Winter, Barns and Space Heaters

Winter, Barns and Space Heaters

When winter arrives, the need / desire to keep warm becomes important. However, there’s one way of staying warm that bothers me….space heaters. We’ve all used them…..and many people use them in their barn’s tack room, bathroom, or lounge.

Every year structures burn down in the winter due to electrical fires and often the cause of the electrical fire is a space heater. In the majority of the cases, the cord of a space heater burned through right where it connects to the plug. That is the weakest point in a space heater (when unplugging one, always pull on the plug itself….not on the cord!).

Every winter, we hear of people and animals dying in structure fires, so I’d like to address some safety concerns that are often overlooked or unknown by many people.

One concern is the false sense of security people can get from plugging a space heater into a GFCI outlet (Ground Fault Circuit Interruptor). These are the ones you most often find near kitchen and bathroom counters, in the garage, and outdoors. They are designed to prevent a person from being electrocuted in case the power shorts against the frame of whatever they’re using, and they work well for that. However, they sense a problem from ground to hot….but not from neutral to hot (in all outlets, there are two slots….the bigger one is neutral and the smaller is hot….but there is a third round hole below or sometimes above these slots….that one is ground). It’s not unusual for a fire to get started with the space heater plugged into the bathroom GFCI outlet and it did not trip because many space heaters do not have a ground (third) prong. Imagine how much chance of a fire there is in barns with dust, dirt, spiderwebs, bugs and all built up in and around wiring and plugs? Yet a GFCI will not protect a space heater from shorting.

There is a solution for this, although it could be a bit pricey (still, how much is your life or your horse’s life worth?). Any electrician can install what is called an AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interruptor) at the breaker panel to protect any circuit where a space heater may be plugged in. The cost of the breaker is usually around $35 – $40 U.S., plus the cost of installation. These will sense any arc between hot and neutral and will trip instantly (turn power off), and they can be used in conjunction with GFCI outlets. In other words, an AFCI breaker could be installed to protect a circuit which has GFCI outlets on it. It does not interfere with the GFCI at all.

NEVER, NEVER go to sleep with a space heater running in the barn, and never leave your barn with a space heater running. Of course, they should also not be used near anything flammable (clothes, flammable liquids, etc.). Use them only when you need them, while you’re right there, and turn them off (or, better, unplug them) as soon as you’ll no longer be nearby. This is not to say they shouldn’t be used, but just that people should be aware of the potential problems with them.

One of the main things to check for in an older barn is whether it was wired with aluminum wire (instead of copper). They were done that way for a time….way back when…… Fortunately, that was finally done away with….they’re wired with copper wire now. Also, there was a time between aluminum wire and copper wire when they used copper-clad aluminum (aluminum wire with a coating of copper on it). It was a slight improvement, but not much better than aluminum. The problem is that aluminum is weak. It is more prone to breaking and burning through than copper. If you are not familiar with doing electrical work, it would be well worth it to hire a qualified electrician to check it out. In fact, insurance companies will not insure a barn wired with aluminum wire (for obvious reasons).

The weak point of any electrical circuit is where wires are spliced together. This is especially true of aluminum wires. Many barns have outlets spliced in as more horses are added and more people are around. There is a specific procedure requiring special equipment and special training in order to splice electrical wiring correctly, and some electricians can do it. They will need to go to every single place in the structure where wire is spliced and redo the splice using a special crimping tool which makes it so tight that the spliced wires become like one wire. Downside is, it’s expensive to have it done (not to mention finding someone qualified to do it).

Even if a home or barn isn’t old enough to have aluminum wiring, it still doesn’t hurt to check the circuits and connections, since they can loosen up over time; particularly in a barn where they are often not installed as securely as in a home. When that happens, they can start arcing and eventually arc so bad they could start a fire. In short, all connections should be tight and splice boxes should be checked to be sure splices aren’t working loose and starting to arc.

Another thing to watch for are old outlets which seem loose when you plug something in. If they feel too loose and plugs don’t go in good and solid, the outlet should be replaced.

Best overall way to handle it if it’s in the budget is to hire a qualified, licensed electrician to just give the place the once-over. They’ll know what to look for.

Since there are fires every winter caused directly by use of space heaters, I just feel that putting out a word of caution doesn’t hurt, especially the part about not leaving the barn with the space heater running or going to sleep with one running.

I wish everyone a comfortable and safe winter!