iStock_000034198242Small-300pxIt’s always tragic to learn about a fire at an apartment complex, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. But it’s particularly frustrating when the cause is a tenant’s portable heater. It means someone was just trying to get warm and was using a device intended for this purpose—yet something went horribly wrong, putting life and property at risk.

Apparently, something goes horribly wrong with portable heaters too often, and with unusually dire consequences.

According to a recent study of portable heater fires in residential buildings by the U.S. Fire Administration, roughly 900 such fires are reported each year in residential buildings across the United States, with the greatest number occurring in January. Most notably, while portable heaters are responsible for only 2% of residential heating fires, they’re involved in a whopping 45% of all fatal residential heating fires and cause an estimated $53 million in property loss annually.

That’s why tenants need to be careful when it comes to portable heater use in their apartments and landlords should consider banning portable heaters or adopting rules governing their safe use at a rental property.

Should Tenants Use Portable Heaters?

If tenants are using portable heaters in their apartments, it raises the question of whether the landlord is providing adequate heat. As a landlord, the best way to lower a risk is to remove it completely, and so deciding to ban portable heaters altogether may be wise. But before you consider imposing such a ban, first be sure that you’re providing adequate heat to all apartments in your building. Not only are you required by law to do so, but providing adequate heat means tenants probably won’t use portable heaters anyway, eliminating the danger risks that these devices pose.

Courts recognize an implied warranty of habitability, which requires landlords to maintain apartments where tenants may live comfortably, including staying warm in the winter. Moreover, many local laws spell out specific requirements for providing heat to tenants. For example, New York City landlords are required to provide heat from October through May. During the day (6 a.m. through 10 p.m.), the temperature inside an apartment must be at least 68 degrees if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees; at night (10 p.m. through 6 a.m.), the inside temperature must be at least 55 degrees if the outside temperature falls below 40 degrees.

If you’re a tenant and you believe your heat isn’t working as it’s supposed to, you shouldn’t have to spend extra money on a portable heater and higher electric bills. Start by contacting your landlord about any heat issues. Chances are, if your heat is inadequate, your neighbors are experiencing the same problem, and so your communication may yield more responsive results if you approach your landlord together. Short of taking a landlord to court, you may be able to get a heat problem resolved through a municipality’s specific resolution procedure. For example, New York City tenants can make a complaint by calling 311 or visiting the city’s 311 website.

For more information about a landlord’s implied warranty of habitability, be sure to check out the Nolo article, “Tenant Rights to a Livable Place.”

Follow Two Simple Rules for Portable Heater Safety

A look at the U.S. Fire Administration’s study reveals the top two reasons why portable heaters have sparked fires in residential buildings. (The remaining contributing factors involve equipment malfunction and electrical issues.) So, if you’re a tenant who uses a portable heater or a landlord who allows them, play it safe with these two simple rules:

Rule #1: Don’t place portable heaters near items that can burn. Topping the list (at 52.4%) of factors contributing to portable heater fires is “Heat source too close to combustibles.” This means that if you must use a portable heater in your apartment, keep it away from items that can burn. The study cites “soft goods” such as bedding, curtains, and clothing as the most common type of item that gets ignited by portable heaters.

Rule #2: Don’t leave portable heaters unattended. The second-most common contributing factor cited in the study (at 11.5%) is “Equipment unattended.” So, be sure to make a habit of switching portable heaters off before leaving your apartment, taking a shower, or going to sleep.

Just this past Saturday, a family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, didn’t follow these rules and tragically lost their home, dog, and possessions to a fire sparked by a portable heater. According to a report from, the family didn’t shut off the portable heater when they left for church, and the fire ignited when a curtain came into contact with the unit.