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Office of Research Services

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Play it Safe When Using Space Heaters in NIH Buildings

Each year at this time, questions arise concerning the use of space heaters at NIH owned facilities. The guidelines that follow below do not pertain to NIH leased facilities. Please be aware that if you work in a leased facility, there may be more stringent requirements from the building owner and/or local fire-safety "Authority Having Jurisdiction." Please check with your Office of Research Facilities (ORF) Facility Manager ( before purchasing or using a space heater in any NIH leased facility. 

Before a space heater can be considered for an NIH owned facility, any difficulties in regulating or maintaining a comfortable temperature must first be directed to ORF to have a building engineer attempt to make mechanical adjustments to the heating system. If it is determined by ORF that an area cannot be adequately heated, written approval will be provided by the ORF Facility Manager assigned to the building to support the purchase and use of a space heater in designated areas only.

Space heaters are not permitted, under any circumstances, in laboratories, patient care units, or clinics.

Prior to installing any space heater, ORF must also verify that the electrical service to the area is adequate to safely accommodate the heater. Space heaters can easily overload electrical circuits in a building, therefore, additional circuits may need to be installed. If electrical work is required, the occupant's IC should initiate a work request. If ORF has available funds and it is clear the building is not capable of providing reasonable levels of heat (70 degrees) in that particular room, ORF will fund the electrical work.

The Division of the Fire Marshal, Office of Research Services, does not endorse any particular brand or manufacturer of space heaters; however, a convection-type heater is preferable. Convection models slowly warm the air around them and pose less of a burn hazard since their surface temperatures are generally lower. Prior to purchasing the heater, be sure that the unit has been tested by an approved testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL) and is equipped with ALL of the following features to minimize fire hazards typically associated with these devices:

  • A multi-directional tip-over switch - space heaters can easily tip over. This switch automatically turns off the unit regardless of which way it may fall.
  • An overheat sensor - this sensor limits the heat output of the space heater and automatically turns off the unit if it becomes too hot.
  • A visible on/off indicating switch and light.

Proper placement of the space heater is important for safety as well as for comfort. Make sure the unit is placed on a hard, non-combustible surface instead of carpet. All combustible materials (e.g., paper, plastics, wood,
etc.) must be stored at least three feet away from the heater. The power cord must not be covered by carpeting or other materials and extension cords should not be used. Electrical current used for space heaters can cause extension cords to overheat and potentially cause a fire. Plug the space heater directly into a properly grounded outlet.

Never leave the heater in operation when an area is unattended/unoccupied.

If you have questions concerning the selection and use of space heaters, please contact the Division of the Fire Marshal, Office of Research Services at (301-496-0487).