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Space heaters safer, but risks remain

December 7, 2007 12:00:00 AM PST
Colder temperatures and rainy weather mean it's time to bring out the portable space heaters. The problem is many older heaters are not very safe and can cause fires. But newer models are much safer.Portable heaters have improved quite a bit over the years, providing more consistent heat and improved safety features. Eyewitness News teamed up with Consumer Reports to test 20 different models of space heaters, and we found that they are safer -- but you still need to be careful when using them.

The fire that gutted a home, killing an adult and nine children, started when the power cord on a space heater overheated. Consumer Reports just tested 20 portable heaters and found several safety features that work well. Heaters with a tip-over switch shut off when they're knocked over, and ones with what's called "overheat protection" shut off if they get too hot. Some even shut off as soon as someone or something just touches the grill.

The tests included electric convection heaters, some with fans, and ones without fans (which are quieter). Also in the tests were electric radiant heaters and heaters that run on either propane or kerosene.

None of the propane or kerosene heaters did well in this safety test. That test involved draping a piece of terry cloth over the heater. It didn't take long before the fabric caught fire.

None of the electric heaters caused the fabric to ignite, but some charred the terry cloth in a matter of minutes.

In the end, top ratings went to the electric Honeywell, model number HZ-519 ($60). Testers found it will heat an entire room, and it earned an excellent score for safety.

But you still have to be careful.

"With any portable heater, you have to use common sense. Place the heater at least three feet away from drapes, furniture, and any other material that can catch fire," said John Galeotafiore of Consumer Reports.

Also, you need to check the power cord to make sure it isn't frayed, and avoid using an extension cord whenever possible. If you do use an extension cord with a portable heater, Consumer Reports says you need to make sure it is heavy enough. Use a 14 or 12 gauge extension cord, and be aware that the smaller the gauge number, the safer the extension cord.


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