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Don't let forgetfulness put your home and lives at risk

December 15, 2006

Things happen. People get busy and put something down "just for a minute" next to an electric heater and forget to move it.

If they're lucky, nothing happens. If they're not, whatever they've placed too close to the heater ignites and the dwelling begins to burn.

Is you're using a heater in an unsafe manner, please stop it, for everyone's sake. If you're using a portable heater because the landlord won't supply the heat, read on, because there is help for that.

Placing combustibles too close to heaters caused two recent fires in Hagerstown, one involving a portable electric heater and the other an electric baseboard unit.

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Hagerstown fire officials say there are no restrictions on the use of such devices, provided they are either properly installed or operated according to the manufacturer's instructions.

In rental housing, portable electric heaters and baseboard units are allowed, but not kerosense heaters, which can only be used in one's own home or in some commercial buildings with written permission from the owner.

So why do people use such devices?

In some cases, code enforcement officials say, renters who must pay electric bill are trying to economize and feel portable heaters are less costly than the system the landlord provides.

In other cases, officials say, it's because the heating system provided by the landlord is inadequate to the job of heating the apartment.

Under the city code, a portable heater cannot be the primary source of heat. If electric baseboard heaters are that source, they must be hard-wired into the building by a licensed electrician.

When must the heat be turned on?

The city code says that the owners of rental properties must have heat available to their tenants from Oct. 1 to May 15 and that the system must be sufficient to keep the "habitable" space at 65 degrees (Fahrenheit.)

If that doesn't happen, code enforcement officials suggest that your first call be to the landlord or the property-management company.

If there is no response within a reasonable amount of time, you may call the code compliance office at 301-739-8577, ext. 194.

That will send you to a phone "prompt" that will put you in touch with the inspector assigned to your area of the city.

Once the inspector reaches you, then he or she will set up a time to come and measure the temperature inside the unit. Then the landlord is contacted.

If the landlord is responsive, code officials say they will work with the property owner, even if it takes more than a day to fix a broken furnace, for example.

If there is no response, then the landlord could face a $500 fine, officials said.

There are two important things to remember about this process. The first is that the inspectors can only be reached between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. every weekday. If you have a problem, please don't wait until 3:30 p.m. Friday to call.

The other thing is that it is not always the landlord's fault. Just as some tenants disconnect smoke detectors, code officials say some other will disable the heating system in an apartment in an attempt to save money by using a portable.

What happens if you forget about safety? Then firefighters who are trying to enjoy the holidays with their families might have to get up and come to your place. Wouldn't it be better if everyone could just stay home?

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