We covered numerous winter season safety tips in this journal post, but here we expand on one particularly common yet important area: portable heating device safety.
Maybe the homes in your neighborhood are without natural gas due to a supply issue. Or maybe your utility has asked that you lower your thermostat. Or simply, your heating system is showing signs of struggle or has failed. In any of these situations, it is natural to lean on alternatives to keep your family and home at a reasonable temperature.
If you must use alternate ways to stay warm and your electricity has not been impacted, please keep these safety tips in mind when plugging devices into an outlet to generate heat.
Electric Heating Devices and Outlets
- If an outlet feels ‘loose’ in any way, do not use that outlet for a heating device.
- If the heating device plug feels loose in the outlet or has trouble staying firmly in the outlet, don’t use that outlet. However, if this happens in all outlets for a given device, it is the device cord; avoid using it.
- Don’t use more than one heating device in a single outlet, and avoid using more than one heating device on a single circuit. If you have more than one outlet along a wall or in a room, they very well could be on the same circuit, depending on the age of your home.
Using Electric Heating Devices
- Electric space heaters must be plugged into walls, never into an extension cord.
- Keep space heaters level and at least 3 feet from any fabric (curtains, couch, carpet, etc.)
- For any heating device, if you have not used it for some time, carefully inspect the cord and plug to ensure there are no cracks or exposed wiring.
- Ensure the device is clean and free of dirt, dust, and debris.
- If a device appears to operate erratically in any way, please do not use it.
- Never leave a space heater running for long periods of time, and especially not overnight; it is best to use them interimittently; depending on your situation, a suggested practice would be to turn it off/unplug it for 10 minutes every hour if you depend on its use for longer periods.
Avoid Using Extension Cords, Power Strips, and Outlet Extenders with Electric Heating Devices
- Do not use extension cords or power strips for plugging in heating devices. This includes ‘outlet extenders’, which are essentially the same as a power strip, minus the cord.
- If you are using extension cords or power strips for other purposes, inspect them for any damage and only use them if necessary.
- Outlet extenders can be convenient (again, not for heavy ‘loads’ such as heating devices). However, they can be even less safe than a power strip as they (1) cover the outlet and essentially hide it from view, and (2) can sag out of the outlet due to the weight of cords plugged into it. Sagging can lead to poor electrical connections and overheating. Be sure to check these periodically for fit into the outlet, and for the fit of cords plugged into it. Also, unplug outlet extenders periodically to inspect the wall outlet to ensure there are no signs of electrical issues (charring or melting).
- Avoid overloading them. It is the energy ‘draw’ that matters, not necessarily the number of devices. Example: 4 mobile phones and a few laptops temporarily plugged into a power strip is Ok; however, connecting a single portable heater to a power strip or outlet extender would likely overload it (see the first bullet above!).
Extra Tips on Using Electric Heating Devices Safely
- Keep your senses tuned to potential hazards, like sounds of sparking, electrical smells, and erratic flickering from lights.
- Be aware that older devices may not have the same safety mechanisms as more modern devices (overload protection, auto shut-off, etc.)
- Don’t leave heating devices unattended, including heating blankets.
- Watch out for ‘sagging’ plugs: periodically check to ensure the plug and outlet have a firm, tight connection.
- A warm cord or outlet is to be expected for heating devices. Periodically check a device’s cord and the wall around the outlet – if it feels ‘hot’ and not just warm, discontinue use.
Why is this important? Heaters, heating blankets, and other devices can stress your home’s electrical system. Devices like these that use a lot of power can increase fire risk. Sometimes a home electrical network is ill-prepared to handle an increased demand of this nature, leading to hazardous arcing – sometimes hidden in walls. In other cases, a device is not plugged in or connected correctly – or is faulty due to age, wear, or poor design.
One final but significant reminder…
Smoke Detectors. Fires can occur with or without electricity, especially when you focus on keeping your family warm and healthy during extreme conditions. Learn how to ensure your smoke detectors are in good working order, and other tips, here.
In closing: If it is designed to generate heat, and it must be plugged into an outlet, take good care to ensure you and yours stay comfortable AND safe.