As temperatures plummet and heating subsidies sit on the government's chopping block, cash-strapped consumers may look to alternative options for heating their home this winter. While many of these options can be used safely, they can create a risk of fire and other hazards if they're not carefully installed and maintained.
In fact, data from Travelers Insurance shows that claims related to home fires are 36 percent more likely in December and January than other times of year, and often these claims result from alternative heating sources.
A fire or other catastrophe could more than cancel out the savings from using alternative energy. Here's how to lower your risk:
1. Only use items that are intended for heating.Experts advise against using a propane grill or kitchen oven to stay warm, because materials in or near those devices could ignite, causing a fire. "Make sure that you're only using devices that are designed for heating," urges Phil Crombie, fire chief in South Windsor, Conn., and chief forensics specialist at Travelers Insurance. And always use the type of fuel intended for your device.
2. Choose your heating device carefully.Not all heating devices are created equal. Crombie suggests looking for heating devices that have been tested by an independent laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL). If so, the UL label should appear on the packaging.
Newer ceramic space heaters tend to pose less of a fire hazard than the space heaters used a few decades ago, according to Julie Rochman, president & CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). "If someone's taking an old heater out of the attic, make sure the cord isn't frayed," she adds. Avoid using an extension cord with a space heater, but if you must, a No. 14-gauge or larger wire is your safest option.
3. Get it professionally installed. If you're using a stationary device such as a pellet or wood stove or a fireplace, it's a good idea to have it installed by a professional technician. "They're going to know things like how far to place it from the wall and the type of chimney or flue that should be installed," explains Crombie.
If you do decide to go the DIY route, be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions carefully and consider having it inspected "either by the building inspector or the fire marshal in your community," adds Crombie. Also find out if your community requires a permit for a fireplace or stove.
4. Maintain your devices.Regular maintenance, like having your stove or chimney inspected annually, can help prevent fire hazards such as an animal nesting your chimney during the off-season. The device's manual should contain instructions on maintenance but not everyone reads it carefully enough, according to Rochman. She adds that "it's really important that you only operate the heat system along the lines of the label requirements." For instance, most devices should be placed on a noncombustible base. "They sell mats you can put down to make sure that it's not sitting on a floor covering that's combustible," says Rochman.
You'll also need a noncombustible container with a lid for removing ashes from a fireplace or stove. "Even with metal [containers], after you empty the stove or the fireplace, store it outside," urges Crombie.
With any alternative heating option, it's important to have a working smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector. Crombie recommends testing the alarms at least once a month and replacing the batteries twice a year. "As you change your clocks [for daylight savings], it's a good reminder to change the batteries," he adds.
5. Keep an eye on space heaters.Some devices can be left on while you're out, but space heaters especially should not be left unattended, particularly if you have kids or pets. Space heaters also need at least three feet of clearance between the device and combustible materials like Christmas trees, stacks of paper, bedding, or curtains. That's why Crombie says it's often better to pile on the blankets than run a space heater while you sleep. Although there might be a temptation to move the space heater closer to your bed at night, he says that throwing off the blanket or quilt in your sleep could lead to a fire if bedding gets too close to the heater.
The other temptation with space heaters is to close off the door to heat up the room. "A space heater or a wood stove is probably going to heat one room really well," says Rochman. "But there's a tradeoff between wanting to be safe and energy-efficient. It's good to have ventilation because heat dries things out." Still, she adds, "people have been using alternative heating sources forever and they can be used safely if you follow the instructions."