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On Your Money: Pros and cons of space heaters

By Bill Martens, Wisconsin Public Radio

With winter here to stay for a while, many people are looking to space heaters to help warm their homes.  While they might be effective at heating a small area and can reduce heating costs, an Eau Claire-based financial planner said they can be dangerous.

Kevin McKinley, of McKinley Money, said on Tuesday’s “On Your Money” segment that about 20,000 fires each year are reportedly attributed to home heating systems.  He said, according to the National Fire Protection Association, 80 percent of home heating-related deaths come from space heaters.  The U.S. Product and Consumer Safety Commission also said that 300 people each year die from space heaters and another 6,000 are taken to the emergency room for burns from the small appliances.

McKinley said the best space heaters draw minimal electricity and provide maximum heat, and that they typically cost about 10 cents to 15 cents per hour to operate.  He added that Consumer Reports rated Ambia models highly due to their consistent output of heat and Bionaires for their low level of noise.

The most effective way to use a space heater, according to McKinley, is to use it in one room and turn down the heat in the rest of the home, either by turning down the thermostat or shutting the vents in the home.  Then, that warm air needs to be moved around.

“Use fans to circulate the heat in the room, especially if it’s a large room, and not the fan that comes with the space heater,” said McKinley.  He recommended people have a table fan or a cooling fan to blow the air into other areas of the home.  A ceiling fan can also be effective, he said.

As for safety issues, McKinley said space heaters are more dangerous than they appear, so people should consider the following:

  • Get one that is certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
  • Look for an automatic shut-off feature in case the appliance is tipped over.
  • Electric-powered space heaters are better and safer than those powered by fuel.
  • Plug the space heater directly into the wall outlet; do not use an extension cord.  Also, to reduce the risk of overheating, do not plug anything else into the outlet.
  • Keep a three-foot space around the space heater.  “That means no furniture, no curtains and hopefully not even any carpeting,” said McKinley.  “Put them away from the walls and any high-traffic areas.”
  • In order to see the condition of the cord, do not run it underneath the carpet; place it above the carpet.
  • Do not leave space heaters unattended.

Finally, McKinley advised people be prepared in case of an emergency.

“Make sure that if something does happen that you have tested smoke alarms so that they’re ready to go,” said McKinley.  “In certain cases, you might also need carbon monoxide alerts, especially if you’re using gas or oil heat.”

Editor’s Note: “On Your Money” can be heard each Tuesday at 8 a.m. on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio.