Fire Protection Association: Electric Space Heater Safety

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