Bulletin #7218, Maine Home Energy: Home Heating Safety
Prepared by Extension Professor Kathy Hopkins. Reviewed by Extension Professor Donna Coffin and Senior Research and Planning Analyst Richard E. Taylor, formerly with the Maine Fire Marshal’s Office.
Heating devices can be extremely dangerous if you use them incorrectly. Improper use of home heating equipment can cause death from fire, lack of oxygen, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Yet home heating equipment accidents are largely preventable if you operate equipment properly and follow basic safety practices.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2009 heating equipment fires were responsible for 18 percent of all reported home fires, second only to cooking fires. Space heaters and chimney connectors each accounted for about a third of those home heating equipment fires, and space heaters were involved in the majority of home heating fire deaths. The leading causes of home heating fires are failure to clean equipment, and combustibles too close to heating equipment (Hall 2011, i–ii).
General heating safety
- Your home should have battery-operated smoke detectors on each floor. Check batteries monthly and replace them at least annually.
- Consider installing carbon monoxide (CO) detectors. CO is a poisonous gas that is odorless and colorless. Home heating and cooking devices can be sources of carbon monoxide. Know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, which include headaches, nausea, stomach pain, dizziness, and burning in the eyes and nose. If you think you have a carbon monoxide problem, open your doors and windows immediately. Leave the area and contact a heating contractor to evaluate and repair faulty appliances. If someone is seriously ill or unconscious, call 911.
- Keep type ABC multipurpose fire extinguishers on hand and near heating appliances. Make sure that everyone in your family knows how to use a fire extinguisher.
- Everyone in your home should know and practice a fire escape plan. Make sure everyone knows two ways out of every room.
- Each year, have a qualified heating contractor inspect, clean, and maintain your furnace, boiler, water heater, vents, and chimney connections. Change the furnace filter at recommended intervals.
- Make a habit of checking chimneys, flues, and vents for leakage and blockage by creosote and debris. Leakage through cracks or holes could cause black stains on the outside of the chimney or flue. These stains can mean that pollutants are leaking into the house.
- If you have a heating appliance that has a direct vent through the side wall of the house, keep it clear of snow and leaves.
- Fresh air is important to help carry pollutants up chimneys, stovepipes and flues, and is necessary for the complete combustion of any fuel. Never block ventilation openings. Make sure your appliances are inspected for adequate ventilation.
- Never operate more than one heating appliance through a single flue. Flues are usually designed and built for a specific appliance that was originally built into the structure.
- Do not obstruct heating ducts, cold-air returns, or any heat source. Keep furniture away from baseboard heaters.
- Do not store paper materials or use flammable liquids, paints, or solvents near appliances with open flames such as gas water heaters, furnaces, and stoves.
- Keep all combustible materials a safe distance away from any heat source.
- Never use a gas or charcoal grill inside your home or in a closed garage.
General tips for supplemental heaters
If your home heating system stops working during a power outage or other emergency, you may need to use a supplemental heater. Or you may be using supplemental heaters to offset your oil use. Safety is critical when using supplemental heaters.
- Don’t try to heat the whole house. Select a primary room to heat and close off all unnecessary rooms. Supplemental heaters are not intended to replace your home’s central heating system. However, try to make sure that any rooms with water pipes from your home’s plumbing or heating system don’t drop below freezing, or the pipes could freeze and be damaged.
- Choose a room on the warmer side of the house, away from prevailing winds. Avoid rooms with large windows or uninsulated walls. Your basement may be a warm place in cold weather because the earth acts as insulation and cuts heat loss.
- If you are using a vented stove or space heater, select a room with a stove or chimney flue to connect the vent to.
- Read and follow the manufacturer’s operating instructions for your supplemental heating device. A good practice is to read the instructions and warning labels aloud to all members of the household to make sure everyone understands how to operate the heater safely. Keep the owner’s manual at hand.
- Do not use electric or gas ovens for space heating.
Tips for electric space heaters
- Do not use electric space heaters in bathrooms or near water unless the unit is specifically designed for wet areas. Corrosion from dampness in the heater could lead to a fire or shock hazard.
- Keep all space heaters at least three feet away from household combustibles.
- Do not overload outlets used for electric space heaters. Make sure the outlet you use has the capacity for your particular type of heater. Inspect for cracked, frayed or broken plugs or loose connections before plugging in a space heater.
- Do not use extension cords with space heaters unless absolutely necessary. If you must use an extension cord, be sure to use a 12-gauge or 14-gauge cord, labeled 12AWG or 14AWG (American Wire Gauge). The gauge number indicates the thickness of the wire in the cord. The smaller the number, the greater the thickness of the wire. Only heavy-duty extension cords should be used with space heaters: do not use a cord marked 16AWG or 18AWG.
- Inspect the heater cord regularly. Do not use a heater with a damaged cord.
- Check periodically for a secure plug-to-outlet fit. Feel the plug and the cord: they may feel warm, because heaters draw a lot of power, but they should not feel especially hot. If they do, unplug the heater immediately. If the plug becomes very hot, the outlet may need to be replaced by a licensed electrician.
- Place the heaters on a flat, level surface. Heaters placed on furniture can fall off, become damaged, or come in contact with combustible material.
- Look for the UL Mark (the letters “UL” inside a circle) or “U.L. listed” on your electric heater. This means the appliance has met Underwriters Laboratories safety standards.
- Don’t run electrical cords under rugs or allow them to drape across heaters. Be sure not to place anything on top of a cord, since this could cause the cord to overheat and ignite.
- Always turn off supplemental heaters when you leave the room or go to sleep.
- Do not leave a space heater in a room with unsupervised children or pets.
- Choose and use a space heater with a guard around the heating element. This will help keep children, pets, and clothing away from the heat source.
- Make sure the heater has an emergency shutoff that automatically turns off the heater if it tips over. Do not use space heaters to dry clothes, shoes, or boots.
Tips for wood stoves and fireplaces
- Have your chimney inspected each year and cleaned if necessary to remove creosote accumulation. Creosote can build up on chimney walls and ignite when hot, causing a chimney fire.
- Wood stoves and other solid-fuel appliances such as pellet stoves should be installed with 36-inch clearances from combustible, unprotected walls or furniture. For specific information on your solid-fuel appliance, check the manufacturer’s recommendations. Also check with a code enforcement officer, your local fire department, or the Maine Fire Marshall’s Office.
- Use durable fireplace screens in front of fireplaces.
- Allow ashes to cool before disposing of them. Carry them out of your house in a metal bucket or container.
- Burn only seasoned hardwood in a wood stove. Don’t burn trash, waste wood, cardboard boxes, or Christmas trees. Items other than seasoned firewood may burn unevenly, contain toxins, or create creosote. Burning these things can increase the risk of unintended fires.
- Keep people, pets, and flammable objects—including paper, kindling, and clothing—at least three feet away from fireplaces and wood stoves.
- Do not use a flammable liquid to start a fire.
Tips for portable unvented kerosene heaters
- Use only heaters that display the UL Mark or “U.L. listed.”
- Read the manufacturer’s instruction booklet carefully and follow directions for operation and maintenance. Read and heed warning decal messages, typically placed on the back of the heater.
- Open a window to provide ventilation when a portable kerosene heater is in use.
- Use only K1 or 1K kerosene, which is a low-sulfur product suitable for unvented kerosene heaters. K1 may also come with a red dye to indicate that it is exempt from excise tax. Whether is it white or dyed red, it should be crystal clear and free from impurities. Impurities may pose a fire danger.
- Always refuel the heater outside with the unit off. Do it in an area where small spills can be quickly cleaned up. Avoid carpets or vinyl surfaces. Carpets absorb odor, and vinyl will deteriorate from kerosene spills. Never refuel inside or while the heater is in operation.
- Place heater away from curtains, drapes, bedding, books, papers, furniture, or other flammable material.
- Keep children away from the heater. Do not use it in areas where pets could tip the unit over.
- Inspect the heater for leaks and excess carbon residue every time you refuel. Clean and maintain it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Be sure the flame goes out when you turn the heater off.
- Do not use hairspray or other flammable aerosol sprays, lacquers, or flammable liquids in the area where these heaters are used. Kerosene heaters, as well as gas water heaters, will ignite vaporized fuels.
- Store kerosene in a tool shed or other outbuilding in an area away from open flames or spark ignition points. Never store kerosene in a home basement.
- When refueling, do not fill the heater’s fuel tank completely because cold kerosene expands as it warms. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding the length of time the refueled tank should stand at room temperature before the heater is used.
U.S. Fire Administration. 2003. Winter Fire Safety Tips for the Home. Emmitsburg, Maryland: Department of Homeland Security. http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-249-508.pdf
Office of Maine State Fire Marshall. 2008. Recommended Standards For the Installation of Solid Fuel Burning Stoves. Augusta, ME: State of Maine Department of Public Safety. http://www.state.me.us/dps/fmo/documents/WoodburningStoves.pdf
Consumer Product Safety Commission. 2001. What You Should Know About Space Heaters. Bethesda, MD: U.S. CPSC. http://www.nnins.com/documents/WHATYOUSHOULDKNOWABOUTSPACEHEATERS.pdf
Hall, John R. Jr. 2011. Home Fires Involving Heating Equipment. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association. http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/home_heating_fact_sheet.pdf
Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.
© 2009, 2012
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