Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service

Our Mission: Safer Stronger Communities - Safe Effective Firefighters.

Space heater fires


What are space heaters?

Space heaters are fixed or portable heaters in a room. This includes open coal, wood or coke fires, gas fires, portable gas fires (LPG heaters), electric fires and heaters, and oil and paraffin heaters.

What are the main causes of heating appliance fires?

Space heaters regularly cause fatalities in the home. Most accidents are caused by people's behaviour rather than technical faults in the appliances themselves. For example, standing or sitting too close to the heater, allowing clothing or other items to come too close, or leaving heaters on overnight can all cause accidents.

Who is most at risk?

Those in the age ranges 0-4 years and 70 years and over have the highest risk. Women over 70 are most at risk, as there are more women than men in this higher age group. Men are more at risk in the 30-69 age range, which may be because they are more likely to be impaired by drink or drugs at this age, or because they are more likely to tackle a fire on their own.

People living alone, those living in terraced houses and houses in multiple occupation, or in rented accommodation, and those on low incomes all tend to be at greater risk.

Where do most accidents occur?

The living room is the area of the home where accidents most often occur. Many older people migrate to one room because of the cold or disability, bringing with them more and more possessions. It is also less likely that there is a smoke detector in the living room.

Which kinds of heating appliance carry the greatest risk?

Electric space heaters are involved in the most incidents and the most deaths and injuries. Gas, solid fuel and LPG (liquid petroleum gas) space heaters are also significant contributors. Oil and paraffin heaters carry a high risk but their use has fallen considerably over the last 20 years.

Accident statistics

In 1997 there were 4,195 incidents, 47 deaths _and 820 non-fatal injuries involving space heater fires. The risk of fatality is high at 11 per 1,000 incidents, and the risk of injury is 195 per 1,000 incidents.

Behaviour involved in fatal space heater fire incidents 1994-1997

Behaviour involved in fatal space heater fire incidents 1994-1997

Risk of incident, fatality or non-fatal casualty, 1994-1997 (average)

Risk per million households
Appliance Household penetration Fire incident Fatality Non-fatal casualty
Electric heaters 33% 129 3 37
Gas space heaters 41% 81 2 24
Oil/paraffin heaters 1% 200 5 55
Central heating 88% 53 0.1 5
Total heating appliances* 100% 188 2 38

* assumes 100 per cent of 23.5 million households have some form of heating


Good practice guidelines

Safe use of electric heating

There are different kinds of electrical heaters. In all cases:

  • Make sure they are well clear of curtains and furnishings.
  • Take care with time-switched heaters.
  • Never sit too close to a heater - you could easily set light to your clothes or your chair, particularly if you fall asleep. Sit at least 1 metre (3 feet) away.

Radiant fires:

  • Keep a permanent safety guard around radiant fires.
  • If you have children around, also keep a fireguard in front of the fire. Always use fireguards which meet the British Standard BS 5258-5.
  • Do not put clothes or other items on or near the fireguard.
  • In small rooms, radiant fires should be fixed high on the wall - at least 1 metre (3 feet) from any furniture, curtains or doors (open or closed).
  • Switch off the fire at the wall socket, unplug it and let it cool before cleaning it.
  • Never fit time switches and delay controls to radiant fires.

Convector heaters:

  • Never drape anything over a convector or storage heater.
  • Make sure that airing cupboard heaters are shielded against falling clothes, and that they have an overheat cut-out and an indicator lamp.

Storage heaters:

  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions for positioning heaters against walls.
  • Keep heaters at least 8 centimetres (3 inches) clear of curtains and furniture.
  • Never obstruct air grilles.
  • Fan heaters:
  • Never cover or obstruct air grilles.

If you notice any of these danger signs, stop using the appliance immediately:

  • Staining, sooting or discoloration of the appliance or surrounding areas.
  • A gas heater or boiler burning with a yellow or orange flame rather than its normal blue flame.
  • A strange smell when the appliance is working

Safe use of gas fires

Gas appliances operate safely when they are installed, operated and maintained correctly.

  • It is best only to buy appliances from reputable dealers. Make sure they meet the appropriate British or European safety requirements.
  • Avoid buying second-hand appliances if you can. If you do buy second-hand, choose appliances that have been tested for safety. Insist on a written guarantee from the dealer and a copy of the user instructions. Never install or reconnect a gas appliance yourself.
  • By law, gas appliances must be fitted and maintained only by an installer who is registered with CORGI (Council for Registered Gas Installers). If the appliance is fitted to an existing chimney, this should first be swept.
  • Any newly installed appliance in a bathroom must be of the room-sealed type.
  • When installing a gas fire of 14 kilowatts input or less in a bedroom it must either have a spillage safety device or be room-sealed. If it is larger than 14 kilowatts input it must be room-sealed.
  • Have all your gas appliances serviced regularly by a CORGI-registered installer - once a year for gas fires and boilers. Ensure this includes a safety check to make sure flues are working properly.
  • Ventilation is vital. All fuel uses up fresh air as it burns and gives off waste gases. Gas appliances need fresh air to burn properly. Never block or obstruct any vent. If your appliances are fitted with balanced flues, make sure the grille outside is kept clear. Where appliances require flues, removal of waste gases is essential.

Safety warning

If you smell gas:

  • Turn off the gas supply at the meter.
  • Do not use matches or naked flames.
  • Do not turn electrical switches on or off.
  • Open doors and windows.
  • Check the appliance to see if the gas has been left switched on.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Call the gas supply company or the emergency service provider

It is against the law to use an appliance you know or suspect is unsafe or dangerous.

Safe use of portable gas heaters

Cylinder gas (liquefied petroleum gas/LPG) is used to fuel powerful domestic heaters in houses, boats, caravans and mobile homes. Portable heaters do not need flues but they do need a lot of air. They should not be used in confined spaces with poor air circulation.

All new portable cabinet heaters made to British Standards BS 5258 Parts 10, 11 and BS EN449 are fitted with a special safety device that cuts off the gas supply if the room gets too stuffy. Other portable heaters, designed for outdoor activities, have no such device and must not be used in confined spaces.

  • Choose an appliance that meets the British or European safety standard.
  • Avoid buying second-hand.
  • Get a CORGI-registered installer to install and check new appliances.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Have your appliances regularly serviced by an engineer who is registered with CORGI.
  • Make sure there is enough air coming into the room - by not blocking or obstructing vents.
  • Keep portable heaters clear of furniture, bedclothes and curtains.
  • Do not use a portable heater for drying clothes.

Changing gas cylinders:

  • Do it in the open air. If this is not possible, open windows and doors to increase ventilation.
  • Never change the cylinder on a stairway or other escape route.
  • Extinguish all sources of ignition such as cigarettes and pilot lights. If you are indoors, turn off other heaters and electrical appliances.
  • Make sure the valve on the empty cylinder is closed before disconnecting the heater. Do not open the valve on the new cylinder until the connection to the heater is secure.
  • Look for any gas leaks by brushing soapy water onto the flexible hose and fittings and looking for bubbles. If you find a leak, take the heater and cylinder into the open air, and do not use either until the faulty part is replaced.
  • Store spare cylinders upright, and outside wherever possible. Never store them in basements, near drains, under the stairs or in a cupboard containing electricity meters or electrical equipment.

Portable heaters

  • Place heaters where they will not be knocked or tripped over. Do not put them where objects will fall on them.
  • Make sure heaters are well clear of curtains, furniture and bedding.
  • Do not move a heater while it is alight and switched on

Safe use of paraffin heaters

Paraffin heaters are safe when used properly and sensibly.

  • Choose a new heater that meets British or European safety standards. Wherever possible avoid buying second-hand.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully.
  • Never refill with paraffin while the heater is alight.
  • Make sure there is plenty of air coming into the room.
  • Keep heaters away from doors and direct draughts.
  • Check all parts regularly and remove any build-up of dust, which could restrict the air flow.
  • Check regularly to make sure the wick has not become choked or dirty. When necessary, trim it with the special wick cleaner provided. If you do not have one, ask at the shop where you buy your wicks.
  • When buying paraffin, look for the special symbol with the number BS 2869 CI on the pump or tank. Using this paraffin will help to ensure that your heater works safely.

When refilling the heater:

  • Extinguish the heater and let it cool first.
  • Where possible, refill the tank outside.
  • Refill to just below the maximum level, to allow for expansion when the paraffin warms up.
  • Never allow the paraffin to overflow or drip onto the floor - clear up any spills immediately.
  • Before lighting, make sure the heater is standing level, preferably on a non-combustible base, and away from draughts.
  • Store spare fuel outside the home, and try not to store more than 9 litres (2 gallons). Keep the fuel in purpose-made containers away from sources of heat.

Oil-fired heaters with chimneys or flues need air to allow them to work properly. Make sure that air can enter the room.

Safe use of oil-fired heaters

  • Get a reputable company to install your oil-fired heater or boiler.
  • Read and follow the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Get your appliance serviced regularly by an experienced engineer. This should include a safety check to make sure that chimneys and flues are not blocked.
  • Do not try to adjust gauges and instruments yourself.

Safe use of wood-burning stoves and boiler

  • Wood-burning stoves and boilers should only use the right quality of wood. They need to be properly maintained and regularly serviced.
  • Get a competent person to install the stove or boiler, following the manufacturer's instructions and the building regulations and code of practice.
  • Make sure there is enough air coming into the room.
  • The wood should be dry and well-seasoned - this usually takes about two years. A well-seasoned log has drying-out splits in the ends. Never use wet or newly-felled wood as this can cause tar or creosote to form in the wood burner and chimney.
  • If the wood burner has been used slowly (overnight, for instance), this should be followed by a period of faster burning to dry out any creosote and to warm up the chimney again.
  • Get the chimney cleaned at the end of each heating season and at least once during the heating season. Get it inspected regularly.
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