I’m going to break away from nuisance properties for a second and go into some basics about space heaters. These things keep the Fire Department busy all winter long. They love to torch old houses, especially ones with knob & tube wiring.
People keep setting their homes ablaze with these things. It’s sad. It’s even more annoying that these fires are completely preventable with a little common sense. Today there’s been a death from one. And there will be many more this winter.
Most people don’t realize that a space heater running at full power is the same as running 15 100-watt light bulbs. That is quite a lot of power in that little box. And for old houses with old circuits, especially the lowest-rated 15 amp house circuits, that’s a heavy load of electricity you’re pumping through that wall outlet.
The words “faulty wiring” mean many things. With space heater fires and older wiring that uses fuse boxes, usually what has happened is that wiring INSIDE THE WALLS has started a fire. Naturally it is very difficult to get at a fire that’s started behind sheetrock or plasterboard.
Why would a fire start behind your walls? It is usually because a fuse that is rated too high for the circuit it’s connected to has too much current running through the wire when a space heater is turned on.
A room-sized space heater running at its max setting is usually drawing about 12 to 15 Amps of current at 1,500 watts of power. Older homes with original wiring typically have many circuits in the house that are only capable of 15 Amps. A space heater practically “maxes out” a circuit when it’s running at full power.
When you go above 15 Amps on wiring of any kind that can only handle 15 Amps, the wire itself becomes like the little wires you see inside a toaster when you stick a slice of bread in there. They heat up because the wire is putting up too much resistance to the power flowing across the wire. If you keep this up, anything can cause ignition. Knob and tube wiring is the worst for this because of cloth insulated wires.
Some houses in Philadelphia still have aluminum wiring which is very prone to catch fire when the circuit is overloaded.
You might ask… “shouldn’t the fuse box stop the circuit from overloading?” Not if you banged a 30 Amp fuse in a fuse socket that is supposed to only accept a 15 Amp fuse. And that’s where the problem begins. Fire investigators typically head straight for the fuse box if it’s still intact after a fire to see what the homeowner did with the wiring.
Don’t get me wrong–you can still operate a space heater with older wiring, but you have to know what the wiring in your house is capable of, and even if you have circuit breakers–things can still go wrong for you.
There is no such thing as a “safe” space heater. You can’t rely on “sensor” devices that are installed in space heaters to make them safer. Often enough, when a hot space heater tips over, there’s plenty of residual heat left over to ignite something. That’s true for ALL types of space heaters, all makes and every model.
- If you don’t have smoke alarms in every room, and a CO monitor in the basement, you should not have space heaters. In fact, if you’re ever going to get a space heater, you should pick up smoke detectors and batteries for them in the same trip.
- You can get free smoke detectors from any Philadelphia Fire Department station. Just bang on the front door and ask for one. They are free.
- If you have pets, you really should be prepared for a wagging tail or a curious cat knocking a space heater over. That means when you’re not in the house and the pets have the house to themselves, the space heaters must be turned off. Give your pets blankets when you’re not home.
- Never, ever, EVER use an extension cord to plug in a space heater. If you don’t know what wire gauge is and what the maximum amp rating of the extension cord is and the amp rating of the space heater, then no–you can’t plug a space heater into it.
- Space heaters that use cheap lamp cords to plug into the walls are the most dangerous. If you feel the wire and plug getting warm during usage, unplug the space heater right away and stop using it. Before you buy a space heater, ask the store if you can open the box so you can inspect the plug. Thicker gauge wiring on the appliance is safer.
- The outlet you plug a space heater into should not have anything else plugged into it.
- If you have circuit breakers and you are tripping them when the space heater is turned on, that is a BIG WARNING SIGN. You are overloading that circuit in your house–that’s why the breaker keeps tripping. It’s doing its job and trying to prevent you from setting your house on fire. Switch to a different outlet that you know is on a different circuit or start shedding load until you get it down to where the circuit can handle it.
- If you’re bursting fuses when you’re running the space heater–like when your microwave oven is running the space heater is turned on, STOP. You’re risking catastrophe. Call an electrician and ask to have new service installed for your space heater. It’s either that, or search your house for a circuit that isn’t overloaded. In an old house with only 4 to 6 circuits that is hard to do with all the TVs and computers that are in old houses these days.
- Never ever place a space heater on anything but very short pile carpet, tile or hardwood flooring. Medium pile and shag carpeting are strong ignition sources especially when space heaters tip over. If you have thick carpet everywhere, the only possible places left to place a space heater safely in the house is the bathroom and the kitchen.
- Do not place space heaters anywhere but on or near the floor. Do not place them high up on bookcases, on top of tables or on chairs. Putting a space heater higher than it is designed to go will direct more intense heat up at the ceiling than was otherwise intended. Not only does it waste heat by taking a lot longer to warm the room, you risk igniting objects near the ceiling. Space heaters go on floors.
- Space heaters need at minimum 3 feet of clearance in ALL directions with the exception of oil-filled space heaters that can do with only 1 foot of clearance. Don’t set them up against walls and clear all objects away from the heater. Radiant heaters and any space heater that uses a fan requires a lot of clearance around the heater.
- Pets love space heaters when it’s cold. They love to sit in front of them and easily tip them over. If you have a type that’s very easy to tip over, get rid of it and replace it with one that’s impossible to tip over.
- If you are using a space heater for emergency heating, put the space heater on its lowest setting before going to bed at night, and ensure the area around the space heater is clear of all objects. Space heaters catching quilts and comforters on fire is very common. If you have other occupants in the house who insist on using space heaters unsafely at night, lay down the law. Remove the units or start pulling the fuses that service their rooms until some measure of cooperation and understanding is established. No one wants to suffer a house fire, but people will overlook safety for comfort and still cause fires anyway.
- Never run a space heater unsupervised. If kids are sleeping, switch off the heater near them–chances are good they won’t notice it when they’re not awake and they can switch it back on when they wake up. If you leave the house for any reason, switch it off.
- Basements and space heaters do NOT mix. If you’re running a space heater in the basement and it’s because you have a problem with a gas forced air unit or gas boiler, adding a space heater down there is a wonderful way to up the chances of your house catching on fire or worse, igniting a gas explosion. Unless someone is living down in the basement all the time, then it’s not OK to put a heater down there. It’s an unsupervised area.
There is not much you can do if you know someone who has deployed an armada of space heaters in their home because they don’t have working central heating. The only thing you can do if you’re close to that kind of situation is to get good homeowner’s insurance and hope you never have to use it.
Space heaters were never meant to heat whole homes, and every year we have hundreds of fire calls and firefighters who put their lives on the line because of the careless fires these things cause. And that doesn’t include folks who augment space heaters with running ovens and stove ranges for heating.
No one has ever designed the “fireproof” space heater, and I doubt anyone will. Careless operation of these things kills people and causes lots of property damage.