With the onset of the bitter chill here in Colorado Springs, it is time for those little tools of heat generation – most particularly the heating pad, the electric blanket, and the space heater. These are nowhere near as great as things like woolen socks and slippers, fuzzy pajama pants, and beautifully crafted, thick sweaters; but they are more convenient, with that ‘set it and forget it’ mentality.
If there is anything my time working with electricity has shown me, it is that very little of what we take for granted in our day to day existence is actually what it seems. For instance – in 2011, 14% of all home fires were caused by ‘heating equipment’; that is 53,600 fires caused by our attempts to keep ourselves warm. Of those fires, 400 deaths and 1520 injuries resulted, causing over $893M in damages. Don’t believe me? Just ask the NFPA – National Fire Protection Association – who keep track of statistics on our nation’s fire incidents. Heating our homes is the 2nd leading cause of fires in our country – and space heaters, using electricity to generate heat – is our second most common way to generate this heat, after utilizing our built-in HVAC systems. There are even people who will forego their central or convection systems and instead use what is called zone-heating – establishing space heaters in the space they live in the most, and only heating spaces when they are being occupied – a wonderful idea, but one best put in practice utilizing a pre-existing central HVAC system.
In case you are wondering – heat lamps are never intended to be used indoors as a heating source near people, furniture, or building materials. They are designed for external use (at a distance) for animals, and over food and dishes. To use them in any other way leads very quickly to burns, fires, damage, and death. Heat lamps are also extremely energy consumptive, using very high-wattage incandescent bulbs to generate their heat via resistance through the filament and intentionally induce warming wavelengths of light – heat lamps emit UV and IR radiation, making it possible to burn you in more than one way with them.
The biggest danger with space heaters is of course the fire risk of having something you intentionally make very hot in your living space. Some heaters even use an on-board oil reservoir to generate heat, meaning the fire risk intensifies; open flame and oil and heat can be a dangerous combination. Combustion heaters must have a source of fresh outdoor air as well as an exhaust venting system to prevent carbon monoxide buildup – in which case, opening a window to run a space heater undermines the entire point.
There is a history of recalls from space heaters (9 in the last year) for ‘unusual behavior’ such as sparking and/or burning people and objects. Historically speaking, tests have shown it takes an average of 2 minutes for cotton to combust and burst into flame when exposed to concentrated heat like that generated by a space heater. While a space heater might come with the warning ‘keep combustibles 3 feet away’, an unattended heater does not get the privilege of being protected from a child who kicks a blanket onto it in his sleep, or a tired and cold, wet woman who drapes her sodden, snowy clothes onto a raging heat source with a built-in fan to dry them out and warm them up. So much so that the Consumer Product Safety Commission publishes a list of space heater recalls, and Consumer Reports puts the worst on their ‘do not buy’ list for ‘flunking’.
Another factor that irks me is the energy consumption space heaters are infamous for. Buying that $20 space heater at your local box store probably sounds like a great idea – ‘We’ll turn down the thermostat, heat the home less and still stay warm!’. Utility companies are famous for their peppy commercials about saving energy by turning down the thermostat, but as creatures of comfort we don’t really want to be cold. Instead, we will blast a 1500 Watt space heater in our living room for 4 hours a day and another one in our bedroom for 6. Do this six days a week, and we’re burning extra electricity – like 15000 Watts a day, six days a week, 360,000 Watts a month extra. At 11 cents a kW, you’ll spend an extra $39.60 a month heating your home for 3-4 months a year. Sure, you saved $3.90 in gas and another $5 in electricity each month from not using your furnace, but at $20 a heater and another $20 a month to run each one – are you really saving anything at all?
Speaking of energy consumption – a 1500 Watt heater, which is usually the lower end of the electric usage spectrum – will tax a traditional residential 15 Amp circuit to its tolerance limits when running. This means you shouldn’t operate anything else on the circuit or risk drawing too much current and popping a circuit breaker, or worse yet – cause your wires to overheat, your circuit to fail entirely, and create a fire. A higher-end unit, such as a radiant heat unit, an ‘amish’ or faux fireplace, or a fancy Dyson heater, will draw 2000 Watts or more; most residences shouldn’t be running anything with that powerful of an electricity draw except on an Electrician-installed specially sized appliance circuit. No surprise, then, when recall warnings say these units are known to melt, not just the heaters themselves but the cords they come assembled with, the outlets they plug in to, and the extension cords people plug them in to – please note, space heaters should never, ever, under any circumstances what-so-ever, be run on an extension cord. The wires in an extension cord are of an unknown or too small size and may or may not be able to handle the electrical load you are drawing. They can and will melt under excessive loading conditions, most especially older models which have no built in safeguards.
In a fascinating set of experiments conducted by KY3 news, all kinds of dangerous, scary facts come to light about this average winter appliance we can all walk in to the big box store and buy off the shelf for anywhere from $15-$150.
The NFPA states that 50% of home heating fires occur in just 3 months of the year – December, January, and February. We Coloradans already know – Winter is cold! Yet with all this empirical evidence, consider using the old-fashioned methods of staying warm this winter – a blanket, dressing warmer, wearing thermal underclothes, or being active and moving frequently. If you do want that extra touch of warmth or just need to keep the thermostat lowered, keep in mind that our body perceives a more humid environment as more comfortable at lower temperatures. If all else fails, and you absolutely have to have something else to keep warm – consider using a heating pad, which traditionally draws an average of 65 Watts, or an electrical blanket which is a little stronger powered at around 180 Watts. Thanks to a handy table compiled by the Runestone Electric Association, we can get a really good apples-to-apples comparison on power draw from these different methods of heating:
We can conclusively declare that space heaters, while convenient and super comfort-inducing, are not our friends. They pose huge fire hazards, eat up too much electricity, and put our families, possessions, and pets at too much risk.
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This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.
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