One day last winter I was down in my unfinished basement working on music. My fingers were too cold to play the guitar. So I grabbed a space heater that I tested long-term on Wirecutter, placed it on the wooden workbench where my audio workstation was set up, and plugged it into the nearest power strip – the one my Marshall amplifier was plugged into.
I turned on the heater and waited five seconds. The power strip exploded.
It may not have been the stupidest thing I've ever done, but when I saw the sparks fade from the smoldering clump of burned plastic, I knew it was high on the list.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, an estimated 25,000 residential fires are linked to space heater use each year, causing more than 300 deaths and 6,000 trips to the emergency room. Despite the frightening numbers, space heaters are actually much safer today than they used to be.
"The electric heaters I grew up with were open," said Linda Hotz, category director of the Home Comfort team at home appliance manufacturer De & # 39; Longhi. "Most heaters today are 100 times better, but they still have a heating element, so they're not as safe as an air purifier, for example."
While electric, radiant or convection heating is usually safer and more efficient than a combustion heating system, producing heat still requires heat, which is always associated with risks. Fortunately, space heating designs now have better insulation around the heating coils and smaller grilles to prevent prying fingers from finding their way inside. Many modern space heaters – including those recommended by Wirecutter – also have an automatic shutdown that turns off the power when the unit reaches a certain temperature, and a sensor to detect a clogged air duct, which can cause heat build-up. Some have toggle switches that turn off the heater when it's not flat on the floor.
As Ms. Hotz noted, most space heaters now need to be approved by an independent safety testing laboratory such as Intertek (whose certification often appears as the "ETL" seal on the item) or UL. But as I demonstrated in my basement, nothing is foolproof. Here are a few ways to ensure that you are using a heater safely.
The heating belongs on the floor
It can be tempting to place your space heater somewhere so that it blows right in your face. Don't do this – unless you're lying flat on the floor, which is almost the only place it should ever go. Don't put it on a shelf, stool, or wooden workbench in the basement. If possible, keep it away from the carpet and definitely from your bed. While these scenarios seem safe, they increase the risk of the heater falling, tipping over, or otherwise overheating, which could result in a fire.
To avoid this, we generally recommend placing your space heater on the flattest and smoothest surface available. Using some of Wirecutter's picks, including the Vornado VHEAT Vintage Heater, you can tilt the heating element up. The Vornado VH200 and AVH10 are inclined slightly upwards by default, but cannot be tilted any further. Don't try to find a way around this.
Keep it away from the water
This should go without saying, but electricity and water are an even more deadly combination than orange juice and toothpaste. Keep your space heating away from kitchens and bathrooms.
Also avoid flammable objects
The Consumer Product Safety Commission calls it the "three-foot rule," and it's pretty simple: avoid placing a space heater within three feet of flammable objects. Some manuals list curtains, papers, furniture, pillows, and bed linen as items to stay away from. The Association of Home Appliances Manufacturers recommends additional precautions, including removing flammable materials such as paint and matches. When there is even a small risk of falling a pillow or other flammable object, e.g. For example, in an earthquake, place the space heater in a location where the object will not land on it.
Never leave the heater alone
The best way to prevent a fire is to never leave a space heater unattended. If you have children or pets who could knock over a heater or drape fabric on it, keep an eye on their operation. The U.S. Fire Protection Agency recommends keeping young children at least three feet away from a space heater. However, it is best to keep them out of the reach of children in a room or closet, even if they are not connected. Amp device draws significant current. The plug and cable in combination with some intuitive on / off switches pose a danger to a curious toddler who does not expect an electric shock.
The instructions with many space heaters also warn against leaving them on while you sleep. Some of Wirecutter's favorites, like the De & # 39; Longhi TRD40615T and Lasko FH500 All Season Comfort Control Tower Fan and Heater in One, come with timers to minimize the chances of them running unattended. (Oil-filled radiators like the De & # 39; Longhi are particularly good for bedrooms as they retain heat for longer and continue to give off heat after being switched off.)
It wants to be in a socket
Most modern space heaters should have enough cords for you to plug them into an electrical outlet and position them conveniently in the room for maximum warmth. Note that we said wall socket: Manufacturers do not recommend placing room heaters on surge protectors, extension cords, plug timers, G.F.C.I. Sockets (the kind with the test and reset buttons) – anything that isn't a socket. These extra layers of electrical connection can overload the circuit or create additional resistance that can cause heat to build up, potentially resulting in fire or internal electrical damage.
Many manufacturers also recommend keeping the space heater a few feet away from the wall to which it is connected to avoid overheating the wall itself. Many of the picks in the Wirecutter guide fill an entire room with heat, so you should be able to get adequate output from the heater at a safe distance.
If you have extra slack in the cord or need to use an electrical outlet in an adjacent room, resist the urge to hide the cord from your eyes. Do not pack it under a rug or couch, as this may prevent heat from escaping. Also, avoid pinching or bending the cable, e.g. B. by a tightly closed door hinge, which can hinder the electrical current and lead to a build-up of heat and energy.
How to add Smart Controls
Space heaters with smart home functionality are rare in the US. But technology and regulatory standards are moving fast and we can expect more smart space heating technology in the next year or two.
In the meantime, if you want to use heating remotely or on a schedule, some of Wirecutter picks can do it. The Lasko FH500 All Season Comfort Control Tower fan and heating in one and the Vornado OSCTH1 have integrated digital timers. Wirecutter's oil-filled radiator pick, the De & # 39; Longhi TRD40615T, has an analog 24-hour dial that allows you to set a schedule.
If your space heater doesn't have a timer, or you're just determined to send heating jobs to your voice assistant, consider a plug-in smart outlet like the Wemo Mini. Although most manufacturers advise against connecting a space heater to an extension cord or surge protector, a representative from the Wemo outlet manufacturer, Belkin, said in an interview that Wirecutter's interpretation of product specifications, as well as our testing, confirmed that a Wemo Mini should do so Be sure to use space heaters up to 15 amps or 1,800 watts of power. Most of Wirecutter's picks achieve a maximum output of 1,500 watts. Not all heaters are created equal, however, and the Belkin representative added a caveat: "Some space heaters with embedded fans may use more power and generate high inrush currents that can damage or wear out the switch contacts."
So you should be ready – but remember, you won't turn on a heater without first making sure it is securely positioned and not leaving it on unattended.
A version of this article is published by Wirecutter. Want to learn more about the best ways to buy and how to use them? Visit the website for the latest reviews and daily specials.