How to stay safe when using space heaters

Devices should be plugged into wall socket

By Daniel Dahm - Digital Manager

A sample fire alarm at an Orange County Fire Rescue station.

ORLANDO, Fla. - With cold weather gripping Central Florida, more residents will be using space heaters, fireplaces and other methods to stay warm.

Central Florida fire officials and the National Fire Protection Association offered these tips to prevent home-heating fires.

Space heater safety

  • Space heaters need space. Keep all things that burn, such as drapes, bedding and furniture at least 3 feet from the heater.
  • Make sure the space heater has an emergency shut-off in case it's tipped over.
  • Plug electric space heaters into an outlet with sufficient capacity and never into an extension cord. "You want to make sure you plug it in to an actual outlet when you're using them," Orange County Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Marshall: Inez Pressler said. "When you select a portable space heater, make sure it's one that once it's turned on, if it tips over, it automatically turns off for you." 
  • Use the proper grade of fuel for a liquid-fuel space heater, and never use gasoline in a heater not approved for gasoline use. Refuel only in a well-ventilated area and when the equipment is cool.
  • Turn off space heaters whenever the room is unoccupied.
  • Because space heaters are easy to knock over in the dark, turn them off when going to bed. However, make sure your primary heating equipment for bedrooms is sufficient to avoid risks from severe cold.

Fireplace and chimney safety

  • Have your chimney inspected annually and cleaned if necessary.
  • Open the flue and damper before starting a fire.
  • Use only paper or kindling wood, not a flammable liquid, to start the fire.
  • Make sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to prevent sparks from flying into the room.
  • Allow fireplace and wood-stove ashes to cool and then place them in a metal container, which should be kept away from the house.
  • In a fireplace or wood stove, use only dry seasoned wood to avoid the buildup of creosote, an oily deposit that catches fire easily.
  • If you're burning a fire all day, make sure it gets very hot at least twice a day to remove creosote and ash from the chimney.
  • Don't use artificial logs in wood stoves.

General home-heating tips

  • Don't use an oven or grill to heat a home.
  • To prevent deadly carbon monoxide build-up, make sure fuel-burning equipment is vented to the outside, the venting is clear and unobstructed, and the exit point is sealed around the vent.
  • Inspect heating equipment annually and clean it as necessary.
  • Install smoke alarms outside each sleeping area. "Everyone should have working smoke alarms in the home," Pressler said. "Every level and every sleeping room."
  • Call 311 and firefighters will do a home safety visit and check your fire alarms

"This is a great time to get outside and do some lawn and home maintenance that can prevent fires," a fire official said. "Clean out your gutters and remove dead vegetation and flammable bushes that are within 30 feet of your home. Your plants should be healthy and green, and the lawn should be well irrigated."

Homeowners should replace mulch, which is highly flammable, with gravel or rock. Trees should be thinned out so there is 10 to 15 feet between the tree crowns, and limbs should be pruned to a height of six to 10 feet.

Don't plug space heaters into power strips

When it gets cold outside this winter, make sure not to plug your space heater into a power strip.

Fire officials warn that such a setup is a fire hazard, CBS News reported.

"You should never plug a heater into a power strip," Umatilla County Fire District #1 in Hermiston, Oregon, warned. "These units are not designed to handle the high current flow needed for a space heater and can overheat or even catch fire due to the added energy flow."

A second warning came after a house fire was caused by a space heater, CBS said. The heater ignited a sofa, authorities said.

"If you are operating them make sure you're operating them in a safe manner," Sterling Rahe, public information officer with the Toledo Fire Department, told a CBS affiliate. "Make sure there's a space at least a minimum of three feet around that space heater."

Heating elements can get up to 500 to 600 degrees, firefighters said. It should always be plugged directly into the wall.

"A lot of these fires, kind of have a common theme," said Rahe. "Things were left unattended."

Firefighters warn of heating dangers

"December, January, February are definitely our biggest months of heating fires," said Orlando Fire Department District Chief David Haley.

The winter months typically bring an increase in heating-related emergency calls, but when the temperatures drop to near freezing that number can spike even more.  Haley said many of the calls come from the use of space heaters.

"They are very volatile and things happen, unfortunately, with space heaters," said Haley.

According to firefighters, space heaters are responsible for nearly 80 percent of accidental fire deaths, something Haley said can easily be prevented with proper use.

"Keep a safety zone around the perimeter. I would say 3 feet from people being able to knock them over," said Haley.  "Keeping them away from combustibles. Keeping them away from your upholstered furniture. Don't dry your clothes on them. You know, things that are common sense."

While firefighters illustrated the dangers of space heaters, they also said permanent heaters can pose a risk if not properly cleaned and maintained.

"It should be cleaned on an annual basis. I know we don't use it much here, but it's still the right thing to do," Haley said.

 

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