Electric Heaters: Are They Safe?

Electric Heaters

According to the National Fire Protection Association, heating equipment was responsible for over 50,000 structure fires in 2011. Roughly half of those fires were due to storage of personal items such as curtains and furniture too close to a heater and roughly half were caused by failure to clean heating equipment. With the heating season upon us, I thought it would be a good time to go over some important simple maintenance that can keep your house safer; for this blog we will focus on electric heaters.

Personal Experience

I was inspecting a small condominium unit one day and I entered a bedroom and turned up the thermostat to test the electric wall heater. I was discussing, ironically, smoke detectors with my client when I noticed acrid white smoke billowing from the metal cover of the electric heater I had just turned on. In a flash I turned off the thermostat, the circuit breaker, and sprinted to my car for my fire extinguisher. Luckily, the smoldering fire dissipated and I did not need to douse the heater with my fire extinguisher, however, this story points to the important maintenance that is needed to the often-neglected electric heater.

Types of Electric Heaters

Electric heaters come in two basic types: those that you plug in (space heaters) and those permanent heaters that come installed in your house such as a baseboard heater or a wall-mounted heater.

This article will focus on the heaters that are built into your house:

Photo of a baseboard , built-in, electric heater

A typical baseboard electric heater.

Photo of wall-mounted, built-in electric heater

A typical build-in, wall mounted, electric heater

Installed electric heaters are generally either baseboard heaters, wall-mounted forced air heaters or some type of ceramic / radiant heater. The most common electric baseboard heaters and wall-mounted heaters tend to run at the hottest temperatures and are therefore less safe than the ceramic and radiant type heaters that run at cooler temperatures. These are also generally the least expensive electric heaters to buy. To understand how these heaters work, visualize a toaster with an element – that is basically how these basic resistance electric heaters make heat.

Ceramic heaters and some baseboard heaters, by contrast, run a liquid through a radiator or heat up a radiant ceramic surface; these heaters are safer than the electric element type of heater as they do not get as hot.

Recalls on electric heaters

Some electric heaters have been recalled: most notably some Cadet models from 1978-2000: http://getscribeware.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Cadet-Recall.pdf

To check your heater, find the brand, model number and serial number and do an internet search.

Critical Care and Maintenance

Every manufacturer of electric heaters requires some amount of care and maintenance to safely operate the heater. While every manufacturer may differ slightly, some good basic rules of thumb are listed below:

  • Clean heaters every 3-6 months. To clean, follow manufacturers’ directions, but I like to turn the power off to the heater and use compressed air to blow dust off the heater.
  • Do not store stuff in front of the heater. Electric heaters can run very hot. Keep curtains, furniture and personal items at least three feet away from these heaters.
  • Do not let electrical cords hang over or in front of heaters. An older construction practice was to allow electric receptacles above baseboard heaters. This is no longer permitted and is unsafe.

In the case of the heater that nearly caught fire, it turned out that a cat liked to sleep in front of the heater. When I pulled the cover off to look inside I found the heater was literally full of cat hair.

I hope this blog helps you understand a bit more about electric heaters and safety. Be safe and keep your heaters clean!

Dylan Chalk

Dylan Chalk is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is the founder of ScribeWare inspection report software offering innovative and simple report-writing solutions – www.getscribeware.com. He is also the author of The Confident House Hunter – a book to teach home buyers how to look at and understand houses: Cedar Fort Press Due out July 2016 – www.dylanchalk.com

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