Winter has come and the house is freezing. Your first thought is surely to turn the heater on. But as Australian families tragically learn each year, there are risks to keeping yourself and your home warm. So what do you need to know? We spoke to two experts to answer those questions.
The first question you should ask yourself, says Energy Safe Victoria’s Paul Fearon, is “have you had it serviced?” You should do that every two years at least, he says. The technician will clean out your heater and identify any faults or damage.
Importantly, they will also check the environment that the heater is operating in. “Heaters that are older than 15 years old, you need to be particularly vigilant about because they don’t last forever,” he says.
Chris Barnes, a heating expert at Choice, says it’s vital your gas heater is installed properly. “That’s whether it’s a portable unflued gas heater that just connects to a bayonet fitting in the floor or if it’s a flued heater, like a gas log fire place.”
Either way, you should consider getting a carbon monoxide alarm if you have any sort of gas heater – it is about the same price as a smoke alarm.
“Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal and has been,” says Fearon. “You can’t see it, taste it or smell it.” He says the symptoms will be similar to the flu. “If more than one person is suddenly coming down with the same symptoms, that’s a signal. But the very first thing to do is to ventilate the house, go outside, and if you’re feeling better suddenly, it’s CO poisoning.”
If you’re using a gas heater and the room does not have air vents, you should leave a door or window open. If you’re using an open flue heater, also be careful about using the bathroom fan, which can draw carbon monoxide (CO) back into the home.
Aside from always making sure your heater is well serviced and in good condition, NSW Fire and Rescue recommends ensuring that there is nothing within a metre of the heater. You should also get your flues and chimneys regularly cleaned.
Barnes recommends a reverse cycle air conditioner if you can afford one and your house can accommodate it. “It’s the most cost-effective way, although it costs more upfront,” he says.
Portable electric heaters are also a good option but they can be expensive in the long run. If you get one, make sure it has a tilt switch – so it will switch off it falls down – and a thermal cut, so it will power down when it gets close to overheating.
“They’re good for short-term heating and they have the advantage of that feeling of radiant heat on them,” says Barnes.
If you have solar panels, you can keep costs down by running your portable electric heater during the day, he adds.
Some other heaters can be left on overnight, says Barnes, but “it’s a good idea to turn it down”. “A lot of them will have timer options on them so you can run it for a couple of hours while you go to sleep.
Barnes says do use your ceiling fan in conjunction with a heater to help warm up the room. “A lot of ceiling fans have a reverse mode on them,” he says. “Instead of blowing air down on to you and creating a breeze, which is what you want in summer, instead you reverse it so that it draws air upwards.”
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What you definitely should not do, both Barnes and Fearon say, is bring an outdoor heater inside. “They are not made for using indoors, they are not subject to the same design restrictions,” Barnes says.
“They just put out carbon monoxide as a matter of course. Outdoors, it doesn’t matter, it just blows away. Inside it’s a serious issue.”
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