Choosing the best (and safest) heater this winter

As I’m writing this, I’ve squeezed myself as close as possible to the panel heater in my office, because this office is an icy crypt! Winter in South Africa is no joke, and electricity bills soar. So how do we choose the safest & most energy-efficient heating solutions?

This article is about portable heaters (or ‘space’ heaters, as they’re called in the U.S.) in particular, as they’re the quickest way to add additional heat to your homes & can be moved around, meaning that, depending on your needs, you may only need to invest in one good one & move it around.

The trouble with this type of heating is the fire hazard. Portable heaters are not all made the same, and because they can be moved around, they come into contact with flammable materials (and careless people) often. Here is some advice for choosing the ideal heater for your home:

Heater Features to Look For:

  • No matter what type of heater you choose (oil, fan, etc.), ensure it has the features listed below.
  • Kick-over (or tip-over) automatic shut-off. This means that if the heater is tipped slightly, it will turn off, preventing it from setting things alight once it’s been tipped.
  • Overheat shut-off. This, too, is extremely important, for obvious reasons.
  • Don’t expect any safety feature on your heater to be entirely safe! Why not? Because it’s still bloody hot, and even if it switches off when it’s tipped over, it could still burn something. Panel heaters are better in this regard, as they never get too hot.

Where to plug your heater in (safely!):

  • socket2If you are not able to plug it directly into the wall socket, always use a short, heavy duty extension cord, and only do so temporarily. Years ago (before I was as wise as I am now, erhem), I melted an extension cord after plugging the cheapo heater I bought as a student into a 10m long, equally cheap extension cable (the maximum amp rating of which I was not aware of). It was quite a dangerous move, as we narrowly missed setting the place alight that day, and I’m very glad I’m more safety-savvy now. Why should you do this? Because your heater uses bucketloads of energy, that’s why! And cheap, lightweight power cables will burn out. The same goes for homes with old/faulty wiring. Be careful with appliances that operate using lots of power.
  • Don’t plug anything else into the same outlet your heater is plugged into. For all the reasons listed above. Overwhelm, overheat & burny burn burn.
  • If your electricity trips while you’re using your heater (for example, when you’re using other appliances), stop using the heater. You’re overloading the circuit & causing trouble. Could be dangerous!

Heater placement:

  • floorOnly put your heater on the floor. This is the most efficient, and also safest place to put it. Any higher, and you’ll lose a lot of heat unnecessarily.
  • Concrete, tile, hardwood or extremely short-pile carpets are the only surfaces to place them on (longer fibres, even those in medium-pile carpets will catch alight easily). Don’t even try it, it’s not even remotely worth the risk.
  • Allow about 1m space on all sides of the heater. This applies to all heater types except the old & panel varieties. Oil heaters can have about 30cm space around them.

Heater types & benefits:

  • fan-heaterOn the cheaper range, you have your fan heaters, which come in different qualities as well as styles. We do not recommend buying the very cheapest in the range, as they often tend to be a bit of a waste. Rather save up a very little bit more & get a good brand, as you will feel a significant difference in heat provision, as well as see the difference on your electricity bill. And don’t be tricked by the appearance of the heater! That ‘cheapo’ I mentioned earlier looked exactly like another fan heater which I had used to death, and at the time I didn’t realise I was purchasing a different brand. It wasn’t until I turned it on that I discovered how inferior the heater really was. So it was draining power without giving much heat, meaning it was a complete dud purchase.
  • Fan heaters are great for immediate heat, but they tend to be more a friend to Eskom than to you. If you have one, seal the room of all potential drafts, put the heater on for a while in a good, safe place (like the centre of the room), and then turn it off once the heat has sufficiently heated the room.
  • Panel heaters are great for slow, consistent heat. They’re also a bit safer than the fan type, and don’t get too hot. They’re not great if you need immediate heat, but they work very well over time. And are more energy efficient than fan heaters.
  • oil-heaterOil heaters are the winner here, and can be rather expensive to purchase. But they’re worth the investment, as they are self-regulating & switch off as they reach your chosen temperature setting. The oil retains heat for a while, and you aren’t draining your precious electricity units the entire time. They also spread heat more evenly (albeit a bit more slowly) than fans.
  • Bar heaters. By far the greatest fire risk, these types of heaters are usually the cheapest to purchase, but bar heaterthe most tricky to use. Often coming in one, two, or three ‘bar’ varieties, they consist of elements placed in a reflective box which radiates heat from behind a ‘safety’ grille. They’re often very dangerous to touch, as one is always in close direct contact with the heat source, and the cheapest varieties do not have any safety features apart from an ‘on/off’ switch. Sadly, because they’re so cheap, they’re often purchased by those who already have little space (and thus cannot set it up in a safe, spacious environment), poor electricity access, and dangerous environments (close to water source, etc.). They cause a lot of fires. Don’t buy these (especially the cheap ones), if you can help it.
  • gas-heaterGas heaters are not that popular in SA, but they pose the same risks (burning, tipping, etc.) as other heaters, with one added risk:  non-flued heaters could run the risk of emitting carbon monoxide.

General Rules:

  • Little creatures love to get close to heaters, so ensure that you keep them safely away from them. If you do have pets or children in the home, then don’t even consider opting for the bar heaters, and try to get an oil-based radiation heater instead. Don’t leave your child alone with a heater.
  • Don’t leave your heater on overnight.
  • Don’t leave your heater on when you’re not at home. Even if you’re just stepping outside, turn it off. Rather safe than sorry.
  • If you’re using a heater in every room, you’re throwing money away & wasting electricity. Consider investing in decent insulation or underfloor heating. Also, consider switching to panel heaters & just use them in absolutely necessary locations. Seal up that drafty window, put rugs on the floor, get one of those cute sausage-dog draft stoppers for under the doors. You won’t believe the difference all these will make. Also, put insulation in your ceiling.

If you have anything else to add to this, or questions about heater safety, send them through!

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