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CPSC News Feature: Getting Ready For Cold Weather

Release Date: November 29, 1989

As consumers prepare for winter's first cold spell, many are considering the use of supplemental heating appliances such as portable heaters in an effort to avoid high heating bills. These systems can help lower heating costs but can be very dangerous if installed or used improperly.

Supplemental home heating appliances are estimated to be associated with 105,800 residential fires, killing an estimated 600 people, in 1987. In addition, thousands of injuries from contact burns and about 100 deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning occur every year.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is anxious to alert consumers about the potential dangers posed by supplemental heating units. To that end, the Commission has a few tips for using these units safely.

Here are some general safety tips:

-- Keep children and pets away from supplementary heating appliances.

-- Never use a space heater overnight in the room where you are sleeping. It should never be left unattended.

-- Maintain proper ventilation in the room where the fuel- fired heater is used.

-- Place heaters at least three feet away from objects such as bedding, furniture, draperies, and other combustibles.

-- Always follow the manufacturer's instructions in installing, operating, and maintaining your heating appliance.

-- Keep a properly functioning smoke detector on each level of your home and close to sleeping areas.

Kerosene Heaters

About 60 persons died in an estimated 1,900 residential fires associated with kerosene heaters in 1987. A CPSC analysis of kerosene-related accidents concluded that flare-up (uncontrolled flaming) occurs as a result of several factors, including the use of improper or contaminated fuels. Specifically, it was concluded that one method for substantially reducing the risk of flare-up is for consumers to make sure they use only 1K kerosene as a fuel, never gasoline or non-kerosene fuels.

In addition, kerosene heaters can emit air pollutants during operation. In an enclosed room, pollutants can accumulate and prove harmful. This situation can be aggravated if the heater wick is lowered beyond the manufacturer's recommended setting.

Therefore, before using a kerosene heater, the CPSC advises consumers to set the wick at the recommended height and make sure there is adequate ventilation. Wood Stoves

Wood and coal burning stoves have also been associated with many home heating accidents. Wood stoves, fireplaces, and their chimney assemblies were involved in an estimated 67,500 residential fires in 1987, resulting in 120 deaths. Dangers associated with this type of supplemental heating system include fires resulting from improper installation and maintenance and creosote buildup.

Due to the number of accidents that have occurred, the CPSC has issued a labeling rule on wood stoves to provide a permanent reference to proper installation, operation, and maintenance procedures and to raise consumer awareness of these dangers.

When installing a wood burning stove, make certain that it is placed on the proper surface and at the distance from the wall specified by the manufacturer.

Most fires associated with wood heating appliances have occurred in the chimney. Such fires can result from poorly constructed or damaged masonry chimneys, poor installation of factory built chimneys, or the ignition of creosote, a tar-like residue which builds up in chimneys over time.

To reduce the risk of fire, existing masonry chimneys should be inspected, and repaired if necessary, and factory-built chimneys should be installed strictly according to the manufacturer's instructions. The CPSC recommends that consumers have their chimneys checked by a qualified chimney sweep before, as well as during, the heating season to prevent dangerous creosote build-up and resultant chimney fire.

At the same time, both the fireplace and chimney should be checked for structural integrity. And as a final precaution, never burn trash, coal, charcoal, or plastics in your wood- burning appliance. These items can overheat your stove or fireplace causing a fire. They can also cause a buildup of pollutants when burned in a fireplace. Always make sure the area is properly ventilated.

Electric Heaters

Portable electric heaters, while seemingly harmless, were associated with 2,800 fires and 80 deaths in 1987. Do not use these heaters as a substitute for central heating. They are designed for temporary heating only. Do not use them while sleeping or when unattended. Electric heaters should not be located in heavily traveled areas or areas where children might touch them. Avoid the use of an extension cord with an electric heater.

If an extension cord must be used, purchase a cord with electrical ratings (wattage, current) at least the same or greater than those of the heater with which it will be used. Caution, most extension cords found in the home do not have electrical ratings suitable for portable heaters. If you must use an extension cord, it must be marked #14AWG or #12AWG. Finally, electric heaters should not be used near water because of the possibility of shock or electrocution.

Gas Heaters

Gas heating equipment can also lead to tragedy if not installed or used properly. In 1987, an estimated 240 lives were lost and 4,400 fires occurred involving vented and unvented gas heaters. These products are associated with the twin dangers of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.

All new unvented gas-fired space heaters are equipped with an oxygen depletion sensor (ODS). An ODS detects a reduced level of oxygen in the area where the heater is operating and shuts off the heater before a hazardous level of carbon monoxide accumulates.

If you have an older unvented gas-fired space heater that does not have an ODS, consider replacing it with a new, ODS- equipped model.

If the pilot light of your heater should go out, remember these tips:

-- Shut off the gas.

-- Never allow gas to accumulate. Ventilate the area and wait five minutes or more for the gas to go away before trying to light the pilot.

-- After waiting, sniff for gas.

-- IF YOU SMELL GAS, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO LIGHT THE APPLIANCE. Turn off all controls and open a window or door. Leave the area, and then call a gas service person. DO NOT touch any electrical switches or controls.

-- If you do not smell gas, light the match before you turn on the gas to the pilot. (This avoids the risk of a flashback, which could occur if you allow gas to accumulate before you are ready to light the pilot.)

If your space heater is intended to be vented, be sure the heater and flue are professionally installed according to the manufacturer's instructions and local codes. Vent systems require regular maintenance and inspections. Vented heaters manufactured after June 1984 provide a device that shuts off the heater if it is not vented properly. Also, gas-fired heaters need a sufficient source of combustion air for safe operation and can emit air pollutants during operation, so be sure to provide fresh air by opening a window or door to another room.

The CPSC reminds consumers this heating season of the need for accident awareness.

With a few precautionary steps, you can reduce the chances of an accident. Read instruction manuals and take time to get acquainted with the operation of your heating unit before starting it up. Let's make this winter an especially safe heating season.

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About the U.S. CPSC
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risk of injury or death associated with the use of thousands of types of consumer products. Deaths, injuries, and property damage from consumer product-related incidents cost the nation more than $1 trillion annually. CPSC's work to ensure the safety of consumer products has contributed to a decline in the rate of injuries associated with consumer products over the past 50 years. 

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