Energy safety: how to use alternative heating and lighting safely

A fire safety warning appears behind a candle (images: Getty Images)

Energy prices are likely to rise from January 2024, with Cornwall Insight predicting the Ofgem energy price cap will rise 5%. It could leave many households looking for cheaper ways to power their home. We’ve put together a guide on how you can stay safe and what you should avoid doing.

The energy crisis is still very much with us. With wholesale prices remaining volatile, energy suppliers are not offering money saving switches. Read our energy comparison guide to see the latest.

At present, the best way to save money on your gas and electricity bills is to cut your energy consumption. Our energy saving tips guide will help to show you how.

But the fact of the matter is that you will still need to use at least some energy. The temptation may be to cut corners when you do so, and this can be dangerous.

Recent research from insurer Zurich UK has underlined the issue. It found that one in seven people might use candles to light their home to keep energy bills down – something that poses a significant fire threat. Zurich’s findings showed fires caused by candles leave households facing average repair bills of £18,000.

Here we explain which heating and lighting methods you should either be super cautious with or avoid altogether, as well as the other dangers lurking around your home. 

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Safety tips when using a candle to light your home

A small candle might seem harmless. But if allowed to cause a fire, it could bring about £1,000s in damage and may even prove to be fatal.

Before we get into safety tips, you should ensure you have a fully functional fire alarm fitted in your home before lighting any candles. This alarm should be tested every few weeks. You should also get a carbon monoxide alarm (see more below).

So, here are the dos and don’ts when it comes to using candles to light your home: 

  • Put candles out whenever you leave a room: never leave them going if you’re not there to act quickly should a fire spread.
  • Don’t blow a candle out: you run the risk of creating sparks, which could easily catch if you’re close to flammable materials. One tip is to use a spoon instead.
  • Keep candles away from flammable objects: bedding, furniture and books are all things that can easily catch fire. 
  • Put your candle on a stable surface: also make sure it’s well out of the reach of children and pets. 
  • Don’t leave lit candles near open windows: a gust of wind could spread the flame to nearby objects, like curtains.
  • Don’t burn multiple candles next to each other: you run the risk of causing a flare if you have too many candles in a small space.

If a fire does start, you should get out of your home and call 999 straightaway. Do not go back into your home until it’s been made safe by a fire officer.

How to use electric blankets safely

Electric blankets can be a useful and cost effective way to keep warm. But they also pose a fire or electrocution risk, and should therefore be treated with caution. Here’s what you need to do to reduce these risks:

  • Read your electric blanket’s guide book: reading the instruction manual will tell you the dos and don’ts for the particular make you have.
  • Regularly check the blanket: if there are signs of wear and tear, it will need to be replaced. If you hear buzzing after being turned off, wait for it to stop and then dispose of the blanket.
  • Store it carefully: to stop any damage to the blanket’s wiring, store it flat or roll it up. Check its guide book if you’re unsure.
  • Don’t use a hot water bottle at the same time: water and electricity are never good bedfellows. Stick to one or the other to avoid getting hurt. And if the blanket ever gets wet, don’t switch it on until it’s fully dry.

If you need to buy a new electric blanket, you should look for a kitemark. Products carrying one will have been tested by experts and are therefore much more likely to be safe.

Turn your electric heater off at night

Do you have a portable electric heater? If you do, never leave it on overnight.

Not only can they malfunction when unattended – something that could cause a fire – but they may set things alight if they’re too close to them. For example, furniture and bedding.

To keep yourself safe, only ever use it during waking hours. You should also make sure your heater is in a good condition and works properly. If there are any issues, never repair or service it yourself.

Got a fireplace? These are the risks

If you plan on using your fireplace, it’s essential you know how to set it up properly and understand the risks it presents. The National Chimney Sweep Guild (NCSG) advises getting your chimney cleaned professionally before lighting a fire.

A sweep will check for animal nests and any deterioration in your chimney – ensuring it’s safe to use. It advises getting your chimney cleaned at least once a year.

At ground level, you should ensure the fireplace’s surroundings are free of any flammable items, such as clothing, books and home decor. When you’re ready, the NCSG has put together the following tips for how to safely light your fire:

  • Put two medium pieces of firewood on the metal grate, with around a six-inch gap. 
  • Fill the gap with crumpled newspaper (tinder) and cover the tinder with kindling.
  • Place two more bits of firewood on top of the other logs in the fireplace, but be sure to leave room for ventilation.
  • Make sure the fireplace vent is fully open.
  • Light the fire by twisting a single piece of newspaper, lighting it and holding it upwards towards the chimney (high up in the fireplace). Then light the kindling.
  • Once the fire is alight, you can keep adding firewood when needed to ensure the flame stays visible.

It’s important to always put the fire out if you leave the room. If any sparks burst out, you will need to get to them fast to ensure they don’t catch alight on anything.

Avoid overloading plug sockets

You’re likely to turn your electrical appliances on every day. But are they overloading your sockets? There are simple steps you can follow to reduce the risk of overloading, according to charity Electrical Safety First.

Say you’re using an extension lead, for example, it’s important to check its rating before plugging in any appliances. The rating will tell you how much power your extension lead can handle.

The most common rating stands at 13A, but also can be as low as 10A or even less. So when plugging appliances in, you should make sure the overall load doesn’t exceed this maximum rating. If it does, you run the risk of starting a fire as the socket may overheat. You should also avoid plugging extension leads into one another for the same reason.

Electrical Safety First has an overload calculator to ensure you’re not exceeding the rating of your plugs.

Don’t leave electric appliances on overnight

Other than your fridge and freezer, you should never leave electrical items on while you’re likely to be in a deep sleep.

Energy intensive appliances, like washing machines and tumble dryers, can be especially dangerous to leave on while unattended. But even things like portable electric heaters can be unsafe to leave on overnight (see above).

If you need to switch appliances on at some point during night-time hours (you might need to do this if you have an Economy 7 meter or a flexible tariff), time them to come on just before you typically wake up. That way you can lower your energy bills whilst staying as safe as possible.

Not all appliances come with timers, but you can get around this by using special timer plugs.

Get a carbon monoxide alarm

As well as a fire alarm, it’s worth investing in a carbon monoxide alarm. You have to have one by law in spaces containing gas boilers.

This gas can be produced when a gas appliance malfunctions. Given it is colourless, odourless and tasteless, it can be a silent killer when unleashed in a home. 

If your alarm ever goes off, open all your doors and windows, turn off all fuel burning appliances and seek expert medical advice as soon as possible.