Column: Take safety precautions with space heaters

Usually around June, attics start getting really hot. About this time, I come out of an attic soaked in sweat, and go home and give myself a "butch" with the dog trimmer. I keep my hair short until it starts to cool off.Well, it's starting to get cold, and I've noticed a couple of things. I've noticed it takes a little longer every year to grow my hair back. I've also noticed a lot of space heaters in use. I'm guessing this is due to the economy - people are trying to save some heating/energy costs. This is not a bad plan; using a small space heater to warm just the room you're in can lower your heating costs.I've also noticed some unsafe uses of these space heaters. Small electric heaters can be a fire hazard if not used safely. Make sure there is nothing for at least a few feet in front of the heater.I saw a space heater last week that was covered in dog hair. It's not unusual for dogs and cats to lie down next to a warm heater. Make sure that your pets don't lie right next to the heater, or you may have a new definition for "hot dog." You need to clean pet hair out of the heater, especially from around the elements. The pet hair can dry out and become flammable.If a heater tips over so the element is facing the floor, it can ignite the floor covering. Newer space heaters have an anti-tip safety switch so they will automatically turn off if tipped over. If you have an older heater, it may not have this safety feature. Make sure the heater is in a safe location where pets or children can't tip it over.I saw a heater that was placed against the wall. The heating side was facing the room, but the intake vents were obstructed. This can cause the heater to overheat. Make sure the intake vents are not obstructed in any way. Some heaters have filters inside the intake vents. There is usually a snap-open cover to access the filter. Check if you heater has a filter. If it does and you didn't know about it, the filter likely needs cleaning.Don't use extension cords with a space heater. Electric heaters draw a lot of current and undersized wires will easily overheat.I would never leave a space heater on when no one is home. It is a very good idea to unplug space heaters when you leave the home, when you go to bed, or whenever they are not in use.Speaking of things you should never do, you should never us a gas-cooking appliance to heat a home or room. All flames will use oxygen and produce carbon monoxide. Most gas appliances are vented to the exterior, so the carbon monoxide is carried outside with the exhaust gas. A gas-cooking appliance is not vented to the exterior. If you operate a gas oven or gas cook-top burners for an extended time, it can cause high levels of carbon monoxide in the home. You should never use portable gas heaters with an open flame inside a home for the same reason.There are some ways to save heating costs on your primary heating source, too. Most homes in our area have gas forced air furnaces. Make sure the filter or filters are clean. A dirty filter is not a safety hazard, but can reduce the efficiency of the furnace. Filters are inexpensive; replacing or cleaning a dirty filter will pay for itself almost immediately.If you have a forced air system, you should consider a set-back or programmable thermostat. These thermostats are less expensive than just a few years ago, and are easier to set or program. These can be used to lower the temperature at night and during the day. If you think about it, your furnace works hardest at night. Heating a home to 70 degrees when it's 50 degrees outside does not take a lot of energy. It takes much more energy to heat a home to 70 degrees when it's 20 or 30 degrees outside. Using a set-back to lower the indoor temperature at night can result in substantial savings in your heating bill. You can set the thermostat to raise the temperature a half hour before your alarm goes off, so you can wake up to a warm house.Set-back thermostats don't work as well on hot water systems. Hot water systems can have the old-fashioned radiators in each room, baseboard convectors in each room, or the newer in-floor heating systems. Hot water heat takes longer to heat a cold home, so if you use a set-back thermostat, you should not lower the temperature as much as you can with a forced air furnace. There are advantages to hot water heat - it's usually efficient and clean (no filters).No matter what your primary heating system is, it's always a good idea to have it serviced yearly. All gas appliances produce carbon monoxide. A malfunctioning gas appliance can be a safety concern because it could allow carbon monoxide to enter the home. Regular maintenance and servicing will also make your heating system run more efficiently and last longer.You should test all your smoke detectors. There should be a smoke detector in each bedroom, outside each bedroom and at least one on each level of the home. Smoke detectors are inexpensive and easy to install. You should install smoke detectors in all these locations if they're not already there. If you have any gas or wood-burning appliances, you should install at least one carbon monoxide detector on each level of the home.Randy West owns Professional Building Consultants in Prescott. He is a state-certified home inspector and has performed almost 5,000 home inspections in the Prescott area. West is past president of the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), and currently serves on the Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. Contact him at randy@inspectprescott.com.