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Rudi Kiefer: Be wary of risks with space heaters
Rudi Kiefer
If you deep-fried a turkey for Thanksgiving and didn’t have a fire, you’ve been fortunate. The National Fire Prevention Association shows a graphic video about what can happen to a combination of turkey, grease and deep fryer. Other fire risks are increasing this season, too. Many of them are associated with heating and using electrical appliances.

Electric space heaters are safe when used properly. The type that resembles a satellite dish, with red-hot wires exposed at the front, seems to be slowly disappearing from the market. That’s a good thing, because a child touching the metal grill in front can suffer bad burns. Placing such an appliance too close to upholstery or a stack of paper may result in a house fire.

These radiation-type heaters are still available for hanging on walls, to provide auxiliary heat in a bathroom for example. They are safe to operate if placed at sufficient distance (2 feet minimum) from combustible objects in front.

However, I received one so weak that a tug on the switch cord would bend the mounting bracket, pull the drywall anchors out of the wall and make the unit crash to the floor. A strong homemade wall bracket solved the problem, but a brand-new space heater shouldn’t require metal fabrication.

The safest space heaters are the oil-filled type with large ribs, no blower and no exposed wires. The label saying “don’t cover” means that this isn’t a clothes-drying rack.

The electrical connection itself is the next concern. Space heaters typically draw 1,200 to 1,500 watts. That’s just about the capacity of a standard home breaker. Check the panel box. Most of the breakers feeding wall outlets will be labeled 15 amps (standard) or 20 amps (high-powered). If they are of the modern AFCI type, required in new construction since 2005 and recognizable by a “TEST” button, they are a little safer than the old slow models.

In any case, a space heater likes to have the outlet to itself. The twin receptacle shouldn’t power a hair dryer or similar device at the same time.

If the outlet overheats, and an older breaker doesn’t cut off fast enough, a fire can start in the wall box and quickly involve the wall materials.
Every household should have fire extinguishers on hand in multiple locations. The inexpensive ABC type is most universal.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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