State Health Commissioner Stresses Safety When Heating Homes this Winter

ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 28, 2008) – The rising costs of natural gas and oil heat may lead many New Yorkers to use alternative home heating methods to reduce their fuel bills this winter – but wood stoves, space heaters, electric heaters, kerosene heaters and pellet stoves can be dangerous unless proper safety precautions are followed.

"I urge all New Yorkers to follow simple, yet crucial steps to protect their families while heating their homes this winter," s aid state Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, M.D. "Other heating methods can save money, but their instructions must be followed to prevent the risk of fire and personal injury."

In 2005, an estimated 62,200 residential fires involving home heating equipment were reported in the United States, resulting in 670 deaths and 1,550 injuries. Of these, space heaters alone were attributed to 73 percent of deaths and 64 percent of injuries. To reduce the risk of injury or fire:

  • Buy space heaters or electric heaters that are approved by an independent testing lab, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
  • Follow the manufacturer's directions that come with all alternative heaters.
  • Make sure the heater has a thermostat and will shut off automatically if the heater tips over.
  • Keep space heaters at least three feet away from anything that may burn.
  • Plug electric space heaters directly into the wall; never use them with an extension cord.
  • Never dry clothes on top of a space heater.
  • Never use a space heater to warm blankets or food.
  • Fill kerosene heaters with clear K-1 grade kerosene only.
  • Never use gasoline as fuel in a kerosene heater.
  • Always fill kerosene heaters outside and when they are cooled.
  • Turn off all heating units before leaving the house or going to bed.

The use of alternative heating methods can be especially dangerous if there are small children and pets in the home. Parents should make sure children and pets are kept well away from these heating sources and are closely supervised at all times when these heating sources are in use.

Wood stoves, fireplaces and pellet stoves are other common sources of alternative home heat. If using one of these methods to heat your home:

  • Inspect your chimney at least once a year, and have it professionally cleaned and maintained to make sure there are no cracks, leaks or blockages.
  • Open the damper or flue before lighting a fire.
  • Burn seasoned hardwood only.
  • Do not use flammable liquids to start a fire.
  • Do not burn paper, trash, cardboard or other items, as they may burn unevenly and may contain poisonous toxins.
  • Always use a mesh screen or glass doors to safely contain sparks and embers.
  • Never leave a fire burning unattended.
  • Keep flammable items such as drapes, chairs, rugs, books and bedding at least three feet away from the fire.
  • Clean pellet stoves regularly according to the manufacturer's directions.

"Regardless of whether an alternative home heating source is used, all homes should be equipped with an adequate number of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors," Dr. Daines said.

Carbon monoxide, known as the "the silent killer," is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, which is produced in the combustion of any fuel. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, homes using alternative heating sources must be properly ventilated and have carbon monoxide detectors outside every sleeping area and heating source. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and shortness of breath. Some people may also feel lightheaded or experience flu-like symptoms.

Every home should have at least one working smoke alarm on each floor, including the basement. Smoke alarms should be tested monthly to ensure proper functioning and should be cleaned during the winter with a vacuum hose attachment or hair dryer to remove any dust from the mechanism that may interfere with its operation.

For more information on home heating safety, contact the New York State Department of Health Bureau of Injury Prevention at (518) 473-1143 or email injury@health.state.ny.us.