How to Find the Safest Space Heater for Your Home

Key safety features to watch for as you shop, plus the three safest choices from CR's tests

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About 25,000 house fires and 300 deaths are attributed to space heaters each year. They’re mostly caused when a heater is placed too close to curtains, bedding, or upholstered furniture, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In addition, 6,000 people end up in emergency rooms with burns from touching a heater’s hot surface.

In this guide, we’ll cover the safety features to look for, make recommendations about the safest choices from our space heater ratings, and walk through how to use one without incident when you get it home.

Safety is a critical aspect of our space heater tests. A heater that earns a Poor rating in our fire-safety test could cause cotton to ignite when operated on its hottest setting. “We don’t recommend buying a space heater that gets a rating of Poor in our fire-safety test,” says Chris Regan, who oversees our space heater testing.

More on Space Heaters and Winter Weather

For that test, we drape a cloth over the heater to see whether the sensor shuts off the heater before it scorches or even ignites the fabric.

Although some heaters rate better than others in our fire-safety tests, it has been several years since a space heater failed it completely. (In 2012 we identified the Optimus H-5210 as a safety risk after it ignited the terry cloth we use. The heater was later recalled by the CPSC.)

Models that earn a Poor rating in our hot-surface test can get hot enough on the highest setting to cause burns. Heaters with a rating of Very Good or Excellent in that test stay cool enough to touch safely.

Safety Features to Look For

Certification. Make sure the heater you buy carries a safety certification label from an independent testing organization, such as the UL mark, the ETL label from Intertek, or certification from CSA International.

Shutoff features. A smart sensor that automatically shuts off a heater when it overheats is a must. You’ll also want a tip-over switch that does the same if the heater is knocked over.

Ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) plug. Most space heaters don’t come equipped with a GFCI plug, which prevents electric shock. Heaters without one should not be used around water, manufacturers advise.

Sturdy cord. Most space heaters come with a cord that’s 6 feet long. To prevent overheating, never use an extension cord or a power strip with an electric heater.

Safest Space Heaters From CR's Tests

The three space heaters below all have tip-over switches that automatically shut the appliance off if it gets knocked over, and they earn Excellent or Very Good ratings in both our fire-safety and hot-surface tests. They’re listed below in alphabetical order.

How to Use a Space Heater Safely

Half of all home heating fires happen during the months of December, January, and February. Our experts, as well as the pros at the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers and the National Fire Protection Association, offer the following safety tips:

  • Place the heater on a hard, level, and nonflammable surface. They are intended to sit on the floor, not on a table.
  • Establish a 3-foot kid- and pet-free zone around the heater, and never put a space heater in a child’s room.
  • Keep the space heater at least 3 feet away from combustible materials, such as furniture, bedding, and curtains.
  • Don’t use a heater in a workshop or garage near paint, gas cans, or matches.
  • Turn it off when you leave the room or go to bed.
  • Unplug the heater when it’s not in use by pulling the plug straight from the outlet. Check the cord for damage periodically, and don’t use the heater if the cord is frayed or worn.
  • Don’t plug another electrical device or an extension cord into the same outlet as a heater—that can cause overheating.
  • Install working smoke alarms on every level of your home and in every bedroom, and test them monthly.

Mary H.J. Farrell

Knowing that I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, I decided to spiff up my byline by adding the middle initials "H.J." A veteran of online and print journalism, I've worked at People, MSNBC, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and an online Consumer Reports wannabe. But the real thing is so much better. Follow me on Twitter.