Welcome to my J.A.M. (Just Ask Mike) Session, a weekly column where I answer your basic electrical questions. If you’re a newbie who’s never plugged in a shore power cord (or ask – what’s a shore power cord?), or wonder why your daughter’s hair dryer keeps tripping the circuit breaker, this column is for you. Send your questions to Mike Sokol at mike (at) noshockzone.org with the subject line – JAM. Today I discuss space heaters.
A space heater is blamed for the deadly fire in a Bronx apartment building
I know I sound like a broken record sometimes. But once again I’m heartbroken to report another electric space heater fire that has resulted in the deaths of a lot of innocent people.
“A malfunctioning space heater caused the fire in a Bronx apartment Sunday, and an open door to the apartment allowed thick, black smoke to quickly fill the high-rise building, Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
“The blaze started just before 11 a.m. in a duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the building, on East 181st Street, according to the Fire Department. At a news conference on Sunday, Mayor Eric Adams and Mr. Nigro said that the fire was caused by an electric space heater that malfunctioned, but they didn’t give additional details. The Commissioner said he believed the heat was working in the building and that the heater was being used to supplement the heat.”
While the fire in the Bronx last week wasn’t in an RV, there are lots of lessons to be learned form this tragic event.
So why do these fires happen?
#1) Most space heater fires are caused by plugging them into an outlet strip or skinny extension cord
So rule #1 is to always plug a portable space heater directly into a wall outlet, never a power strip. Outlet strips were never designed for the types of continuous high-amperage loads created by any electrical heating appliance. And if you must use an extension cord, get one such as a short 12-gauge cord rated for air conditioners.
#2) Modern electric space heaters have tip-over and over-heating protection
But that hasn’t always been the case with old heaters. So Rule #2 is, if you must use an electric space heater, buy a modern one with all the safety controls. I’ve seen older ones that have caught on fire due to flammable materials being too close or piled on top of them, or dumped on top of a power strip. Always locate a space heater at least 3 feet away from anything flammable. And make sure your dog can’t knock a blanket down on top of one. Yes, I saw a fire caused by that once.
#3) Watch out for pet hair and fuzzies
Chuck Woodbury sent me pictures of his disassembled space heater last year that was full of pet hair. Yes, pet hair will be sucked right into the fan on many of these heaters. That can cause an internal fire to start.
Always inspect any space heaters for signs of dirt and hair. I often use a can of compressed air to clean this kind of gunk out if it’s not too bad. But if it’s really caked on then it’s probably time for a new space heater. Don’t take any chances with accumulated dirt and hair in a heating appliance.
#4) Use low power settings and inspect outlets and plugs often for signs of overheating
If you must use a portable electric space heater, always run it on the low-power setting, or 600 to 750 watts. That’s because the continuous draw of the high-wattage settings can cause RV outlets and heater plugs to overheat and possibly catch on fire. So, if you see any signs of discoloring or touching the plug with your hand feels warm, then the damage is beginning. And be aware that a GFCI outlet will do nothing to prevent overheating. That’s not what they were designed to do.
And while you’re at it, take a look at the power plug for any signs of overheating.
There’s no good way to repair an electrical outlet once it begins to overheat since the spring contacts have probably been damaged and it will keep getting hotter and hotter until it melts. Once a wall outlet has been overheated, then it’s time for replacement.
OK, everyone. Remember that electricity is a useful and powerful force, so we all need to pay attention to safety precautions while using it.
Let’s play safe out there….
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Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 50+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
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I use an oil-filled radiator heater, and I run it below full power (mine has settings for 600w, 900w, or 1500w). They don’t push out localized heat like a ceramic heater. But watts in equals watts out, so electric heaters are essentially 100% efficient; they only differ in how the heat is distributed.
The oil heaters take a while to warm things up, but if you use them for extended times, they heat a room well, especially a small RV. It’s much more comfortable than the localized heat from a ceramic heater, with virtually no fire risk except the power cords.
I believe the cause of the deaths was the lack of a working smoke detector
I believe the cause of death was a lack of intelligence. It’s better to prevent the fire than rely on alarms to tell you that you made the wrong decision on safety.
When we use a portable power heater, it is placed on a metal tray that totally covers it’s footprint. Nothing flammable near the fan that can be pulled into it’s coils.