Recently, a cottage caught fire in Grand Beach, Man., on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, burning the structure to a blackened shell. No one was hurt during the fire, but it did damage the exteriors of two neighbouring buildings. The fire department believed the fire was an accident caused by a left-on space heater.
While space heaters are a great alternative to the cost and hassle of central heat, if left running, they pose a potential fire hazard. “Never leave the house with an appliance like that plugged in,” says Doug Sinclair, the public education coordinator for Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service. If left unattended, a space heater runs the risk of overheating and sparking a fire.
If you are going to use a space heater, Sinclair recommends keeping it at least a metre away from the wall and positioning it on a flat surface. “You’ve got to give it room to breathe a bit,” he says. “If they’re right against the wall there’s more potential for them to overheat.” The bedroom can also be a hazardous zone, especially if you’re the type of sleeper who tends to toss and turn. “If it’s by a bed somewhere and a blanket falls on it and it’s covered, it’s going to overheat.”
It’s best to keep any types of linen like towels, covers, and laundry, away from a space heater. And if you are using the space heater in the bedroom, don’t leave it on all night. “You plug them in, they heat up and then you’re going to be going to sleep for seven or eight hours. That’s quite a long time for a unit to be plugged in that’s got heat coming from it,” Sinclair says. Instead, he suggests leaving it on in the room for a few hours before you go to sleep. “Use it during the day or the evening. It’ll heat up the room quite well if you plug it in for any length of time. Then when you’re going to fall asleep, unplug it, and hopefully the heat will carry you through the night.”
Once you’ve finished using the space heater, make sure it’s cooled down before storing it. There can still be some residual heat that could burn storage containers like cardboard boxes, or cause it to overheat if put in an enclosed space. If a fire were to erupt, Sinclair says it’s always smart to have a fire extinguisher on hand. “If it’s a small, tiny fire, you know, something the size of a small trash container or like a pot of food or a frying pan, if you have a fire extinguisher, great. You can put it out,” Sinclair says. If the fire is bigger than that, you should immediately evacuate the premises and call the fire department. “Early warnings and detection are key.”
When purchasing a space heater, you should check to make sure it’s been certified by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL). In Canada, these include Intertek Group (ETL), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and Canadian Standards Association (CSA). It’s also always better to buy the product new rather than used, Sinclair says. Then you can be certain it’s been properly certified.
The style of space heater you get depends on the area you’re trying to heat and how much warmth you want it to provide. But, regardless of the style, there are a few blanket features every space heater should have: it should be encased in some kind of protective covering, it should have a sturdy base so that it won’t tip over easily, and it should have an automatic shut-off in case it does get knocked over. In Sinclair’s case, he used to have a fan-style heater, a taller model with a greater chance of tipping over. But this wasn’t an issue thanks to the safety features. “That one had a mechanism that if you moved it a centimetre, it automatically shut off. It was very, very sensitive,” he says.
So, while space heaters are great for warming up the cottage on a cold, winter day, make sure to unplug it when you’re not around.