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Ashley Mann spent three years living full time in a 38-foot, 5th-wheel RV with her husband Josiah and their cat, Kitty. Her favorite thing about RV life is the challenge of finding the perfect way to organize a space, and she loves seeing all the creative and clever ways people come up with to customize their RVs.
If you plan on RV living in cold weather, a backup heating source is necessary. You'll want something 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 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, 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.
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But are RV owners more at risk than homeowners when using space heaters?
However, I have seen these two concerns raised against the use of space heaters in RVs:
- RVs can burn to the ground very quickly once ignited, perhaps in as little as 10 minutes. This video is a great demonstration of how fast an RV can burn.
- The wires and/or outlets in some RVs are not made to withstand the draw of an electric space heater.
It's ultimately up to you whether or not using a space heater in an RV is a risk you want to take. But if you do decide to use one, here are some things you can do to mitigate 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 the 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).
How Space Heaters May Cause Fires in RVs
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 start fires by causing cords, power outlets, and the wiring inside your walls to overheat.
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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 electric heaters say never to use an 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 RVs 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 14 gauge wire.
Additionally, even if 12 gauge wire is used, the electrical outlet itself may only be rated for 15 Amps. This 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. The top outlet looks normal. The bottom outlet has a sideways T-shape in the plug, indicating that it is a 20 Amp receptacle.
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. The outlet on top is where normal products can 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.
What Happens When You Use the Wrong Outlet
At one point, the cord for our electric fireplace (which is really just a space heater) got moved to a multi-plug unit plugged into the outlet on top without thinking.
Not only was the wiring inside the outlet inadequate but using a multi-plug outlet meant that the breaker would not trip like it's supposed to when a circuit is overheated.
When I discovered it, the electric fireplace had caused the outlet to overheat and burn. It was still running and the breaker had not tripped. I'm just thankful I found it when I did, before we started a fire!
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 RVs, and especially four-season RVs, running the furnace is required. It 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. Use space heaters and other alternative heat sources as a backup.
If you do decide to use a space heater, either as a 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 of handling the draw of a space heater.
If you aren't able to do this yourself, have someone who is qualified to do so (like 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.