A deadly fire sparked by a faulty space heater on Sunday killed 17 people living in a 19-story Bronx apartment building. The fire was the city’s most lethal in more than 30 years, with children numbering eight of the victims. Dozens more counted among the injured.
The electric space heater that ignited the blaze had likely been left running in a third-floor unit for days to supplement the building’s heat, an anonymous New York City official told the New York Times. Heating equipment is the second-leading cause of U.S. home fires and the third-leading cause of home fire deaths and injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
As winter continues, here’s what landlords and building residents need to know about operating space heaters safely.
What are some of the most common reasons for space heater fires?
The use of electrical extension cords or power strips, proximity to other objects and running space heaters unattended are some of the most common reasons for space heater fires, according to HVAC solutions company HVAC.com and consulting firm J.S. Held.
Manufacturers typically recommend that space heaters be directly plugged into a wall outlet, since the current that space heaters channel can be handled by an electrical outlet, whereas an extension cord might not be equipped for the job.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends that space heater users leave at least three feet of space between the sides and top of the heater and any combustible objects, like a bed, curtains, sofas, etc. Similarly, a common pitfall of office (or home office) workers is placing a space heater beneath a desk. This move is a no-no because the desk could potentially contain combustible materials, and the space heater is much more likely to be forgotten when out of sight, leading to the risk of it being left on for an extended period.
Leaving a space heater operating while unattended or asleep is also a mistake that could have serious consequences. If no one is there to see an accident happen, it can quickly evolve into a dangerous fire.
How do you know if a space heater is safe or reliable?
Look for space heaters with labels from recognized testing labs like UL (Underwriters Laboratory), ETL (Intertek), or CSA (Canadian Standards Association), Consumer Reports recommends. These labs will confirm that the space heater’s construction and performance meet U.S. standards.
What space heater safety features should I look for?
Fortunately, there are a number of safety features that many space heaters come equipped with today in order to combat human errors.
A tip-over switch will turn the unit off if it falls over or is not in an upright position. Automatic shut-off and overheating features will turn the unit off it it becomes too hot. Similarly, heaters with thermometers will turn on and off automatically to heat a room to the desired temperature. Lastly, heaters with plastic faces can help prevent burns, which may be especially important to people with younger children or pets.
Is it ok if my space heater cord has a small break, but is still working?
No. If the cord, heater or plug appear damaged in any way, do not use the heater until it can be examined by a professional, or get a replacement one.
Is it normal for the heater plug or cord to be hot when in use?
No. Users should regularly check the heater plug, cord and wall outlet faceplates to see if they are hot. If they are, that means either the plug or outlet are not operating as they should, and need to be repaired by an electrician.
Can I just use a space heater instead of turning on the heat in my apartment?
Space heaters don’t efficiently heat an entire apartment, but are built to heat a small area or room. When buying a space heater, consumers should look at recommendations for how large of a space the heater will warm and match it to their own room that needs heating.
Is it ok if my space heater smells like it’s burning?
Sometimes a burning smell is normal during the first few uses of a space heater’s life, according to HVAC.com. Likewise, if a space heater is just coming out of storage and has dust on it, that could also cause a slight burning smell. But, if a heater is giving off an unusual burning smell, users should look for any evidence of foreign objects stuck to or on the heater, which could be a fire hazard.
Can I hide the cord underneath a rug, so it’s less unsightly?
No. The power cord could more easily become damaged underneath a rug or carpet, which could quickly become a fire hazard. Likewise, the CPSC recommends that space heaters be placed a low, level surface like a ceramic tile floor, so that it is at a lower risk of tipping over, and if it does, it won’t be as much of a fire hazard as it would be falling on a carpet.
A note to landlords
Space heaters are pretty popular home solutions for tenants, especially in older buildings that might experience colds drafts in winter. Rather than fighting them with all-out bans, work to educate tenants on safe practices and good models with reliable safety features so that everyone can be a bit warmer, happier, and safer this winter.