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How to safely use a space heater when it gets cold

Make sure you're using these small but mighty machines safely.

It's about that time of year where it gets so cold that you might decide to break out your trusty space heater. Space heaters are great, as they provide immediate warmth and are relatively cost-efficient. But using them incorrectly could result in a home fire, so it's important to know space heater safety tips.

Most recently, an apartment complex in the Bronx, New York, caught fire from a malfunctioning electric space heater, causing more than a dozen deaths, said New York City Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro.

In fact, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates there are about 1,700 fires per year because of space heaters, resulting in about 80 deaths and 160 injuries annually.

Needless to say, it's crucial to know how to use a space heater the right way to prevent fires at home. Here are some tips for keeping safe and warm with your space heater.

  1. Keep combustible and flammable items at least three feet away from the space heater when on. This includes blankets, toys, dog beds, as well as curtains, bedding, and upholstered furniture ... anything that could catch flame easily if exposed.
  2. Plug it directly into the wall. According to Jamie Novak, a fire investigator with the St. Paul Fire Department in Minnesota, space heaters “are small, but they draw a lot of electricity.” Some extension cords and power strips can't handle that amount of electricity — which could cause a fire. So best to keep them plugged directly into a wall outlet.
  3. Remember to turn it off when you leave the room. An unattended space heater left on for too long puts your home at risk of an electrical fire, so make sure your turn the heater off if you're about to leave it unattended or if you're about to fall asleep.
  4. To further reduce the risk of a space heater fire, purchase one that has an automated timer, so you know it'll shut off after a few hours or when it gets too hot. There is still a risk for fire with these heaters, the CPSC warns, but less than with a space heater with no timed setting.
  5. A certified heater will have a safety certification mark. Never use a space heater you suspect is damaged, and check the lists at or to make sure your heater has not been recalled.
  6. If the space heater's plug or cord, the wall outlet or faceplate is hot, stop using the heater. Call an electrician to check the plug or faulty wall outlet, or a repair person if the cord is hot.
  7. Keep the heater on a stable, level surface, where it will not be knocked over. Never run the heater’s cord under rugs or carpeting.
  8. Space heaters can also cause dangerous overheating. The CSPC warns not to not leave space heaters running unattended around infants, or individuals with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities.  

Last but not least, have a fire safety plan with your family.

In order to practice fire safety, experts say it's important to:

  • Practice fire escape plans every month.
  • Have a meeting point away from your home after you've evacuated.
  • Check smoke detectors every month to make sure they're working.

Having an escape plan in case of an emergency could be the difference between life and death for some family members. Practicing your escape plan so it becomes muscle memory is beneficial in the case that you do have an emergency — because you'll know exactly what to do and can manage a safe evacuation.

If you live in a high-rise building and there's a fire in your room, it's best to exit your unit as soon as possible, closing the door if you can, and staying low to the ground, says NYC Fire Department Deputy Assistant Chief Michael Ajello. It's also crucial to never use the elevator, always the stairs.

If the fire isn't in your room, it's best to stay put and put wet towels under your door so the smoke can't travel through. Fire experts say many high-rise buildings are equipped with building materials that are designed to limit the spread of fire.