Space heater specs and safety

Authored By Ashley Hopkins

As cold weather settles into the Tennessee Valley over the next few weeks, many of us will need ways to heat or supplement the existing heating systems in our homes. Hard-to-heat areas such as converted porches, garages and sunrooms often need an extra boost in temperature when the nights get really frigid. The threat of inclement weather often calls for a heat source in front of pipes to minimize the chances of freezing, or in a bedroom with a child or elderly person who is sensitive to the elements.

Most turn to space heaters to accomplish these goals, and there’s a lot to know about these little devices before putting them to use in your home, according to John Watts, energy and communication services senior supervisor at EPB.

As with any electrical device, safety is the No. 1 priority when it comes to space heaters. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires annually are associated with space heaters-300 of which result in death. On top of this, 6,000 people receive ER treatment for burn injuries caused by the hot surfaces of space heaters.

Watts recommends taking the following safety precautions: 

-Only purchase newer-model heaters with current safety features (such as a tip-over safety switch, which automatically shuts off the heater if the unit falls over), and make sure the heater carries the UL label.

-Choose a thermostatically controlled heater to avoid the energy waste of overheating a room.

-Select a heater appropriate to the size of room it will be used in; oversized heaters waste energy.

-Keep heater away from foot traffic-especially children and pets.

-Heaters should be placed on a level, hard, nonflammable surface (not carpet, furniture or countertops) and away from drapes, couches, etc.

-Follow manufacturer guidelines for proper use.

-Make sure smoke/carbon monoxide detectors are in good working condition before using a space heater.

-Have any problems with your space heater professionally repaired. If it trips your ground fault circuit interrupter, don’t assume the problem is with the GFCI-get the heater checked by a pro before continuing use.

-Remember that the purpose of a space heater is to provide supplemental heat, not thaw pipes, cook food, dry clothing, etc.

-Keep space heaters at least 3 feet from anything combustible, like fuel, paint, furniture, drapes, bedding, etc.

-Never leave space heaters unattended or plugged in when not in use.

-Never use extension cords/multiple plugs with a space heater, and make sure the unit is not plugged into the same circuit as other appliances.

-Use heaters with fans when trying to heat whole rooms.

Energy use
“Space heaters are not energy-efficient, but some are advertised as such,” Watts said. “The fine print reads that one room can be heated and the central system can be turned down so that the whole house doesn’t require as much heat. But space heaters should not be used to heat the whole house; they are expensive to operate.”

In some cases, a small space heater can be a sufficient option if you only need to heat one room or supplement inadequate heating in one room.

If energy-efficiency is a concern, check the wattage before purchasing. Most use between 600 and 1,500 watts of power, and the larger the wattage, the more power it will use.

If feasible, electric wall heaters are a better choice-they produce one unit of heat for every unit of electricity. That means they are 100 percent energy-efficient. Geothermal heat pumps offer three units of heat for one unit of electricity. That translates into a 300 percent efficiency.

“The best way to heat your home is with a properly working heat pump,” Watts said. “This technology uses the refrigeration cycle to move heat rather than to create it. Space heaters are old technology that use a lot of energy to heat with.”

Watts pointed out that many space heaters or similar products, such as artificial fireplaces, tout energy-efficiency when they really are not. Most make the claims based on the homeowner’s willingness to turn the zone thermostat way down and rely almost exclusively on the other heat source. The energy savings come from turning the thermostat down, not from the auxiliary heat source.

Some such products claim something like that it “uses about as much energy per hour to run as most coffee makers”-which may be technically accurate -but most people don’t run their coffee makers all day long, so the claim shouldn’t be taken to mean that energy consumption of both devices is equivalent.

Convection: Convection heaters are good for warming an entire room in your house.  

-Radiant: These heaters are used to heat people/objects in a room, not specifically the air. These provide warmth to the person/object right in front of it. These provide heat very quickly, but they have many dangers associated with them. They can burn people and animals, and they are a fire threat when put too close to flammable or combustible materials. 

-Combination: Combination heaters provide the best of radiant and combustion heaters. They have a fan to help distribute heat throughout the home-but they aren’t as efficient as other heaters.

“But if you’re looking for a heater that is able to stand up to everyday use and abuse, combination heaters are tough to beat,” Watts said.

John Pless is the public relations coordinator at EPB.

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