Picture of the WarmWave 1500 Watt Portable Fan Heater, front view.

How to Safely Use Portable Space Heaters

Portable space heaters are quite affordable these days.  So they are popular among college students in cold dorms. Apartment dwellers love them too.  Also, homeowners that haven’t yet insulating all their rooms use them as well. So with these units so popular, and how dangerous they can be if misused, we discuss here how to use portable space heaters safely, to help head off some of the tragedy improper operation can cause.

How to Safely Use Portable Space Heaters Introduction

These units offer rapid spot heating. Also, they can make up for some of the heat loss due to the following.

  • Drafty windows.
  • Faulty door seals.
  • Undersized central furnaces.
  • Poor insulation in walls, floors, and ceilings.

Plus, if you don’t use too many, they can cut your heating bills.  How so?  Because you can heat a small area in your living space. But then you can turn down the central heating for the rest of the house.

Yet portable space heaters often causes  serious skin burns, house fires, property damage, and death.  Often these mishaps happen because the user does not know the safest practices. They don’t know about the best heater placement, operation, maintenance, and replacement.  So it’s common for people to die of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a gas space heater in bedrooms.  Plus, poor heater placement often causes furniture and drapery fires. Also, outdated wiring can cause fires when you overload it with a hefty heater.

Kerosene space heaters have their issues too.  Many emit unhealthy fumes if you burn lower grades of, or the wrong fuel in them. Plus, it’s all too easy to knock over any liquid fuel portable space heater. A fallen heater can spill fuel.  Thus, it can start quickly-growing fires.

By far, most injuries and life loss happens because people do not learn how to buy the safest units. Nor did they learn how to safely operate them.  So in this piece, we offer lots of safety tips and advice about these heaters.  This post discusses the following…

  • Proper heater placement.
  • Best heater operation practices.
  • Fuel handling.
  • How to care for these heating units, of electric and combustion types.

How to Use Portable Space Heaters Safely

Tips and Advice for Safe Operation of All Kinds of Portable Space Heaters

Choose the Right Size Heater for the Job

Electric space heaters typically output a max of 1875 watts of heat when set on the highest setting.  So it’s hard to go wrong when buying one of these. Just buy one with a thermostat that you can set, and high and low heat output settings.

But the combustion type heaters vary much more in their max BTU output.  So, check on their boxes and cartons, for their intended room sizes. Avoid choosing too large or small size heaters for your heated space.  Poor sizing can result in the following.

  • Frequent on-off heater cycling.
  • Wide and rapid temperature swings.  This is where the room becomes unbearably hot, and then becomes too cold once the heater shuts off.
  • Or, the heater may run all the time, yet still not meet comfort demands in the space.

Buy Only UL Approved Portable Space Heaters

Underwriters Laboratory (UL) approves space heaters after they put them through hard testing. This ensures compliance with long-established safety guidelines.  The UL seal therefore, means that the heater is probably safe to operate in most consumer environments.

Install Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

With any portable heater, the risk of fire exists. The space heater can catch fire itself. Or close by items that it overheats might burn aw well.  Early warnings of such fires often save many lives.  Smoke, carbon, and fire detectors supply these advance alerts.  The let people know to leave the area before fumes or flames consume them.  So you should have decent detectors to reduce deadly dangers that some portable space heaters bring to the game.

How to Safely Use Portable Space Heaters

Always Read Heater Instructions Before Running the Heater

A heater is a heater is a heater.  But NOT always so!  Each space heater type has its own operational peculiarities, warnings, and best-use instructions.  The advice in this post is general in nature, and is typically useful for all heaters.  But it should not replace the user’s guides that come with the heater.  The info in those guides, in all cases, overrides the data here.  Follow the guides first.

Position Space Heater Away from Anything Flammable

Set up your heater far away from…

  • Walls.
  • Curtains.
  • Furniture.
  • Beds.
  • Couches,
  • Love seats.
  • Play areas with toys that could catch fire.
  • Other appliances that the heat could melt or damage.

Place heater at least three feet from any combustible materials.  Keep even non combustible items at least this distance from where the heat comes out.  This way, they do not interfere with heat output.

Avoid Fumy, Damp, or Dusty Locations

Of course, the heaters with flames burning inside can ignite flammable fumes with ease, as a match ignites dry straw.  But even the electric ones, with their arcing thermostats can set off explosions and fires where gasses are present.

Further, what may seem like harmless dust can interfere with proper heater operation.  How?  It builds up on elements, and this creates foul burning odors.  Plus, this dust can ignite as well when enough of it build up.  So, not only is routine heater cleaning wise for safest operation. But keeping the space heater away from airborne dust is the best preventive step.

Keep Portable Space Heaters on the Floor

Avoid setting them on tables or other furniture.  Not only does this improve the comfort level by providing more uniform heat circulation in the room. But it also reduces the chances that the heater will tip and fall from higher places.

Picture of the Pelonis Electric Radiator Heater HO-0250H, front view. How to Safely Use Portable Space Heaters.
Pelonis Electric Radiator Heater HO-0250H, front view.

How to Use Portable Space Heaters Safely

Always Stand the Heater Flat on All of its Feet

No leaning it backward on two legs or sitting it on a slope.  Avoid propping it backwards against a wall.    The only contact the space heater should have with other objects should be through its supporting feet.  So keep objects away from any of its other surfaces. Place it on a flat, level surface. Then lock its casters if it has them.

Routinely Maintain the Portable Space Heater

  • Inspect and clean portable space heaters often.
  • Replace worn parts (burned wicks, frayed power cords, corroded plugs, clogged fins, Etc.).
  • Oil fans fans and other moving components.
  • Repair it, and replace it when you must.

We suggest running through these steps during the summer, prior to the next heating season. This gives you enough time to order any new parts before colder temps arrive.

Don’t Ask a Portable Space Heater to do a Permanent Heater’s Job

Portable space heaters work best for temporary and attended operation.  They’re small enough to easily carry around, and need no plumbing or wiring (usually). They heat best in rooms that meet the following conditions…

  • Average size rooms.
  • Rooms have typical amounts of insulation.
  • They have average size single or double pane windows.
  • Typical outside temps, with average temp swings.
  • Average cold weather months.

Portable space heaters may not work well in houses in very cold climates. They also come up short in rooms with many drafty windows, and places where it’s hard to refuel them.  We found that portable space heaters did not make enough BTUs in our home for best comfort.  So we installed baseboard heaters.  Indeed, these gave more heat output, were quieter, and did not overload existing branch circuits.  No over loading because we ran separate circuits to each heater.

You mount permanent heaters on or in walls or along baseboards, well away from traffic.  Plus, their wiring or piping does not run across the floor, and so, poses less of a tripping hazard. So they’re all around safer than portable space heaters.

If you must always rely on a portable space heater, then think about putting in permanent space heaters.  These are safer than portables.  Plus, they generally heat better over a wider range of outside temps.  And they have less parts to keep up with.

Guidance for How to Use Electric Portable Space Heater Use

Avoid Extension Cords

The heaters come with short power cords by design. Short cords are harder ot trip over. Plus, they also increase heater output and help prevent cable overheating.  So avoid defeating these purposes.  How so?  Do not use extension cords and power strips where you can.  Plug heaters right into the wall.

But if you MUST use an extension cord, then choose the shortest UL approved cord possible.  Pick one that can handle the heater’s max current. This is often  fifteen amps for portable electric space heaters.

Keep Power Cables Uncoiled

High current AC cables like those on portable electric space heaters can cut heater output, overheat, and catch fire.  So check often that the cord does not get too hot to handle as the heater runs.

Check Ground Prong Connection

Portable space heaters these days have a three prong plug. If the one you have does, then the ground hole on the outlet must connect to ground.  Now beware! Often in older houses, the outlets themselves may be three prong models. But often the wiring that feeds them does not include a ground. So they often connect the third prong hole to nothing. Or more dangerously, they connect it to the wrong side of the two-wire power line.  An inexpensive outlet tester can check for proper grounding.  If the outlet tests faulty, then find a working one. Or, get help from an electrician to fix the broken outlet.

Keep Plug Prongs Shiny

Corroded or otherwise dull-looking or dark colored AC plug prongs create high resistance connections with mains electricity.  This can cause melting of the heater plug, or the outlet. Plus, this can create burn and electrical shock hazards.  So as part of your periodic heater checks, look at the plug.  If its prongs are dark or dull, try polishing them cwith steel wool or brass cleaner.  Replace any melted or deformed plugs, outlets, and cords.

Protect Heater Cord from Damage

Do not route the power cord under rugs, tables where someone’s shoe might be snagged by it, or

Use Dedicated Circuits Only

Electric space heaters draw fifteen amps. This gets close to the max current load rating of most 120 volt home branch circuits. So avoid circuit overloads by running your heater on branch circuits with no other high-power devices on them.  E.g. Avoid powering your hair dryer from the same circuit.

Heat Dry Locations Only

Keep electric space heaters away from water and dampness, to reduce risks of electrocution and premature failure of internal components.

Safe Operating Advice for Combustion Type Portable Space Heaters

Use Only Approved Fuel Tanks and Bottles

Official kerosene cans and tanks are typically blue or gray in color and display the word “Kerosene” embossed on them.  Do not transport kerosene fuel in a gasoline can, especially if that can has carried gasoline previously.

Fuel Up Portable Space Heaters Outdoors

To minimize fuel fumes inside your home, carry your space heaters outside for refueling.  So choose lighter heaters.  Now avoid ones that are so light that they’ll easily tip over. But keep them  light enough for easy carrying.

Run Only in Well Vented Areas

Any combustion based portable space heater produces some exhaust, simply due to the burning of liquid or gas fuels.  Operating these in areas without much ventilation (too air tight), can create a build-up of noxious gasses.  This can create health problems (or worse) for people spending too much time in poorly vented spaces.

Do Not Use Propane Garage Heaters Indoors

They often fit these radiant style heaters atop propane gas tanks. They feature a plaque that becomes bright red hot as they run. A large blue flame engulfs this plaque, and creates a “heat beam” that you aim where you want heat.  But this beam can set on fire objects up to as much as three feet away.

Plus, these heaters often have no ODS (oxygen depletion sensors). So you might not know that the room has low oxygen until you start feeling sick.

Do not Use Flaming Heaters in Bedrooms

They can fill the room with carbon monoxide. Plus, they might burn up much of the oxygen in the room.  Sadly, people sleeping there might not realize this until it’s too late.

Position Portable Space Heaters Away from High Foot Traffic Areas

Portable space heaters work best when you place them centrally in a room. But do not put them in the middle of the floor if people walk around there.  You may have to give up some heater efficiency for more safety.  But you’ll still see good heating if you place your heater back close to a wall. This way, it pumps its heat toward the the center of the room.

Wait a Few Minutes After Filling to Light

Allow the fuel fumes to dissipate before starting the heater.  Failure to do so can trigger explosions and cause bodily harm.  Do not strike as long as you still smell fuel in the area.  If you smell it, don’t light it.

If Heater Shuts Off, Wait for it to Cool Before Firing it Up Again

This cuts the risk of burns, and allows the heater’s protective systems to reset.

Portable space heating is an essential methodology in today’s America. Use it wisely, there are about as safe as furnace-based central heating.  We hope that the advice here helps you use your space heaters wisely, and get the most comfort.   Know how to safely heat your space.   It could become a life and death matter.  Happy heating!

Related Posts to How to Safely Use Portable Space Heaters

  1. Electric Cable Ceiling Heat, Advantages and Drawbacks
  2. How to Choose Safest Electric Space Heaters
  3. Pelonis Whole Room Radiator HO-0250H Heater Review
  4. Electric Baseboard Heater Noise, How to Fix
  5. Pelonis Electric Space Heater, Oil Filled, HO-0260 Review

References for How to Safely Use Portable Space Heaters

  1. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning   on Wikipedia
  2. Portable Space Heater Safety Tips   from the U.S. Department of Energy
  3. Reducing Fire Hazards for Portable Electric Heaters    from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
  4. Space Heaters    on Wikipedia

Revision History

  • 2019-06-18: Tuned the key phrase targeting for ‘Portable Space Heaters’, removed ad scripts, and added more tags and links.
  • 2015-10-22: Added appropriate tags.
  • 2015-08-20: Originally published.