Space Heater Safety Tips for Your Apartment

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Photo courtesy of Paul.Carroll via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

It has been crazy cold in Chicago this winter. How cold? The coldest winter in at least 30 years. Cold enough for the phrase “polar vortex” to enter everyday conversations. Cold enough that you probably braved your apartment building’s storage area weeks ago to pull out your heaviest sweaters and the really big winter comforter.

It’s also cold enough that even if you have never used a space heater in your apartment before, you may have bought one this year. After all, hardware stores that sell space heaters and other winter supplies are expected to be among the retail winners this winter.

But while you are focused on staying warm, don’t lose your focus on being safe. According to the Illinois State Fire Marshal, there were 67 home fires in Illinois in 2012 that were caused by “alternative heaters.”

Space Heater Safety

There are several tips to remember for staying safe when you are using a space heater. FEMA even has a nice short video summary.

The Chicago Fire Department does not recommend that people use space heaters, but knows that they do. The CFD has some suggestions for staying safe. So does FEMA. And the National Fire Prevention Association also offers this advice:

  • Keep space heaters at least three feet away from anything that can burn. This includes drapes, furniture, walls, newspapers and blankets. And make sure that your children know how important it is to keep the space heater where it is. CFD says some fires have started because children move the space heater closer for more heat after their parents have gone to bed.
  • Do not use extension cords with space heaters. Space heaters use a lot of current, which can actually melt an extension cord and start a fire. If you absolutely HAVE to use an extension cord, only use one that has the rating to carry the load. The best way to stay safe is to use a cord that is the same size or bigger as the cord that is on the space heater.
  • Keep the electric space heater out of the bathroom and anyplace else (near the kitchen sink? laundry area?) where there can get hit with a lot of water.
  • Don’t leave a space heater on when you are not in the room.
  • Consumer Reports has a buying guide for space heaters. One suggestion from CR is to look for models with safety features, including a switch that automatically turns off the unit if it overheats, or if it tips over.
  • And the last thing to remember is never use space heaters as the main source of heat for your apartment. They were not meant to be used that way. If your landlord is not providing enough heat, call 311. Chicago’s Department of buildings enforces the city’s heat ordinance, which says that landlords have to keep units at 68 degrees from 8:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. and 66 degrees overnight. The ordinance is in effect from Sept 15 through June 1.

With the right preparation, staying warm should be safe for the rest of the winter, with the only fires heating hot chocolate, cooking a warming dinner or providing a glow in the fireplace.

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