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Fire Safety for Outdoor Heaters

How do you safely use an outdoor heater to prevent fire and burn hazards? We'll guide you. Read about how to stay cozy — and safe — outside.

Outdoor Heaters: How to Use Safely to Prevent Fire Hazards

Patio heaters can turn even the most frigid of evenings into a cozy outdoor nook. Whether you've invested in a wall-mounted electric unit, a portable heater, or a free-standing gas or electric heater, patio heaters all add a warm and fuzzy experience to your outdoor space. However, because these products produce large amounts of heat, they can also pose a significant safety hazard if certain steps are not taken.

Practically all patio heaters come with built-in safety measures, like a button that turns off all power or gas flow to the heat source, or a "tip safe" mechanism that turns off the heater if it tilts too far off-center. Because patio heaters run off gas or electricity, however, these built-in safety features are not fail-proof. Generally, electric heaters are considered "safer" since they do not rely on an open flame, but they can still be as much as a safety hazard as other models.

Luckily, it is incredibly easy to maintain fire safety for patio heaters. In fact, most of the safety steps only need to be taken when the heater is first set up! So long as you regularly check to make sure your patio heater meets your safety concerns, you can count on warm nights by the heater all season long — without needing to call the fire department.

Why to Follow your manufacturer's rules for safe placement

Depending on where you bought your patio heater, it should have a setup and safety guide somewhere in the box. (If you bought one at a garage sale or from a friend, you can usually look up these guides online with the product's model number and brand name.) These booklets are for more than just getting your heater up and running! They contain helpful information for minimizing fire risks.

In general, a standing heater should be placed at least three feet away from any combustibles. "Combustibles" are things that could catch fire — paper, trees, grass, even the fabric of outdoor tablecloths could catch if they sit too close for too long. One of the biggest safety risks is proximity to propane tanks, like the ones used with grills. Especially if your heater also runs on gas, be sure that propane tanks are placed as far away from the heat source as possible. If you ever smell gas, hear hissing, or otherwise suspect a gas leak, turn off your heater and call the fire department right away.

why you should never place anything above or below your heater

Most homeowners know to clear a fireproof space around their heaters, but they often forget to include things above and below the heater. Patio awnings, certain types of wood finish, and decorative pedestals may not be completely fire safe. Before you begin using your heater, it is critical to check the manufacturer's instructions for anything that might come in close contact with it. Over time, patio heaters can also damage walls and ceilings if they are left too close!

How to Use weights or ties to keep your heater from falling over

Most heaters -- particularly gas ones -- are designed to automatically shut off if they tilt too far in any direction. This is a built-in safety feature that keeps your heater from setting things on fire if it falls over. However, the residual heat from a fallen heater can still pose a fire risk, especially during dry winters or if your patio backs up against the woods or tree line.

You can keep your heater secure by placing sandbags, water weights, or other fireproof stabilizers at the base. You could also use non-flammable ties — like high quality nylon or certain types of bungee cords — to secure your heater to the ground, much like stabilizing a tent. Again, this should only be done if your heater stands at least three feet away from anything flammable — I doubt the fire department would approve of a patio heater lashed to a wooden fence!

How to Establish fire-safety rules and routines, especially for families with children

Generally, a patio heater should only be used by responsible adults. In families with children, it's critical to establish a routine and rules for fire safety. In your household, you might make it a rule that no one under the age of 15 is allowed to touch the patio heater without supervision. A heater should never be left unattended — if the party is moving indoors, the heater should be turned off, even if you plan on coming back outside later.

Spending $20 on a fire extinguisher that you never use is a much better option than finding your whole patio in flames because a heater malfunctioned or fell over. Patio heaters can follow the same fire prevention precautions as other tall, flammable objects — Christmas trees, for example! A fire extinguisher, a dedicated bucket of water or sand, or a fire blanket can all be kept somewhere close and familiar in case of emergencies.

Are there times you shouldn't use outdoor heaters?

Patio heaters are outdoor products, so they're designed to stand up to a little wind and water. In the case of severe weather, however, patio heaters can pose a larger safety risk. For example, electric heaters should never be used during a rainstorm. Wind speeds are one of the biggest factors here — if the wind ever reaches speeds of 10 mph or more, the heater should be carefully secured, or put away altogether.

Resources— Patio Heater Expert, FireSense, StarFire Direct