How your heater can kill you

South African winters can be harsh and most South Africans have some sort of heating device in their homes: this can range from air conditioning, to gas heaters, to bar heaters, to open fires, to the traditional coal fire drums (imbhawulas) often used in township homes and informal settlements.

Imbhawulas are tin drums punched full of holes and used as braziers.

All forms of heaters may serve to lessen the bite of the winter cold, but all of them have their downsides: air conditioning and electrical heaters can be expensive to keep going, gas, paraffin and coal fires, while energy-efficient, expose people to possible carbon monoxide poisoning, and many different heating devices carry a fire or injury risk.

Many people also sustain burns from accidental contact with heating devices.

In South Africa, even though millions of households now have access to electricity, coal use continues, because of its relatively low cost, and because these heating devices can often serve a dual purpose as a means of cooking food.

But coal use causes many problems, and, according to a study published in 2007 in the Journal of Energy in Southern Africa it is thought that as many as 2000 children die annually as a result of respiratory infections cause by air pollution, much of which occurs in poorly ventilated households in informal settlements or rural households.

Coal can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, irritation to eyes, noses and throats and can aggravate illnesses such as TB, asthma and HIV/Aids.

Here are the main dangers to keep in mind when buying any heater/making a heating device for your home:

Electric shock. All electrical devices, heaters included, can cause accidental electrical shock. This could be because of faulty wiring, incorrect use, or defects in the manufacturing process.

Overloading the circuit. Electric heaters use a lot of electricity and they can overload circuits. This can cause a power failure, or even a fire. Do not use extension cords and multiplugs when switching on the heaters in your home.

Burns. All heating devices can become extremely hot, with the possible exception of panel heaters. Bar heaters, paraffin heaters, open fires in fireplaces, coal heating devices and even oil heaters can cause nasty burns if you come into accidental contact with it.

Children and pets are at high risk for burns from many heating devices.

House fires. Make sure there are no flammable materials close to the heater. Some heating devices could also set clothing, curtains or other objects on fire. Never leave heaters unattended, or leave them on when you go out. Some heaters, such as small bar heaters can easily overturn and cause fires. Never put anything on top of a heater, even when it is switched off. You, or someone else in the household could switch it on, forgetting there is something on top of it.  Every year in SA, people die in house fires caused by accidents involving heating devices.

Carbon monoxide poisoning. This is not a danger with electrical heating devices, but certainly with everything else: petroleum, gas, paraffin, oil, coal, wood, charcoal. You can’t see, smell or taste carbon monoxide, which is what makes it so dangerous. By the time you notice that something is wrong, it may already be too late. Carbon monoxide is produced as a result of the incomplete combustion of any carbon-based fuel. Faulty appliances used in enclosed spaces pose a high risk, as do home-made coal fire drums and paraffin stoves. Built-in gas furnaces are becoming very popular, as they are relatively cheap to run and are very efficient at heating living spaces. But a leaking gas pipe could cause a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Some quick heater safety tips:

- Never switch on the oven to heat your home
- Follow the instructions to the letter on how to use heating devices
- Have a one-meter pet- and kid-free zone around all heating devices.
- Never leave any heating devices unattended.
- Make sure fireplaces have screens to prevent sparks setting the house on fire.
- When burning any heater except an electrical one, make sure there is good ventilation in the room.
- Never leave heaters on when you go out.
- Newer put anything on top of a heater – even when it is switched off.
- Make sure there is nothing that can catch fire within a meter of the heating device.
- Check electrical wiring on heaters and don’t use extension cords, multi-plugs or any device with frayed wiring.

Read more:
Keep a fire extinguisher
Don't be a fire starter
Safe candle burning


Balmer, M: The Journal; of Energy in Southern Africa;;; National Fire Protection Association

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