WEST CHESTER, Pa. - During the coldest months of the year - December, January, and February - space heaters are a leading cause of home fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Space heaters account for 25 percent of home heating fires and 74 percent of deaths, according to the NFPA.

Energy experts are concerned that the increase in fuel prices will push consumers into buying space heaters, which have more potential for hazard. A spokesman for a major home improvement chain acknowledged that space heater sales picked up earlier this year.

Yet portable heaters remain a problem because they allow for the greatest number of errors by consumers using them, says the NFPA. The most frequent mistake? Placing the space heater too close to a combustible material.

Blaine Fox, a 25-year veteran of the heating and air conditioning industry and the general manager of ServiceMark, a full-service HVACR company operating in Delaware and Pennsylvania, suggests the following safety tips that contractors can pass along to their residential customers:

  • Read carefully the directions for its use. "It's the most basic rule of all, yet it's amazing how many consumers fail to read the owner's manual," says Fox. "Take five minutes to familiarize yourself with how the space heater functions and pay close attention to the safety tips."

  • Check for a safety endorsement of a national testing laboratory.

  • Make a decision based on safety features as well as heating capacity. For example, does your space heater automatically shut off when tipped over?

  • Keep your heater at least 3 feet from anything flammable.

  • Don't use space heaters for thawing food, drying clothes, or thawing pipes.

  • Check for frayed insulation if you have an electric space heater.

  • Kid- and pet-proof your heater. Never place a space heater where a child or pet could accidentally knock it over.

  • Never place a space heater too close to a bed, especially a child's bed.

  • Keep newspapers, magazines, and fabrics from curtains, clothes, or bedding away from space heaters, radiators, and fireplaces.

  • Check with your child's college or university before buying them a space heater. Some schools have strict guidelines about space heaters' safety requirements and require NFPA safety approval.

  • Choose a space heater with a guard around the flame area or the heating element. This helps keep children, pets, and clothing away from the heat source.

  • Pay attention to size. The wrong size could increase indoor pollutants or simply waste energy.

  • Keep doors open to the rest of the house if you are using an unvented fuel-burning space heater. This helps to prevent pollutant build-up and promotes proper combustion. Even vented heaters require ventilation for proper combustion.

  • Never leave a space heater on when you go to sleep or leave the area. For fuel-fired heaters, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide could accumulate or uncontrolled burning could cause a fire.

  • Don't use or store flammable liquids (such as gasoline) around a space heater. The flammable vapors can flow from one part of the room to another and be ignited by the open flame or by an electrical spark.

  • Pay particular attention to mobile homes because they require specially designed heating equipment. Only use electric or vented fuel-fired heaters.

  • Ultimate safety - When not using your space heater, don't just turn it off, unplug it.

    Publication date: 12/19/2005