Tips for buying and using portable electric space heaters

During colder months, many people rely on portable heaters to add warmth to select areas of their homes. To help ensure energy efficiency and safety, Otter Tail Power Co. is offering a few tips for buying and using portable, electric space heaters.

When you are shopping around for the perfect electric space heater for you, keep these tips in mind:

  • Buy the right size and shape for your space. When it comes to what an individual needs out of a space heater, everyone’s needs can be a little different. For this reason, manufacturers make space heaters in a variety of wattages. Keep this mind when you start thinking about purchasing one.
    • Wattage affects the amount of heat a unit puts out. Heaters with the same wattage are going to use the same amount of energy and put out the same amount of heat, regardless of price or features. “To best manage your costs, operate the lowest total wattage possible to keep you comfortable,” said Theresa Drexler, senior market planning specialist, for Otter Tail Power Co.
    • Buy your unit based on watts, but also consider what your home can handle. “Don’t be tempted to buy a higher-watt unit because of the additional heat it can deliver unless you know you have adequate capacity in your home wiring,” said Eric Hamm, Otter Tail Power Co.’s safety service manager. Overloading your electrical wiring can result in a blown fuse or tripped circuit breaker as well as a fire hazard.
    • Consider the shape or form of the unit you’re purchasing. A low, sturdily built unit with a wide base will be more stable and less likely to fall over than a tall, thin unit.
  • Look for built-in safety features. There are certain, built-in features you should look for to ensure the safest operation. These include:
    • Overheat protection – Many heaters now have built-in thermostats that monitor temperature. This feature allows your heater to maintain a constant temperature in the room. When the room is cooler than the desired temperature, the heater will turn on to warm that space. When the room is warmer, your heater will turn off. This automated monitoring keeps your electric costs at bay and lowers the chance of your unit overheating. In addition to the thermostat, you’ll want to ensure that your heater has a heat sensor. In the event that your space heater does malfunction or get too hot, this sensor works as an automatic shut-off preventing your heater from starting to overheat.
    • Tilt switch – This feature is included in almost all space heaters sold today and is essential for homes with kids or pets. This switch monitors the stability of your heater. If it happens to get hit and knocked over, this safety device turns off your unit.
    • Cool-touch surfaces – This is another feature that is especially handy for homes with little ones with curious hands. Do you remember when you were little and someone told you not to touch something? What was the first thing you wanted to do? Touch it, whatever it was. Cool-touch surfaces help to prevent this. Cool touch exteriors and protective casings for over the heating elements help to protect against contact burns.
  • Don’t fall for higher cost space heaters with claims of increased efficiency. All electric space heaters operate at 100 percent efficiency. Because they convert all of the electricity they use to heat, they are all equally efficient. “Don’t fall victim to a scam,” said Drexler. “Electric room heaters that sell for several hundred dollars are not more efficient. Portable heaters of equal wattage will cost the same to operate whether the unit is $20 or $200.”

Now that you’ve found the perfect space heater for your home, it’s time to look at the safest and most efficient ways to use it. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires occur in the U.S. each year as a result of space heater use. For this reason, safe practices are important.

The most common causes of space heater fires are obstructions, tipping over, objects or material covering the heater, not enough air clearance, or an incorrect electric supply. Avoiding these mistakes is easy if you follow a few simple tips. The tips below, combined with smart and safe purchasing, will help to keep you and your loved ones safe and warm this winter.

  • Placement is important – Some of these will probably sound like common sense, but it is really important to place your electric space heater in a safe location. This alone can eliminate four out of the top five causes of fires.
    • Keep your space heater on a hard, flat surface to avoid risk of tipping.
    • Never place a portable electric space heater or any electrical appliance near wet areas. Electricity and water doesn’t make for a happy mixture so avoid placing your heater by bathtubs and sinks.
    • Keep portable electric heaters away from flammable materials like curtains, bedding and newspapers. Make sure there’s plenty of clearance around the heater. This usually accounts for about a foot on each side to allow for proper air circulation.
    • Never drape wet clothes or other items on the heater itself. Your space heater should not act as an air drying station.
  • Plugging in your heater – There are certain steps you should always take prior to using your heater.
    • Always check the cord for frayed sections or sections where the wire is exposed. If either occurs, don’t use the heater until these issues have been fixed.
    • Avoid using an extension cord but, if one is needed, be sure it has at least a 12-gauge wire.
    • Don’t overload your electrical wiring or create a fire hazard. Portable electric heaters come in a variety of wattages and high-watt units could be too much for your electric wiring to handle. Watch for blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers, as well as wiring overload in the form of warm walls and outlets in the area your heater is plugged in. These are all signs of an overloaded circuit that could result in a fire. If you notice any of these, discontinue using that outlet immediately and consider purchasing a heater with a lower wattage.

There are many tips and tricks to being energy efficient, but you should never prioritize efficiency over safety. The tips we provided in this section are an excellent starting point to ensuring that you and your family stay both safe and warm all winter long. 

Information from Otter Tail Power Co.
February 2017