Space Heaters and Carbon Monoxide

A kerosine space heater.

Central heating doesn't always do the trick on those really cold nights, and most of us aren't lucky enough to have a fireplace in every room. Space heaters are a simple solution to staying warm even when it's freezing cold outside. However, they can also become a serious safety hazard. They are especially dangerous in places where people aren't used to or prepared for the cold, and the weather takes an unexpected turn.

Space Heater Basics

Most space heaters are designed to be small and relatively portable. They run on electricity, natural gas, propane or kerosene, and put out 10,000 to 40,000 BTUs. Within these basic parameters, space heaters have a lot of different design variables.

The majority of space heaters operate on a convection system. This means they circulate the air in the room. Other designs, however, use radiant heating. Through this system, infrared radiation heats up everything in its line of sight.

Space Heater Safety

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, space heaters cause tens of thousands of fires every year and hundreds of deaths. Fire and burns are always a concern with space heaters, but there is a silent killer that you never want to forget about. This killer is quiet. It has no acrid smoke odor, or any odor at all. It will not give you a warning. It has no color. And it can be fatal. It’s carbon monoxide, and it will poison you.

Space heaters are either vented, unvented or vent-free. Unvented units that work on combustion (gas) should not be used indoors. They will get carbon monoxide in your home.

Vented space heaters can’t be moved. They’re placed next to an outside wall and a small gas vent goes directly outside to release the gas. This is a safe space heater design, but not impervious. A gas or vent leak could develop and bring dangerous fumes into your home.

The only unvented space heater you should have inside your home is an electric heater. They are more expensive and can still create fire hazards, but they do not emit dangerous fumes.

Warning Signs

Be aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. A feeling of weakness, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, vomiting and blurred vision are all side effects of this type of poisoning. If you’re experiencing these symptoms around your space heater, go outside immediately. Breathe deeply of the fresh air. Turn off the space heater and let your home air out.

You can protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning with a CO alarm. Place it near the space heater, but at least 15 feet away from all fuel-burning appliances. The alarm will sound when the gas is present in your home.

Preventing Trouble

Play it safe to avoid carbon monoxide problems. Install your space heater according to the directions and follow all normal building codes. Make sure the room where you place the theater is well-ventilated. Don’t place the heater in a small, windowless room. Clean your space heater frequently and check it for signs of damage regularly. Good maintenance prevents a ton of problems. Don’t leave a space heater running unattended. Do not run it at night while you sleep, either. If there is a CO leak during the night, you will not wake up.

Stay aware of potential symptoms and avoid potential problems. Space heaters and carbon monoxide cause deaths every single year. It doesn't have to happen to you.