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Safe Heating Practices for Commercial Buildings

Posted by WSRB on October 1, 2012

As the cold weather begins to set in, there is a noticeable increase in residential fire safety campaigns. Many great organizations put out valuable lists of dos and don’ts to try to curb the seasonal spike in home fires. These campaigns serve as an excellent reminder that business owners also need to be cautious about how they are heating their commercial spaces. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day challenges of running a business and forget about the risks associated with heating.

Many of the same rules apply to safely using heating units in commercial buildings as do in residential, but commercial operations can present unique conditions. These include the use of flammable liquids or the presence of high-traffic areas, which require one to think a little differently about fire safety.

Here are some basic tips to consider when heating a commercial space:

Portable Heaters

  • Maintain three feet of clearance from portable heaters to combustible materials. Do not put electric heaters under or on top of desks.
  • Keep out of high-traffic areas and walkways.
  • Only use devices that have been tested by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
  • Do not use electric heaters in areas with wet or damp conditions.
  • Plug heaters directly into electrical outlets. Extension cords can overheat.
  • Make sure heaters are equipped with an automatic shut-off in case they are tipped over.
  • When using kerosene heaters, make sure the room is adequately ventilated to remove fumes.
  • Store kerosene and other flammable liquids in UL-Listed containers and/or cabinets.
  • Don’t fill or refill kerosene heaters indoors.

Overhead Heating Units

  • Make sure any sagging or damaged insulation or sheathing on ceilings is not laying on overhead heaters.
  • Maintain six inches of clearance from double-walled vents to combustible materials on roofs and walls or 18 inches of clearance for single-walled vents.
  • Maintain at least three feet of clearance to any combustible storage on shelves or racks or check the manufacturer's recommendation and follow it.

Wood Stoves and Fireplaces

  • Do not use open-flame heating devices in areas in which combustible dust or vapors are generated.
  • Maintain three feet of clearance to combustible walls and materials.
  • Maintain six inches of clearance from double-insulated stove pipes and vents to combustible materials on roofs and walls or 18 inches of clearance for single-walled pipes and vents.
  • Use only venting and stove pipes that are listed for use with the heating unit you have.
  • Have chimneys inspected and cleaned annually.


  • Have furnaces inspected and serviced annually.
  • Inspect walls and ceilings near furnaces and along chimney lines. If surfaces are hot or discolored, additional pipe insulation or clearance may be required.
  • Don’t store combustible materials in furnace rooms.

Of course, never store flammable liquids or materials, soiled rags or trash near heating devices of any kind.

All businesses present unique fire safety issues, and there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to mitigate fire losses associated with cold-weather heating. It is important that business owners be aware of potential risks and are vigilant in preventing them.