Picture of a typical installation of an electric baseboard heater in bathroom.

How to Choose Safest Electric Space Heaters

So many homes, garages, basements, and trailers these days have electric portable space heaters. These give temporary spot warmth during really cold nights. Or they warm those cold spare bedrooms when the grand kids come to stay.  These heaters are quite popular these days.  So people may wonder, given the possible shock and burn hazards, how to choose the safest electric space heaters.  Thus here, we discuss key features to look for, before you buy one.  The safest ones have all of these features, and then some.  The fewer of these features they have, the less safe they are.

The electric space heater is convenient. You need not install it (unlike gas heaters) and usually no special wiring.  It is inexpensive, as you can buy many models for under fifty dollars.  You can move it from room to room, as needed. Plus, these heaters often have thermostats for auto room temperature control. They also have heat output levels for small, medium, and large spaces.

Typically with either radiant or convection style heating, electric space heaters are often lightweight.

Still though, much property damage, burns, and shocks from these heaters occur every year. Some of these accidents are due to faulty electric heater design.  So in this post, we explain some of the many safety features found on today’s units.  We talk about how to find them, and which features you should look for, for the most safety.

Picture of the Pelonis electric radiator heater HO-0250H, front view. How to Choose the Safest Electric Space Heaters.
Pelonis electric radiator heater HO-0250H, front view.

How to Choose the Safest Electric Space Heaters: Features to Look For

Thick, Short Cord

Look for a heavy yet flexible power cord;  #16 heater cord minimum, and preferably, #14.  Keep it short too.  We suggest four feet or shorter, to cut the chances that someone will trip over it.

People also tend to run shorter cables under carpets less.  This protects the cord from people stepping on them.

Finally, short cords offer less voltage drop due to their lower resistances than the longer ones.  So the heater runs hotter and safer with the shortest cords.

No Touchable Bare Metal Parts

They build most heaters today from plastics and other insulating materials.  But some heaters have unpainted / uninsulated metals showing.  Even when the case is a great insulator, you still might have metal knobs and screws. These could electrically connected to the power line inside due to poor design or malfunction.  Plus, metal parts might get too hot to safely touch if they’re too close to the heating elements.

Any metal parts that touch the heating elements should be hard to touch. The heater’s insulated case should fully cover them, to prevent burns.

For this type of heater, the next safety item is paramount — that it have a three-prong plug.

The Safest Electric Portable Space Heaters Have a Three Prong AC Plug

The third prong, the grounding prong, they typically connect to the heater’s metal case, and to any exposed metal parts.  This holds them at ground potential.  So, it prevents them from becoming HOT or LIVE should the circuits inside fail.  Should a fault happen, the circuit breaker or fuse will blow.  This removes electricity from the heater.

Thermostat Control

The heater should have at least a basic thermostat. This allows it to sense room temperature. Then when that temp rises above the set value, the t-stat turns off the heater. This way, you don’t waste energy due to too much heating.

We suggest that you avoid heaters that by design, run all the time.  Why?  Because these tend to fail more often.  Plus, they do not respond to changing room heating conditions.  E.g. Like the temps outside warming or cooling.

Optional Timer Shutoff

Some of the more high end units have a built-in timer.  It’s like a sleep timer on a clock radio that shuts off the heater after a set time goes by.  This is useful where you must ensure that the heater does not run unattended.

But the heater should let you bypass the timer if you want.  Bypass allows untimed heater running, when you need 24 X 7 heating.

The Safest Electric Space Heaters have Over Heating Protection

A thermal fuse is an electrical device that they wire in series with the heating elements.  It “blows out,” should heater temperature exceed the rated safe value.  This can happen if you block the vents by accident, or they clog up with dust.

Now a thermal fuse is a one-use device.  Once it blows, you must replace it to get the heater to work again.  But this can be hard for most users without an electrical background.   So we suggest heaters with advanced heat sensors that trip out when overheated. These you can reset via the push of a button.  You need not change a fuse.

Tip Switch

Tip-over protection is essential for lowering risks of fire, should the heater fall over while running.  The tip switch shuts off the heater if it does tip over.  Always place electric space heaters with their feet on the floor.

Large Foot Print

The heater should not tip or fall over easily, and widely spaced legs and feet help ensure this.  Avoid overly tall heaters, where the height is more than twice the shortest distance between their feet.

Not Too Light

Heaters that weight too little easily knock over.  So a little weight to them can enhance their stability.  But a larger foot print, as discussed above, can offset a heater’s feather lightness.

Find No Touchable Heating Elements on the Safest Electric Space Heaters

The heating elements deep inside the case.  With these, no curious fingers can reach it through heater vents.  So look for heaters that have the element no closer than three inches from any opening in the case.

Cool Outer Casing

Nowhere on the heater case should temperatures exceed lukewarm values (cool touch).

Picture of the Pelonis electric radiator heater HO-0250H, right side view.
Pelonis electric radiator heater HO-0250H, right side view.

Avoid Cheap Heaters with Fans

True. A fan blowing heat around may warm a room faster and evenly. But fans are noisy.  They often fail. Plus, because they constantly draw air in and out of the heater, fan heaters get dusty quickly.  Too much dirt buildup can cause early heater failure.  So we opt instead for silent heaters. E.g. The sealed water-filled radiator units. These last a long time. Plus, they are very quiet, and need little care.

Max Power Draw at 120 volts, of 1875 Watts or 15 Amps

The often limit the max heating power for electric space heaters to 1875 watts. This way, you may safely run them in a wide range of home heating and circuit wiring scenarios.  If you need more heat than this in a space, then install a higher power wall or floor mount heater.  E.g. Like an electric baseboard heater.

Water Filled, not Oil Filled

Though this occurs rarely these days, oil filled heaters can develop leaks.  Then you have a slick to clean up from your carpets, hard wood, or concrete floors.  Plus, elements may overheat and catch fire as the oil leaks out, taking its cooling effect with it.

Further, water filled heaters heat just as well as the oil filled ones. But leaks in then do not damage surfaces (beyond water damage).  Plus, water filled heaters are easier to dispose of safely.

The Safest Electric Space Heaters have No Glowing Heating Elements Visible

Admittedly, heaters that do not glow have the disadvantage of being larger on the whole than those that do.  So this safety feature can be difficult to avoid if you have very little space.

Glowing heaters also tend to have hotter outer surfaces. So, they are more likely to cause burns should someone touch them.

Indeed, bigger heating elements are safer because they distribute the same amount of heat over a larger area. So they need not run as hot to generate the same amount of heat.  Thus, they do not glow.

Plus, the cooler the heating element runs, the less likely that it will ignite any nearby materials or fumes.  So unless you have a need that only a glowing heater can meet, then we suggest that you avoid these.

Ground Fault Protection

Many portable electric space heaters feature an integrated ground fault interrupter circuit (GFIC) in their plugs.  These plugs look like those “wall wart” transformer plugs found on many low power electronics.  They have two buttons; one for tripping the GFIC to test it. Use the other button to reset it (turn it back on).  GFIC adds a level of protection against electrical shocks.  E.g. Like when you put the heater in bathrooms that have no GFIC outlets.  Also, use GFIC equipped heaters in other wet places such as garages and basements.

Over Current Protection

The safest heaters also include a circuit breaker or fuse. They build this into either the wall plug or the heater case.  This guards against overheating due to shorts inside. Not only will this usually stop fires from this cause. But the breaker tripping reminds you that it might be time to either clean or replace the heater.

The Safest Electric Space Heaters have Easy Clean Design

Look for lots of vents, located so that they can be vacuumed out now and then without too much effort.  The heater should feature a minimum number of similar screws for easy access for cleaning its deep crevices.

Built for Wet Locations

As a rule, do not use electric heaters in damp or wet places.  I.e. Unless its users guide say it’s okay.

These Heaters Have an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) Approved Label: How to Choose the Safest Electric Space Heaters

Never buy a heater that does not display the Underwriters Laboratory, ETL, or CSA labels.  These groups do not approve a heater unless it has most of the above listed safety features.

Yes, electric space heaters often cost more to run. Yet they are by far the safer units, when compared with natural gas, kerosene, and propane models.  Why?  Because they …

  • Emit no fumes.
  • Need no ventilation.
  • Offer no risks of spilled fuels, or carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Operate silently.
  • Maintenance free for many years.
  • De-centralize the heating task.  This allows for room-by-room temperature control.  You can thus, buy as many as you need and place them in each room. There, you can set each to a different temperature to match it with each room’s heating needs.  This also allows for not heating rooms where you do not need heat. This sort of control really cuts heat bill costs.
  • Their purchase price is very low when you compare them with furnaces and combustion type space heaters.

Electric space heaters, over their lifetime, probably cost more over all. But they offer perhaps the safest portable heat sources available.  You get what you pay for.


Picture of a bedroom installation of electric baseboard heating.
Electric Baseboard Heater, Bedroom Installation

Related Posts to How to Choose the Safest Electric Space Heaters

  1. Electric Baseboard Heating Pros and Cons
  2. Pelonis™ Electric Radiator Heater HO-0250H Review
  3. Electric Baseboard Heater Noise, How to Fix
  4. Fixing Noisy Portable Fan Heaters
  5. Electric Cable Ceiling Heat Pros and Cons

References for How to Choose the Safest Electric Space Heaters

  1. Portable Electric Space Heaters Overview    on energy.gov Web Site
  2. Space Heater     on Wikipedia

Revision History

  • 2019-06-17: Added key phrase targeting for ‘Safest Electric Space Heaters’, removed ad code, and added more links and tags.
  • 2015-01-18: Added more appropriate tags.
  • 2015-10-23: Added appropriate tags.
  • 2015-08-18: Originally published.