Safe and Efficient Heater Usage
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Portable heaters are the most common heating devices in homes. Even many people with fireplaces prefer to use portable heaters (they are not fans of the hassle of keeping a fire going) and generally it’s not that common yet that you will find under-floor heating in homes in South Africa.
Air-conditioning is more common than the latter but even then, not all that common at present in middle-class homes.
So we’re back then to portable and panel heaters. They are usually electric – being radiant bar heaters, convection panel or oil heaters or fans with a heating facility. The advantage of the latter is that they can be used in hot seasons to help keep you cool and in cold seasons, help keep you warm.
One type of fixed heater is the wall-mounted panel, which is attached to the wall and about 30mm from it, through the use of spacers. This is a space heater, and employs a heating element within a fibre panel to warm the surrounding air.
So, let’s look at each type:
Fixed wall panel:
As mentioned above, the panel is fixed to the wall and is therefore permanent. The surface of the panel does not get excessively hot, the warming function being achieved through the large surface area. Likewise, power consumption is not excessive.
The issue with wall-mounted panel heaters is of course that you need to think carefully about where they will be installed, since once up, that’s where they stay.
Wall-mounted panels are space heaters and work by convection, so they are a good choice for bedrooms, dining rooms, lounges and so on – and if you have as home office, likewise a good choice. They often take a little while to heat up to their operating temperature, but are very effective – provided they have been positioned with care.
Bear in mind, however, that as with any heater, basic safety precautions should be followed (See end of article).
Radiant heaters – they use individual bars that glow red-hot when on – are local heaters and emit infrared radiation that warms whatever is in their direct path, and is close to them. Office workers often set up a radiant heater under their desk to keep their feet and legs warm on cold days.
The advantage of radiant heaters is that they heat up very quickly; generally the control allows for one, two or three bars to be operated on, in this case, a three-bar heater, so that the operator can control the temperature. When switched off, they cool down quickly as well (though their protective grill might remain warm to the touch for a little while).
An important point here is to ensure that whatever model you use, has a safety switch – mounted on the underside – this disconnects the supply to the bars in the event that the heater is knocked over.
For safety sake, regularly check that this switch works as it should. Every so often, lift the heater off the floor – it should turn itself off. If it does not, that means the safety switch is faulty and you should either have the heater fixed by a qualified electrician or discard it. When discarding a heater – or any faulty electrical appliance for that matter, cut off the cord at the appliance itself. Simply cutting off the plug could mean someone will replace the plug and use the heater, thereby endangering themselves.
Fan heaters are more versatile in that they can be used to cool in warmer months, and in cooler months to warm the place up when switched to heating mode. In this case, an electric coil is heated up and warms the air passing through the fan. As with the radiant heater, ensure however, that it has a safety switch that will turn it off should it fall over; if it does not, the fan keeps going, the coil keeps heating and at best you might end up with a scorched carpet. At worst… a fire.
LPG radiant heaters:
These operate on the same principle as their electricity-powered cousins, namely by radiating heat from coils or bars that are heated, this time by LPG.
In this case, you need to exercise a great deal more caution. Safe when properly used, they can be deadly if knocked over and unnoticed by an adult who can quickly set them upright again. The heating elements produce a lot of heat and could present a fire hazard. Such heaters – there are also pedestal variants that are used on patios and verandas, are for outdoor use.
If you are using the patio heater version, ensure that it is positioned where it won’t cause any damage or fire risk to any awning material above it. These heaters have reflectors designed to radiate heat downwards, but there is still some heat going up.
These heaters are often low-cost options but , if they are of good quality and from a reputable manufacturer, they will warm a room. However, we have all heard the horror stories of this type of heater being knocked over and a fire being the result. So again, safety first!
Oil heaters are convection heaters that employ an electric heating element that warms oil which circulates through a series of columns, warming the surrounding air. Depending on the size of the heater there can be 4, 6 or more columns, naturally, the more there are, the greater the volume of oil, and the greater the total surface area of the oil-filled columns.
These heaters can be quite accurately controlled to provide a temperature that is comfortable for you. They do take a little while to warm up – the heater element of course has to heat up the oil first, but once up and running this type of heater is a good choice. A plus factor is that their surface temperature, while it can be uncomfortably warm when running at the top range of its output, it is unlike to cause injury other than some discomfort. Which is not to say that the usually safety precautions should not apply. They do!
The oil (or whatever heat transfer fluid has been used) stays hot for a while, even after the unit has been switched off, and this means it’s a plus for saving energy… you can turn the heater off a few minutes at least before leaving the room and it will still put out some heat.
Every heater, as it produces heat, presents a safety hazard to a greater or lesser extent, so it is always best to operate them according to the safety precautions set down by the manufacturers, and quite frankly, the sort of safety precautions common-sense should tell anyone they should follow. So…
- Buy a heater that has all of the current safety features.
- Place the heater on a level surface away from foot traffic and ensure that children are kept clear.
- Never drape wet or damp garments over a heater.
- Ensure that the heater is placed well away from any flammable materials… such as too close to a couch’s cushions.
- Keep pets away from heaters.
- In the case of electric heaters, check electrical connections and leads for loose wires and/or damage. Have the problem rectified or, if it cannot be sorted out, cut off the power cord at the heater end and discard the appliance (responsibly, of course).
- If you need to use an extension cord, use at least a 15amp and if the extension is on a drum or rolled up, unwind it. Depending on the power the heater is drawing, if an extension cord is left rolled up, it can heat up – possibly enough for the insulation to break down causing a short circuit. Always check and follow any manufacturer’s instructions regarding the use of extension cords.
- Buy a unit with a tip-over safety switch, which automatically shuts off the heater if the unit is tipped over.
- In the case of LPG-powered heaters, ensure that all the pipe fittings are in a perfect state of repair. If any pipe or fitting is damaged, have it repaired/replaced by an accredited agent.
Oil heaters such as this are one of the safer options for the home with young children. These oil-filled space heaters rely on their large surface area to warm the air in a room. They can be set to whatever temperature you want – usually within quite a wide range.
Bar heaters warm by radiating heat from their hot elements and are a good choice for small areas… in offices workers often used them under the desk to keep their feet warm.
Ensure that your bar heater has a safety switch. It is spring-loaded and is depressed when the heater is upright, but when the heater is lifted or is knocked over the switch pops out, disconnecting the supply. Before using it for the first time, check that the heater switch works properly. If it doesn’t, do not use the heater and either have it repaired, or discard it.