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If you plan on spending time in an RV in cold weather, it's a good idea to have a backup heating source in case the propane runs out or the furnace stops working. Additionally, depending on energy costs in your area, running an electric space heater in an RV may be cheaper than cheaper than heating only with propane.
But is it safe? Read on to learn why the answer isn't necessarily as simple as “yes” or “no”.
Safety risk of using an electric heater in an RV
Safety is a valid concern for people hesitant to use a space heater in their RV. According to a report by the National Fire Protection Association, problems with home heating systems are a leading cause of house fires, and space heaters specifically have caused a significant number of house fire deaths. That means space heaters carry risks no matter where you use them.
But are RV owners more at risk than homeowners when using space heaters? I haven't been able to find any statistics that definitively state one way or another (if you come across any, please let me know!). I do know that the majority of RV fires are engine related, the number two cause of RV fires is not space heaters but…refrigerators (and how many RV owners will forego the use of their fridge for safety's sake?).
However, I have seen these potential concerns raised against the use of space heaters in RVs:
- RV's can burn to the ground very quickly once ignited, perhaps in as little as 10 minutes.
- The wires and/or electrical outlets in some RV's are not made to withstand the draw of an electric space heater (more on this later).
It's ultimately up to you to decide whether or not using a space heater in your RV is a risk you want to take, but if you do decide to use one, there are some things you can do to mitigate your risk.
Reduce your risk: safety guidelines for using a portable space heater in an RV
Always follow these rules (taken from the NFPA guidelines) when using any space heater, no matter where you are:
- Keep flammable items at least 3 feet away from the space heater.
- Supervise children near portable heaters.
- Read and follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- Install and regularly check detectors for smoke, carbon monoxide, and propane.
- Don't leave a space heater running while you're asleep or away from home.
- Only use heaters that automatically turn off when tipped over.
- Place space heater on a solid, flat surface.
- Inspect the heater for defects and don't use a damaged heater. Especially look for loose or broken cords and plugs.
- Only use fuel-burning heaters in rooms with adequate ventilation.
- Don't plug a space heater into an extension cord or a power strip (more on this later as well).
How space heaters may cause fires in RV's
You might think that as long as nothing flammable is sitting near your space heater, you'll be fine, but that's not necessarily true. Electric space heaters can also start fires by causing cords, power outlets, and the wiring inside your walls to overheat.
The amount of electrical current a wire can handle depends on its length and thickness. The longer or thinner the wire, the less electricity it can safely handle. If the gauge (thickness) of wire used to power a space heater isn't adequate to handle the load, then running it could cause the outlet and or wires to overheat.
A typical electric space heater draws 12.5 Amps of electrical current. Wires that carry this much current should be at least 12 gauge (source). That's one reason safety guidelines for using electric heaters say not to plug a space heater into a extension cord or a power strip–most extension cords and power strips use thinner 14 gauge wire.
If you plug a space heater into an outlet powered with 14 gauge wire, the extra draw could overload (and overheat) the circuit.
What kind of electrical outlets are in your RV?
Most American homes (and RV's) use a combination of both 15 Amp and 20 Amp circuits. 20 Amp circuits are wired with 12 gauge wire, but 15 Amp circuits may be wired with only 14 gauge wire. Additionally, even if 12 gauge wire is used, the electrical outlet (receptacle) itself may only be rated for 15 Amps, which puts it at risk of overheating if you plug a space heater into it.
You can tell whether a receptacle is rated for 15 Amps or 20 Amps by looking at its shape. A 20 Amp receptacle will have one hole that is a T shape, as you can see in the photo below that I took in my own RV. The outlet on top is where my RV is supposed to be plugged in, and the one below it, which is the only one like it in my RV, is where my electric fireplace (which draws 12.5 Amps) is supposed to be plugged in.
Next I'll show you what can happen when you use the incorrect gauge of wire to power an electric heater. At one point, the cord for our electric fireplace (which is really just a space heater) got moved to the outlet on top, plugged into this 6-plug outlet, which was only rated for 15 Amps.
Not only was the wiring inside the outlet inadequate, but using a multi-plug outlet, extension cord, or power strip can prevent the breaker from tripping the way it's supposed to when the circuit is overheated. When I discovered it, the electric fireplace had caused the outlet to overheat and burn, even though it was still working and the breaker had not tripped. (I'm just thankful I found it when I did!)
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, you will have to determine for yourself whether the risk of using a space heater in an RV is worth the convenience it can provide.
Another thing to keep in mind is that for many RV's, and especially four-season model RV's, running the furnace is what keeps the water and sewage system from freezing in cold weather, so when temperatures drop below freezing, unless the RV is winterized, it's a good idea to run the furnace as the main heating source and only use alternative heat sources as backup.
If you do decide to use a space heater, either as backup or as a primary heating source, I would recommend first evaluating the electrical outlets, breakers, and wiring in your RV to determine whether they are capable from handling the draw of a space heater. If you aren't able to do this yourself, have someone who is qualified to do so (e.g. an electrician) inspect your RV's electrical system, and upgrade any wiring/outlets as needed.
Also, I recommend that you choose a space heater that feels cool to the touch and has added safety features such as automatically shutting off if it tips over, overheat protection, and a thermostat (especially if you have kids or pets). For a list of heater models popular with RVers, check out my blog post Choosing the Best Space Heater for Your RV.
For more winter RV tips, check out my Winter RVing Resource Page.