Space Inflamers: Defective Space Heaters Can Cause Fires and Injury

By Michael GrossmanOctober 27, 2016Reading Time: 6 minutes

When temperatures plunge, many search for a cost-effective alternative to turning on the central heating system: space heaters. Small, localized sources of heat that give you the warmth you're looking for without wasting the energy it takes to heat parts of your home you're not occupying. With a variety of colors and styles to choose from, many people find them to be an economical alternative to climbing electric bills in the winter.

Space Heater Example models
Various models of heaters--several of which were subject to recalls.

It's a great idea in principle, but time and again consumers have seen recalls of these devices because they seem to have an unfortunate tendency to overheat, start fires, and generally wreak various levels of havoc.

Which Space Heaters Are Recalled?

The government-run Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) keeps an eye out for product recalls issued by companies, and helps facilitate the circulation of the needed information to the public.

According to the information available through the CPSC, almost every year from 1999 through 2016 has recorded recalls of a few types of space heaters. The typically cited reason for the recalls was a "possible fire hazard," with "burn" and "scald hazard" thrown in occasionally for good measure. To be fair, those conditions are distinct for recall purposes, as fire hazards typically relate to a device's capacity to set its surroundings ablaze and burn/scald hazards relate primarily to damage the device can cause to a user if physical contact is made.

space-heaters-recalls3

The listed recalls include, but are not limited to, the examples below. I attached a quick estimate of the amount of time these products were available on the market before they were pulled for their potential hazards:

Six or more months using a product that can turn a home into a tinderbox is far too long a time.

Examining the Defect More Closely

The mechanics of a space heater are fairly simple: in most modern convective heaters, electric current is converted to heat inside the unit by a heating element, and then the heated air is blown outward or upward by a fan, warming a small localized area.

The problem that seems to unite these recalled products is one of temperature control. The units allegedly overheat, which in turn can cause the housing of the unit itself to melt and combust. Given fire's voracious appetite, anything surrounding the heater (belongings, carpets, bedding, etc.) is rapidly consumed from there. Most new heaters come with a short printed list of pitfalls to avoid when making use of the heater--set it on a level surface, keep it away from flammable materials like furniture and carpet, keep away from children--and while this advice is practical and valuable, the suggested preventative measures don't have much impact on hazardous manufacturing defects.

According to experts with the Harvard University Environmental Health & Safety group, portable space heaters are responsible for around 25,000 house fires a year, as well as 6,000 injuries, of which an estimated 300 are fatal. Fully one-third of all house fires nationwide occur during the cold months between December and February, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has said that space heaters are the leading cause of those fires.

Possible Solutions to the Issue

Space heater manufacturers (Sunbeam, Oster, GE, and many others) have increased safety measures in their products over time. Reputable companies' heaters are subjected to safety inspection and certification by a company called UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories), one of OSHA's Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories. Consumers are encouraged to make sure UL's logo appears on the package before buying a space heater, as it will mean that the product has been tested and certified by the firm.

Current heater models generally have emergency tip-over shut-off features, in the case the unit is displaced or knocked over. They are also equipped with heating element guards, which are just grilles over open spots on the unit's housing to make sure nothing can accidentally come in contact with the heating element. These are helpful, to be sure, but obviously given the breadth and frequency of unit recalls, they're not enough by themselves. A normally-functioning space heater can still trigger fires if its inner workings overheat.

These problems often arise when the heater is used for extended periods of time, which is not generally recommended. Leaving one's home with the heater running, or attempting to leave it running while sleeping, are actively discouraged in the products' literature. Most space heaters aren't rated for extended use, but rather are meant to run for long enough to heat up a chilly room and then be deactivated shortly after.

Two things can be surmised from this potential problem:

  1. If companies are issuing these warnings about leaving the units on, it means they are entirely aware of the possible consequences of doing so.
  2. This follows from the first thought: If they know about it, the companies should solve the problem, rather than simply putting the burden of excessive caution on consumers. The design flaw would hardly require any engineering marvels; temperature sensors that turn the unit off when it gets too hot already exist. Integrated timers that turn the unit off by default after a certain amount of lapsed time are also available. Either of these components would cost almost nothing--literally pennies--to fabricate and include in the heater. The MSRP of the recently-recalled Vornado space heaters was approximately $60.00. There is bound to be some room between fabrication cost and purchase cost for those few cents, especially when weighed against the devastation that can occur without these additions.

Companies could include these additional safety measures to make sure nobody pays the price for accidentally falling asleep with the heater running. I understand how that can happen--the warm air makes things cozy, and I certainly get sleepy under those conditions. It's easy to drift off. Nevertheless, manufacturers are clear that the heaters need to be turned off and unplugged after use, and most units don't have failsafes built in if they aren't.

What Does the Law Say About These Malfunctions?

People injured in fires caused by malfunctioning space heaters may be entitled to compensation from the manufacturers. Key to that is establishing the company was negligent in releasing products to the market that could cause such damages. While they were not specifically obligated to create automatic shut-off redundancies to protect consumers, the fact remains that the products can overheat and cause fires. The recalls indicate the companies' awareness of the possible danger.

Per the law, companies owe a duty to consumers to make products as safe as possible for normal use, and even foreseeable misuse. Manufacturers are expected to exercise a reasonable standard of care to safeguard users of their products. That's true of any type of consumer good or service, from oatmeal to cars to space heaters. Products come with an implicit warranty that they are safe to use, and if they are not safe somehow, their risks must be explained by the manufacturer.

Given that these heaters were not equipped with failsafes, it could be argued that the manufacturers breached their duty to end-users. The product was not designed or built with maximum consumer safety in mind, and regulatory devices would not have inflated the per-unit manufacturing cost to a significant degree. There's a couple of explanations for this alleged neglect:

  • Everything counts in large amounts. While timers or temperature sensors might be relatively cheap electronic components on a per-unit basis, when you're looking at millions of units at a time those expenses add up quickly. Additional labor, training, and time might also be required to fabricate the unit, which would possibly need to be redesigned with the additional feature incorporated. Viewed in that way, a "simple" addition to the heater's design could quickly explode into a very costly change. Corporate accountants reflexively clench up at the thought of major hits to the bottom line.
  • Wishful thinking. Projections that include the fire hazard might have existed, and further safety measures might have been considered. Testing could have suggested that the problem was statistically unlikely, and consequently a decision was made that no adjustments to the unit were needed. Some vague extra warnings were added to the label, and fingers were crossed that the issue would never come up for consumers. This ties into the previous notion that taking extra precautions would be expensive, especially if test results suggested it might be a redundant step. Unfortunately, as the numbers show, space heaters can and do contribute to accident statistics every year. Actuarial tables and probability estimates don't make anyone feel better when their houses--or worse, they themselves--are burned.

If a products liability attorney can successfully argue that the malfunction and subsequent injury constitute a breach of duty by the manufacturer, he will then need to prove that the overheating device was the cause of the damages. This should not prove terribly difficult, as most scene reconstruction will identify the source of a fire. Without the fire, there would not be burn injuries; ipso facto the heater is the proximate, or direct, cause of the injury.

If these elements can be successfully demonstrated by an attorney, a plaintiff subjected to destroyed property and severe personal injury may be entitled to significant compensation. Past and future medical bills, loss of income, pain and suffering, destruction of belongings and property--all of these are grounds to seek financial restitution from the heater's manufacturer if the device is proven to be the source of the damages.