Electric heater: Five safety tips for when you turn it on

Electric heater: a cost-effective but dangerous option? Space heaters are linked to five times more fire-related fatalities in the home than chimneys or fireplaces are.

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    Amanda Franklin (center) stares at her gutted Harrisburg, Pa., row home as her mother (left) and a family friend console her Oct. 19. Ms. Franklin lost her daughter while her mother also lost three great grandchildren in a fire believed to be caused by a space heater. The portable device, a fuel-burning or electric heater, is linked to more fire-related fatalities in the home than fireplaces or chimneys.
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The arctic cold that has swept much of the United States is causing consumers to bring out an old, but controversial, standby: the space heater.

A compact electric heater is convenient and cost-effective, because it directs heat to a specific location. But it is also potentially hazardous because of the fires it can cause.

Between 1999 and 2002, they were responsible for an average 9,900 residential fires and 190 fatalities a year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). That was nearly five times the annual fatalities linked to fireplaces or chimney fires and nearly 10 times those linked to central-heating fires.

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Early Monday, an elderly South Carolina woman reportedly died in a fire caused because a space heater was too close to her bed, authorities say.

Fortunately, there are several safety steps consumers can take, the CPSC says. These include:

• Placing the heater on a level, hard and nonflammable surface (such as ceramic tile floor);

• Keeping the electric heater at least three feet from bedding, drapes, furniture, and other flammable materials, and keeping children and pets away from space heaters;

• Turning off the heater when going to sleep or leaving the area;

• Using a space heater that has been tested to the latest safety standards and certified by a nationally-recognized testing laboratory;

• Having a smoke alarm with fresh batteries on each level of the house, inside every bedroom, and outside the bedrooms in each sleeping area. In addition, have a carbon monoxide alarm outside the bedrooms in each separate sleeping area.

For space heaters that burn natural gas or other fuel, the CPSC also suggests consumers take steps to guard against carbon-monoxide buildup. These involve:

• Making sure the space heater is correctly rated for the home. An oversized heater could deplete the available oxygen, causing excess carbon monoxide to be produced;

• Keeping a window in the room open at least one inch and keeping doors open to the rest of the house to ensure proper ventilation;

• Having gas and kerosene space heaters inspected annually to ensure proper operation;

• Not using unvented gas space heaters where prohibited by local codes.

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