They can be, but there are several steps you can take to minimize the risk of fire.

Investing in a portable space heater may seem like a cheap and easy way to warm up a chilly room or cut down your heating bill come winter, but they also come with a bad reputation. "Yes, they can be extremely dangerous," says Chief John Murray of the Nassau County Firefighters Museum and Education Center in Uniondale, New York. "Over the years I have seen—just from a space heater used improperly—fires and injuries and fatalities. It's something people should be very careful with."

woman reading next to radiator
Credit: Getty / Westend61

But if you make smart choices when buying and using your space heater, says Murray, you can stay warm safely and feel more at ease. "If you follow the directions, like with anything else, you should be fine," he says. "Use it as it's supposed to be used." Ahead, exactly how to keep your family safe, sound, and cozy this winter season.

Choose a safe product.

Proper space heater safety starts at the store. "First of all, it's an item people shouldn't shop for a bargain on," says Murray. "They should make sure the unit is well-built and that it's UL listed or UL rated," he explains, which means that it has been safety-tested and approved by the third-party organization Underwriter Laboratories. If you're buying a traditional version with wire mesh over the heating element, make sure the mesh is tightly secured, and don't settle for a heater without an automatic tip-over safety switch. "If somebody bangs into it and knocks it over, it should go off automatically," says Murray. "If the unit doesn't have that, do not buy the unit."

Follow directions during the install.

At home, careful setup of your space heater is just as essential. "There's always a three-foot rule," says Murray; that's the minimum distance you should leave between the heater and anything that could catch on fire: furniture, drapes, your child's stuffed animal basket, your half-dead Christmas tree. "The problem is that people will take these things and put them in the home without reading the directions, and they will plug them in next to a bed, or chair, or other combustible," says Murray. Install your space heater without using an extension cord, since those can also heat up, and choose a spot that's out of your kids' and pets' paths. "The wire mesh still gets hot, so kids can get burned," says Murray.

Use it sparingly.

Once your heater is safely installed, you should never leave it running while it's unattended—and that includes when you're asleep. "Some of them have timers, but I'm not too confident with that," says Murray. "It gives people permission not to think about it. In wintertime, they're a serious cause of fire. They can be just as deadly as candles or anything else." For a safer alternative, Murray recommends radiator-style oil-filled space heaters, which don't get as hot because the heating element is enclosed. "They will heat a room very nicely," he says, "without the possibility of something touching it and catching fire because there's no open element to burn something." And whether you use a space heater or not, Murray stresses the importance of having functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, plus a home escape plan. "Once that fire starts, the clock is running," he says. "To prevent it is the smart thing to do."


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