Portable Space Heaters

As I write this posting, it is very cold in Northern Illinois. Keeping a healthcare facility warm and cozy for staff is always a challenge in cold weather, but one of the biggest challenges is herding all those portable space heaters that seem to pop up without warning.

Portable space heaters are often found in the strangest places in hospitals and nursing homes, even though the major accreditors for healthcare organizations do not permit them in patient care or treatment areas of healthcare occupancies.

Portable space-heating devices are prohibited in healthcare care occupancies (such as hospitals, nursing homes, limited care facilities and hospice centers with more than 12 beds), with the exception of those portable heaters whose heating elements do not exceed 212 degrees F which are only permitted in smoke compartments which do not contain sleeping rooms, or patient care or treatment. [LSC 19.7.8]

However, in free standing medical offices which are classified as business occupancies, then the Life Safety Code has no restrictions on the use of portable space heaters.

But you need to be careful about using portable heaters in areas that are not traditional patient care or treatment areas. For example: The administrative offices of a healthcare occupancy (such as a hospital, nursing home, limited care facility or a hospice center with more than 12 beds) may be part of a smoke compartment that includes patient care or treatment areas.

The bigger picture is: If staff needs to use a portable space heater, then what does that say about the facility’s HVAC system? Even if an approved portable heater is used in an approved non-patient care or treatment area, it becomes a ‘red flag’ for a surveyor. Once it is noticed, a tracer may begin on why it is in use. If a surveyor determines the facility’s HVAC is not adequate to maintain staff’s comfort, it can be scored as a deficiency under EC.02.05.05 for a Joint Commission survey, or under section 482.41(c) [A-0722] for a CMS survey.

If you already have an approved Fire Safety Evaluation System (FSES) equivalency, or are considering one, then portable space heaters are not permitted in your organization at all. Question ‘D’ on worksheet 4.7.10 prohibit portable electric space heaters anywhere in your facility, if you are granted an approved FSES equivalency.

The bottom line… portable space heaters are trouble. Without the knowledge of the facility manager, staff tends to bring in  portable heaters from home without understanding what kind/style is permitted, and will use them in areas where they are not allowed. Heaters with orange glowing elements exceed the 212 degree F maximum allowed by the Life Safety Code. They add a load onto the electrical distribution system, which may not be designed to handle the extra current. The wrong type of heater may even start a fire if combustible products come into contact with them.

A good life safety code surveyor should be very skeptical of any portable space heater that they observe.