Electric space heaters can be dangerous if they are not used correctly.
In 2020, two snowbirds died after a fire broke out in the early morning in their RV at the Highbanks Marina Camp and Resort in DeBary, Florida. Investigators said multiple space heaters, extension cords, and power strips were in use and that a space heater ignited the fire near the only exit. Firefighters were called to the home around 4:15 a.m. Officials said the blaze broke out near the single entrance to the RV and said that although the couple had been alerted by a working smoke detector, they were not able to get out.
And, in 2021, in Tucson, Arizona there was an RV fire around midnight which resulted in the death of a small dog. According to Tucson Fire Department (TFD), it took 14 firefighters 30 minutes to put out the fire limiting damage to the nearby RV to a burnt awning and melted plastic around the door. TFD officials believe the fire started from an unattended space heater.
TFD reminded the public that space heaters should never be left unattended and offered the following reminders:
- Always place space heaters on a level, flat surface
- Never place heaters on cabinets, tables, furniture, or carpet
- Never leave a space heater running overnight or when you are asleep
If you’re camped in an RV park with full hookups and not paying extra for electric usage it makes sense to take advantage of the power to heat your RV rather than using the propane you have to pay for separately. There’s also the fact that heat pumps and furnaces are, in most cases, very noisy. And there’s a third good reason. Unless the campground has a power outage, you don’t have to worry about running out of electricity.
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Use space heaters with care
So why wouldn’t this be a great way to heat your rig? What could be the downside of it?
Are electric space heaters really dangerous?
Well, don’t just take my word for it. Perhaps some advice from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) might help. According to the NFPA space heaters were the single most likely cause of a home fire over any other source of heat. In fact, 53 percent of home fires related to heating were caused by space heaters according to their 2018 report, the last year the information was reported.
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Space heaters all essentially max out at 1500 watts which means you can draw about 12.5 amps from the wall outlet. If your space heater does not have a thermostat, this continuous draw can heat up the wiring in the RV which could result in a fire, particularly if it’s compromised in any way.
Electric space heaters can help warm a room quickly. However, they can be as dangerous as convenient if not used properly. Everyone needs to understand the importance of using space heaters safely. Here’s what safeelectricity.org says about the safe use of space heaters:
- Purchase only space heaters that have been safety tested and UL approved
- Make sure the unit has an emergency tip-over/shut-off feature and heating element guards
- Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for operation and care
- Before using a space heater, make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are in good working condition
- Make sure the heater is clean and in good condition
- Place the heater out of high-traffic areas and on a level, hard, non-flammable floor surface—NOT on carpets, furniture, or countertops
- NEVER use space heaters to thaw pipes or dry clothing or towels
- Keep space heaters at least three feet from combustible liquids such as fuel, spray cans, and paint and flammable items such as draperies, blankets, towels, and sofas
- NEVER allow pets or children near an electric heater; accidental contact can cause serious shock or burns
- DO NOT overload circuits
- NEVER use extension cords or multiple plugs with a space heater and make sure not to plug the unit into the same circuit as other electric appliances
- Never leave space heaters unattended—turn off and unplug before leaving the room or going to bed
- Replace older space heaters with newer, safer models
But electrical fires aren’t the only reason using a space heater can be a concern. Most RVs have heated and enclosed underbellies that use the heat from the central furnace to warm the area so the water lines and holding tanks don’t freeze.
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If you’re using a space heater to warm the RV, this may not provide sufficient warmth to keep the pipes and tanks from freezing and that could be a major problem. If the temperature is below freezing set your RV thermostat on a low setting so that the underbelly and interior of the coach stay above freezing.
Many space heater fires are caused by plugging them into an outlet strip or skinny extension cord. Always plug a portable space heater directly into a wall outlet, never a power strip. Outlet strips were never designed for the types of continuous high-amperage loads created by any electrical heating appliance.
Locate a space heater at least three feet away from anything flammable. And make sure your dog can’t knock a blanket down on top of one.
Modern electric space heaters have tip-over and overheating protection. But that hasn’t always been the case with old heaters. Make sure your heater has all the safety controls.
Watch out for pet hair and fuzzies. Yes, pet hair will be sucked right into the fan on many of these heaters. That can cause an internal fire to start. Inspect your space heater for signs of dirt and hair. Use a can of compressed air to clean this kind of gunk out if it’s not too bad. But if it’s really caked on it’s time to buy a new space heater. Don’t take any chances with accumulated dirt and hair in a heating appliance.
Use low power settings and inspect outlets and plugs for signs of overheating. Always run your heater on the low-power setting or 600 to 750 watts. The continuous draw of the high-wattage settings can cause RV outlets and heater plugs to overheat and possibly catch on fire. If you see any signs of discoloring or touching the plug with your hand feels warm, then the damage is beginning. And be aware that a GFCI outlet will do nothing to prevent overheating. That’s not what they were designed to do. And while you’re at it, take a look at the power plug for any signs of overheating.
There’s no good way to repair an electrical outlet once it begins to overheat since the spring contacts have probably been damaged and it will keep getting hotter and hotter until it melts. Once a wall outlet has been overheated, then it’s time for a replacement.
Some of the newer RVs are manufactured with space heaters in the form of an electric fireplace. They are simply a fancy space heater with a beautiful display but one that does incorporate a thermostat.
Remember that electricity is a useful and powerful force, so we all need to pay attention to safety precautions while using it.
Read Next: Is Your RV Protected from Electrical Issues?
As always, a lot of common sense will help you to stay in the safe zone. Let’s play safe out there….
When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.