Along with other social distancing best practices, keeping gatherings small and outside has become crucial over the past nine months. That was no big deal over the summer, but winter’s cold arrival has brought with it unprecedented demand for patio heaters—gas-burning or electric appliances that supply warmth via infrared energy. If you’re late to the party and shopping for one of these appliances now, you’ve probably been put off by the prices you’re seeing and the number of suspect options that have proliferated. The good news is that solid appliances are still available from reputable manufacturers.
Take a look here at some buying advice based on our research with manufacturers, web sites, customer reviews, and our own experience with heating appliances. Then scroll down for a selection of heaters that will help you stay comfortable outside this winter. We’ve included a few that you’re more likely to find in the workshop than in someone’s yard, but they’re more than capable of providing warmth on the patio in a pinch.
How They Work and Things to Consider
Most patio heaters are either gas-fired or electric. (There are a few pellet heaters, but those are really outdoor space heaters; they don’t heat primarily with infrared energy.) Both gas and electric models emit infrared energy. Unlike a space heater, which blows air across a hot electric coil to warm the air, a patio heater projects an infrared beam. Think of this as a beam of light that travels through the air without heating it. When the infrared strikes a solid object like a person or furnishings, the beam is converted to heat.
Patio heaters take the chill off, but they are not designed to provide indoor levels of comfort. And this especially true as winter sets in or on a cloudy day when the sun isn’t lending infrared energy of its own.
To really ward off winter cold, you’ll need more than one heater. That’s simple physics. The more BTUs you have heading in your direction, the warmer you will feel. Of course, owning, maintaining, and operating multiple heaters increases the expense of your outdoor heating.
Also take some common sense measures to block the wind if you can, dress appropriately, and position yourself relative to the heater so that you gain its full effect. For example, if you’re seated by an outdoor table that’s absorbing some of the infrared output, it’s quite likely that your upper body will be warm but your legs will be cold because the cold table will be hogging some of that infrared energy. Give yourself every thermodynamic advantage possible. The closer you are to the heater, the better, and don’t let furnishings get between you and its output. Also, store seating and seat cushions in the house to keep them warm, or at least turn the heater (or heaters) on a half an hour before going outside to allow it to warm things up.
Electric vs. Propane vs. Natural Gas
When determining whether you want a gas or electric heater, be aware each has its pros and cons.
- They can’t be blown out by the wind.
- Convenience: There’s no need to refill a propane tank.
- They require little maintenance other than vacuuming to remove bug nests or cobwebs during the off season.
- Permanently installed types become home features and contribute to the resale value.
- Permanent models come with increased costs owing to the need for a building permit and work performed by a licensed electrician.
- Electric is more expensive to operate, in most cases, compared to fuel-fired.
- The fixed location may not always suit the seating arrangement.
- They’re portable. A wheeled propane heater can be moved around on the patio or deck for better wind protection or to suit the seating. This also means they can be wheeled out of the way and stored in a shed or garage during the summer.
- Compared to electric models, they’re less expensive to operate.
- Wind can blow out the burner.
- They require cleaning and inspection to ensure bug nests and dirt aren’t blocking a burner, orifice, or burner screen.
- Propane tanks need to be refilled.
- Essentially the same as propane, but with the additional perk of being less expensive to operate (and never requiring a refill since gas is piped into it, like the home’s furnace).
- Again, the same as propane, save that its fixed location may not always prove ideal heating relative to seating arrangements.
How We Selected
To choose these heaters, we researched expert sources and reviews from other publications, as well as took into account customer reviews on retail sites like Amazon. We also spoke to experts on patio heater design and factored in our experience using and testing similar products in the past.
Just keep in mind that, given the extraordinary demand for heaters right now, they go in and out of stock quickly. We’ll keep an eye on supply and prices and update accordingly when we can.
—DIRECTIONAL GAS HEAT—
BTUs: 21,300-38,500 | Heating area: 180 sq. ft.
Not that we have anything against parasol (also called mushroom) heaters, which provide a widely dispersed infrared pattern, but the Bromic’s strong suit is directional heat. Its high tilting head directs the warmth right where you want it. We also like its variable output that can help you handle weather from a mild chill to downright frosty.
—DIRECTIONAL ELECTRIC HEAT—
Dr Infrared Heater DR-238
Wattage: 900; 1,200; 1,500 | Heating Area: 135 sq. ft.
Mount this heater on a wall or ceiling then plug it into a 120-volt outlet to supply three levels of infrared heat, which you control using a remote. It has an ETL (an international certification agency) listing for indoor and outdoor use, allowing you to employ it in your garage or basement if it’s chilly in there, too. Its aluminum housing withstands the elements better than one made of plain, painted steel.
Fire Sense 01775
BTUs: 46,000 | Heating Area: 176 sq. ft.
In order for an appliance to pass muster with us, we look at its quality of construction, materials, owner’s manual, and the general availability of spare parts. (Being able to clearly identify its parent company who they are and where they’re located doesn’t hurt.) When we looked at those features and qualifications of the 01775, we came away confident in its capability. The heater is built out of 304 stainless steel, its owner’s manual is clear with well-rendered drawings and instructions that you can understand, and we found spare parts for it without having to do much searching. Its counter-weighted base should help it stand up in the wind, and unlike a few other cheap-o products, this one has wheels. Tip it back and roll it where it needs to go.
Wattage: 6,000 | Heating Area: 160 sq. ft.
When you need serious and relentless heat without the concern of running out of fuel, flip the switch on this 240-volt appliance. Although rated as an exterior heater, Bromic says up front that the BH0402003 is really intended to be installed under an overhang of some type, either on a ceiling or a wall. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something with a finished appearance, the company makes a recess kit for it. But it’s so sleek—aided in part by its black ceramic coating—that it would be a bit of shame to cover it up. Either way, you’ve got options.
Mr. Heater MH30T
BTUs: 10,000-30,000 | Heating Area: 120 sq. ft.
Suppose you’re fed up with all this monkeying around with patio heaters, their availability, whether they’re any good, etc. We have an alternative for you—an industry classic no less—and that is this small, dual-head infrared tank top accessory from Mr. Heater. Get a couple of them, set them up to project heat from multiple angles, and you’re in business. As simple as the MH30T looks, it’s not primitive. The heat output is variable from 10,000 to 30,000 BTUs, and it features an easy push-button ignition. And unlike a patio heater, this appliance is a good bit more versatile. Bring it anywhere you need heat, from the backyard to the frozen lake for ice fishing to the work site.
BTUs: 106,000 | Heating area: 314 sq. ft.
This 68-pound heater measures only about 12 inches in diameter. But fill its 20-pound hopper with hardwood pellets and you’ll have anywhere from two to four hours of burn time, and about as high a BTU output as you’re going to find in such a small and portable appliance. Unlike pellet stoves and grills, this heater requires no electricity—the firebox is fed by gravity. And that provides further dividends in that it’s designed for rapid dis-assembly and re-assembly, allowing you to take it on the road, far away from your patio, for your next cold weather adventure.
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