In cold weather, use space heaters cautiously


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Frigid winter temperatures might prompt homeowners, farmers and others to help heat houses, occupied outbuildings or other structures with kerosene or propane space heaters. But without proper precautions, that could be a fatal mistake, according to safety experts in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

To illustrate this point, Dennis Murphy, distinguished professor of agricultural safety and health, and Sam Steel, senior research associate in agricultural and biological engineering, cite a close call that took place at a recent pesticide update training workshop in Pennsylvania.

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The event was held in a pole barn with minimal insulation, and kerosene and propane space heaters were used to provide supplemental heat. To help keep the cold out, windows and overhead doors were covered with tarps.

“This helped to keep the carbon monoxide emissions that are a natural byproduct of burning kerosene and propane space heaters inside the building,” Murphy said. “Contributing to this danger was a possible oxygen-deficient atmosphere because burning fossil fuels indoors uses up available oxygen.”

Serious consequences

The training lasted for about three hours, but the trainer was inside for closer to four hours. At least four of the participants are reported to have suffered some health effects from being at this training session.

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However, the instructor, who had a longer exposure, had more serious consequences that required emergency room treatment.

“He was unable to drive, and his symptoms included severe headache, eye pain, nausea, rapid heartbeat and difficulty catching his breath,” Steel noted. “He was able to get to the emergency room and was treated quickly enough to reverse the symptoms.

“Clearly, a slightly longer acute exposure and/or a delayed trip to the emergency room for treatment could have resulted in a less-positive outcome.”

Safety points

Murphy and Steel acknowledge that using portable space heaters indoors is a popular way to provide supplemental heating, but they offer the following important safety considerations to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning when using these devices:

  • If available, read the owner’s manual and follow all safe operating guidelines.
  • Use only the recommended fuel for the space heater.
  • Follow these all-important heater maintenance recommendations: periodic cleaning of the unit; trimming the wick; cleaning off accumulated soot and carbon; and inspecting the unit for leaks.
  • Open doors or windows to provide ventilation. The rule of thumb for ventilation is 1 square inch of outside window opening per 1,000 BTUs of the heater’s rating.
  • Use oxygen and carbon monoxide sensors to monitor the room’s air.
  • Using multiple units is not a recommended practice, but if you must do so, increase the square inches of outside ventilation based on the number of heaters.

“However, when planning meetings or other gatherings, if the proposed facility needs multiple space heating units to keep warm, you should find another facility,” Murphy advised.


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