Can Space Heaters Cause Fires?

As the seasons change, many people want to take their deck or pool out of storage and get them set up for relaxing outside.

On top of that, as the air starts to get chillier, it becomes harder and harder to enjoy time inside your home without cranking up the heat. So if you’re looking for a cheap way to keep your home comfortable, you might want to consider investing in a space heater.

But are space heaters safe? Many stories of people who have burned down their houses because they placed their space heater too close to something that caught on fire. What if we told you that most of those cases could have been prevented by following a few easy safety tips?

To help you avoid creating a disaster, we’re going to take a look at what causes space heaters to overheat and catch fire and how you can prevent that from happening.

Here’s the bottom line: If you’re looking for a quick and cheap way to keep your home warm during the winter months, then using a space heater (if you follow our safety tips) is one of the safest and most cost-effective ways to do it.

Can Space Heaters Cause Fires?

Yes, space heaters can cause fires. Because its primary job is to make things warm, space heaters often come with many safety hazards. These hazards increase the risk of fire and other dangers like burns. Sometimes, it’s possible for a space heater even to cause a fatal fire.

But that doesn’t mean that you should not use one; in fact, there are many benefits to using a space heater. However, it would help if you took extra precautions to make your home as safe as possible when one of these devices is running. It’s always a good idea to use them under adult supervision and follow the manufacturer’s instructions strictly.

Space Heaters are a Leading Cause of Fires

Heating equipment is one of the most common reasons for fires in American homes, according to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA).

An average of 52,050 heating equipment fire calls was received by local fire departments every year between 2012 to 2016. This accounted for 15% of all the house fires that were reported during this period.

Unfortunately, 490 civilian casualties occurred, 1,400 injuries were reported, and about $1 billion of direct property damage was caused. In addition, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 1,200 fires occur every year due to portable electric space heaters.

While electric space heaters are pricier to run than combustion space heaters, they are the only vent-free and safe to use in your house. This is because they don’t come with carbon monoxide emissions.

Types of Space Heaters and Why They Cause Fires

In total, four different types of space heaters are currently available on the market:

1. Convection Heaters: These heaters rely on fan blades and air movement to warm a room’s occupants. They operate at temperatures between 100 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Since they emit high levels of heat, convection heater users should be sure to monitor the heat level at all times to prevent a fire from occurring.

2. Fan Heaters: Fan heaters are similar to convection heaters, but they don’t use blades. Instead, these types of space heaters rely on electricity to produce the energy needed to warm a room’s occupants. Like convection heaters, users must have them set at a low enough level to avoid starting fires.

3. Ceramic Heaters: The heating element in these devices is located within a glass enclosure, and it transfers its heat to the ceramic plate. If the unit is tipped over, it could start a fire due to the exposed heating element.

4. Oil Heaters: These space heaters have a fuel tank that heats the oil and transfers the energy to a fan. If the oil leaks out, it could start a fire. 

Understanding the basic risks of space heaters is vital to comprehending how they cause fires. The first hazard is the amount of electricity that is consumed when in use.

The wattage of an electric heater measures the amount of electricity it consumes while operating. The lower the rating, the more watts per amp (w/a). For example, a 1500-watt heater uses 12.5 amps when executing heat.

Given that the heater, power cable, receptacle, and electrical wiring are in good working conditions and that only one heater is in use per electrical circuit, the assumed amperage in our example should be safe in your home. If any of the elements mentioned appear to be faulty, then this can easily cause a fire.

The misuse of electrical extension cords is a typical problem with portable electric heaters. The manufacturer’s instructions usually state that the electrical space heater should be plugged directly into an outlet.

Placing portable electric heaters close to combustibles is the second most prevalent cause of fires associated with this device. Hence, there is a caution on most electric space heaters that states they should be kept at least three feet away from flammable objects.

Some newer models of space heaters have safety features that cut the heat or switch off the device if it overheats or happens to fall. The majority, however, cannot tell if things around them are becoming too hot or about to catch fire.

How Are Space Heaters Regulated?

Space heaters are regulated by three of the most important federal agencies:     

  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates the fireplace and space heater industry under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA). 
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determines the maximum allowable surface temperature for all space heaters.
  • The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is an organization that establishes guidelines for preventing fire hazards.

Additionally, numerous safety tests must be completed before electric heaters are sold to the public (e.g., Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and Canadian Standards Association (CSA) testing). A portable electric heater with a UL listing, for example, must complete an extreme tip-over orientation test.

The other body involved in the International Code Council (ICC). The code specifies that space heaters can be utilized in certain circumstances, including “as required” and “when necessary.”

It also requires that portable space heaters only be used with listed and labeled appliances, and they should be plugged into an approved outlet.

Fire Investigation & Subrogation Considerations: What to Be Aware of Following a Fire Event

When you look back on the past few years, there has been a noticeable pattern in how electrical fires are starting. While our cases do not generally involve manufacturing defects, they provide an interesting lens to view the dangers of non-flame-producing heat sources. 

Many researchers have pointed to these fires as more deadly than traditional combustion/flame-producing fires.

For this article, we will focus on space heaters, one of the more common sources of electrical fires. The primary distinction between a traditional fire and an electrical one is that with traditional fires, you can usually see or smell smoke, flames, or even embers (remember the glow from your childhood campfire?).

With electrical fires, you do not see the flames or smoke (at least initially), but instead, you may notice a burning smell. You may also hear a popping noise as the circuit board within the device malfunctions and emits a “signature” sound similar to popcorn in a hot oiled pan on your stovetop.

While this is not an exhaustive list of ways to recognize electrical fires, it gives you a basic idea. One thing that will be common in all electrical fires is that you will not see or smell smoke until sufficient damage has already occurred.

The leading cause of an electrical fire is heating, which means that space heaters are a primary source. So what can be done to reduce the risk of a fire?

Reducing Fire Hazard When Using Space Heaters

The most obvious thing is not to leave a space heater unattended. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and warnings. If you have pets or children, make sure they do not handle the device – even with supervision – it’s not advisable to allow your kids to handle a space heater.

The second most obvious thing is to ensure that the device has sufficient clearance around it so that there are no flammable materials close by. This means both space and air – do not block the ventilation holes on the heater.

But also be aware that many fires have started in closets or behind doors where heaters have been pushed into the corner and then forgotten about.

Other crucial safety tips include:

  • Operate a heater only if you’re sure it’s in good working order. Examine the heater, cable, and plug for damage before using it. Follow all operation and maintenance instructions closely.
  • If you purchased an electric heater, visit or to determine if it has been recalled.
  • Again, never leave a space heater on when you are not present, especially sleeping. Keep combustible items at least 3 feet (0.9 m) away from the heater’s front, sides, and rear.
  • Make sure the heater plug is firmly inserted into the wall outlet. By no means should you attempt to use the outlet for heating purposes if your heater doesn’t plug in securely!
  • Check frequently during operation to see if the heater plug, cord, or wall outlet is hot! If these components are hot, switch off the heater, have a professional electrician inspect it, and develop the right solution.

Final Thoughts

Space heaters are handy tools, but they can pose a threat to you and your family’s safety if not used properly. So take the proper precautions before using an electric heater – it may be just what you need to stay warm this winter, but only if you take the proper precautions now!