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Outdoor Heaters 101: What to Know Before You Buy

With social distancing even at home with family and friends is tough when it’s cold outside, there is a solution, and it’ll make you warm and feel cozy…enter Outdoor Heaters. And enter they have, sales are surging as people gravitate to outdoor living, even in winter. 

Having a welcoming, comfortable outdoor space at home has become a true and welcome extension of your home. But during the cold season, extra heat is a must if you want to really enjoy and utilize the space. Investing in an outdoor heater to make your patio or outdoor living space much more comfortable, encouraging your guests to enjoy the fresh air and outdoor surroundings. 

What Are Outdoor Heaters?

An outdoor or patio heater is a space-heating device that adds warmth to a particular space, typically a patio or outdoor kitchen or entertainment area. Outdoor Heaters can come in a wide variety of sizes, styles, and functionalities to fit most spaces. Understanding some of the differences among outdoor space heaters can help you find the one that best meets your needs.

How Do Outdoor Heaters Work?

Just like a traditional heater, outdoor and patio heaters rely on some form of fuel or electricity to keep the space warm. Heaters frequently come in one of four forms: natural gas, electric, propane, and wood-burning. Yes, an outdoor heater is a great companion to an outdoor fire pit too if where you live is really chilly. 

Depending on the manufacturer’s specifications, many patio heaters may be used in covered porches and similar outdoor areas, though most of them are designed to be used outside in the open. 

Outdoor heaters can be floor-standing, hanging, wall-mounted, or small and compact enough to simply sit on a tabletop. Wood-burning heaters like chimineas and firepits are usually small and easily moved from one spot to another. 

Comparing Gas, Electric, Propane, and Wood-Burning Outdoor Heaters

Each fuel for patio heaters has different pros and cons depending on what you want to use it for. Consider each type as you’re weighing your purchase to ensure you get the right choice for your outdoor space.

If a natural gas line is already in place, a gas heater may make the most sense. Natural gas burns cleaner than wood, and gas heaters are usually easier to maintain than some other types of outdoor heaters. Natural gas heaters need to be professionally installed.

Electric outdoor heaters are popular because they are generally very easy to use, can be portable, and some may be safe to use in enclosed spaces. However, it’s possible for electric patio heaters to be more expensive in the long run due to them consuming more electricity. 

Propane gas patio heaters are another popular option. Propane burns clean and most propane heaters are small enough to be portable. The downside to propane patio heaters is having to replace the propane tanks. Propane tanks can be expensive, and you definitely wouldn’t want to deal with the frustration of your tanks running out right when you want to use the heater the most. 

Last but not least, wood-burning heatersfire pits, and chimineas are functional, affordable, and can be quite efficient. The main disadvantage of using a wood-burning patio heater is having to frequently remove ash and coals. Wood-burning heaters can also be much more difficult to light. They also produce sparks and burning embers that can be very unsafe if left unattended.

How Many BTUs Do I Need?

Generally speaking, the larger the outdoor space, the higher the British Thermal Units (BTUs) you’ll need to effectively heat it. For a home patio, one heater will generally be sufficient. But if you have a larger home patio or a large commercial outdoor area, and there’s a particular temperature you want to reach, you may need to do some figuring to determine the amount of heating power you’ll need.

One BTU equals the amount of energy needed to heat or cool one pound of water by one degree at sea level. Most patio heaters have BTU outputs in the thousands or ten-thousands.

To figure out how many BTUs you’ll need, first determine the space’s cubic footage and multiply it by how many degrees you want to raise the temperature. 

Space’s cubic footage x change in temperature = BTUs needed

Here in Asheville, NC the average January temperature about 47 degrees Fahrenheit. If you want your outdoor space to be 70 degrees, that’s a difference of 23 degrees. If your outdoor space is 20 feet by 40 feet, and we want to heat it up to about six feet in the air, that would be 4800 cubic feet. Now, multiply that by the 23-degree rise in temperature you need, and you’ll get a total of 110,400 BTUs needed to effectively heat your space.

4800 x 23 = 110,400 BTUs

Next, take the BTUs needed and divide by however many BTUs a heater can produce to determine how many heaters you’ll need. For example, if you are looking at buying a heater that puts out 55,000 BTUs, you would most likely need two heaters to comfortably heat the whole space.

110,400 / 55,000 = 2.01

Safety First

Remember, you should always consult your heater’s manufacturer’s instructions and safety guidelines before use. Never leave a heater of any kind unattended and always supervise children and pets when they are around a heater. If you have any questions or concerns about a particular heater, consult the manufacturer.

A Few Outdoor Heater Styles Too Consider:

Pyramid-style heaters are more attractive alternatives to the mushroom-style models without sacrificing that propane heating power. These seem to be the most enjoyable outdoor heaters to sit near overall, even though they weren’t as hot as other propane-powered models to choose from. 

Most electric heaters are generally easier to find right now even if you buy an off-brand model, it may very well have come from the same manufacturing plant as a name brand. These typically have much lower heat outputs than propane heaters, maxing out at around 5,100 BTU’s (1500 watts). But they also produce infrared heat, which beams warm waves directly at your skin (or whatever other object stands in their way), so the heat often feels more immediate and satisfying…and that’s the point. 

One thing to be aware of: A lot of pole-mounted models come with rounded tops to deflect the heat downward. The outward-radiating heat doesn’t travel very far from the center of these models though. This makes it easier to gather around. 

Tabletop heaters are a tricky category as their lower heat outputs and the space they take up on the table, you may ultimately be better off just buying a larger propane heater or an electric heater and placing it nearby. But if you have a table for 4, and it’s not super cold outside, it’s an easy way to go. And easy to move other locations. 

The electric tabletop models we tested definitely got hot, but the umbrella shape of their lamps meant all that heat was directed downward. This could be great for keeping food warm with one or two other people; but it’s going to be hard to social distance without leaning in to share the heat. Overall, these are fine for raising the temperature a bit, but they probably won’t do much if it gets below 50 degrees Fahrenheit or so. 

Hey, it’s cold outside, but a few well-placed outdoor heaters and be able to enjoy your outdoor living space even when there is snow on the ground. Enjoy!