Molly Hall, Director, Safe Electricity
Heaters and blankets:
Keep electric ones close but not too close
It was 4 a.m. and she was asleep in her Lanesborough, Mass., mobile home. The cold March temperatures required an electric space heater to provide enough heat. But it did more than asked for and set fire to a couch that was just too close. The occupant of the mobile home escaped with only minor burns, but she watched her home go up in flames in the $40,000 fire.
The tragic lesson that she learned was to keep the heater away from drapes, furniture or other flammable materials, and to place the heater on a level surface away from areas where someone might bump it and knock it over.
Space heaters and electric blankets may provide needed comfort, but they can also be deadly if they are not used with care. A Centreville, Va., man died from smoke inhalation and thermal burns in a fire, which inspectors blamed on an electric heater and an electric blanket which were too close to combustible materials.
Authorities express concern about blankets that are more than 10 years old, since their wiring can be damaged by creasing, flexing, fraying and ordinary wear and tear. Their suggestion is to replace any electric blanket that is worn or torn, where the electric cord is frayed or where the temperature control is damaged. They also advise turning your electric blanket off when not in use. Many older models have no internal temperature control to shut the blanket off when it gets too hot; if your blanket has no such internal control, consider replacing it with a newer model.
Some other tips include refraining from using more than one electric blanket (or heating pad) at a time. The heat generated by the combined appliances can cause serious burns. And do not plug your electric blanket into an outlet that is controlled by a light switch; the blanket could be switched on accidentally. Unplug your blanket if you smell smoke or if any scorching is evident; discoloration of the blanket may indicate that it is burning internally.
Although it cannot be seen, the heating element in an electric blanket is fragile. Do not pile toys, pillows, blankets, or other materials on top of an electric blanket or tuck electric blankets underneath mattresses or other items; excessive heat may build up to the point where the blanket could ignite. Do not sit or lay on top of an electric blanket; this may damage the blanket’s internal coils and expose the heating element to combustible fabric. And finally, never ball up an electric blanket and leave it on; excessive heat may allow the blanket to ignite.
Never wash an electric blanket; the twisting, tugging, and turning action of the washing machine will damage the internal coils. Do not dry clean electric blankets; the chemicals used in the cleaning process may damage the heating insulation and increase the risk of fire. Never use an electric blanket that is wet; do not turn an electric blanket on to dry it out. Refrain from using electric blankets and hot water bottles together.
After using the blanket, it should be stored flat. If that is not possible, roll it up or fold it with as few creases as possible; be careful when folding the blanket to protect the internal coils. Replace any blanket where the embedded heating wires have been displaced or damaged. Check by holding the blanket up to light; the wires should be evenly spaced and not touch each other anywhere. If you have any doubt about its safety, discontinue using it, or use it as a regular blanket, without plugging it in.
Space heaters do have to be energized to work, but common sense and safety should prevail in their use. When buying a space heater, look for one that has been tested and labeled by a nationally recognized testing facility. Also keep the heater at least 3 feet away from drapes, furniture or anything that might catch fire. If an extension cord is required, ensure that it is a heavy duty cord marked with a power rating at least as high as the heater. And never leave a space heater unattended or running while you sleep.
For more information and videos on electrical safety, visit www.SafeElectricity.org.
Molly Hall is the Director of Safe Electricity. E-mail: molly-hall@SafeElectricity.org. Safe Electricity is a public awareness program of the Energy Education Council www.EnergyEdCouncil.org.