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- Patio heaters have been in short supply as folks attempt to set up their outdoor spaces for the fall and winter.
- While we haven't been able to get our hands on many patio heaters to test, we talked to three experts about what to consider when buying a patio heater.
- We recommend choosing a heater from a trusted brand that is independently certified by UL. Most people will get the best use out of a pyramid or dome-top propane heater that gives off at least 40,000 Btu of heat.
- Sign up for Insider Reviews' weekly newsletter for more buying advice and great deals.
While a patio heater won't magically melt away all the snow in your yard, it can help extend the outdoor season. The right patio heater can keep you and your guests cozy, even if there's a significant chill in the air.
If you're looking for a patio heater to keep your space warm for outdoor social calls, you'll need to consider heat output, ease of use, and, most importantly, safety.
Currently, many stores are sold out of patio heaters or have extremely low stock due to more people socially distancing outdoors as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues. While we're attempting to get our hands on models to test and review, we've consulted safety experts and put together this guide on what to look for if you're considering purchasing a patio heater.
The different types of patio heaters
Here's a quick breakdown of the most common types of patio heaters on the market:
- Pyramid: A tall, freestanding heater with a triangular shape that usually runs on propane. Flames run up a center column from the bottom to the top of the heater.
- Dome-top: Also known as mushroom-top heaters, these models are tall and skinny with a big metal disk on top that deflects heat downward to distribute it evenly over a large area. They also run on propane and have a similar heat output to pyramid-style units.
- Tabletop: Compact, portable gas heaters that are small enough to fit on a patio table, like the Mr. Heater Buddy Heater.
- Electric heaters: Hanging lamp or freestanding heaters that require an outlet for power. These put out a lot less heat than propane-powered heaters.
While most patio heaters use propane or electricity as an energy source, natural gas heaters also exist, but they require professional installation into an existing gas line, so we don't expect to test these anytime soon.
What to consider when shopping for a patio heater
Patio heaters are an investment, but they won't last forever. Buying from a reputable company that sells replacement parts means you'll be able to repair your patio heater should something break. We've noticed a lot of brandless patio heaters on Amazon and other online retailers and we don't recommend buying them. Some reputable patio heater brands include Home Depot's in-house brand Hampton Bay, AZ Patio Heaters (also sold as Hiland), Westinghouse, Dyna-Glo, and Mr. Heater. While we've only been able to test the Mr. Heater brand due to stock issues, we'll be adding reviews of other reputable brands to this guide soon.
Read our full review of the Mr. Heater Buddy Heater.
Matthew Griffith, prevention section chief with the Montreal Fire Department, said shoppers should look for patio heaters with certifications from the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC). These independent certification bodies test and ensure various appliances meet specific safety standards. Griffith said a lot of inexpensive products don't have these safety certifications, which can be quite expensive for brands to obtain."There's a reason why one company can sell it at half the price," he said. Though a product with safety certifications often costs more, Griffith said it's important to prioritize safety over price.
You're buying a patio heater to keep warm when it gets cold, so heat output should be a key consideration. Most manufacturers list heat output in British thermal units (Btu) and estimate the square footage a heater can handle in ideal conditions. The higher the Btu of a heater, the more heat it will produce and the larger an area it will cover.
You can estimate the Btu you need to heat your outdoor area by multiplying the cubic footage of the space by your desired temperature increase. My patio is about 1,500 cubic feet (assuming a height of around 5 feet — I'm short, so I don't need to heat the air too far above my head), and if I want to hang out outside in the fall when it's 50 degrees outside, I'll probably want to raise the temperature by at least 10 degrees. That means I'll need a heater that puts out at least 15,000 Btu. Bigger spaces or colder climates will require more Btu to heat comfortably.
If you live in a colder area or are looking to entertain guests, we recommend looking for a heater that produces 40,000 Btu or more, which is enough to heat around 2,000 square feet comfortably. Dome or pyramid-shaped heaters are typically larger and have a higher Btu output, so they can usually heat a larger area than tabletop patio heaters. These tall patio heaters are often seen at restaurants because they can keep a large number of guests comfortable at one time. Thomas Bonfiglio, CEO and founder of Triple T Hospitality, said that the high heat output is one of the reasons he chose pyramid and dome-top heaters for his New York and New Jersey restaurants. "Diners who may still not be comfortable eating inside anywhere can have a pleasant experience outside for many months," Bonfiglio said.
Propane-powered heaters typically produce more heat than electric heaters because they aren't limited by the circuit system of your home. That, of course, means there are some additional safety considerations for propane heaters, since they won't shut off automatically like an electric heater will when a circuit is overloaded. You can read more about safety considerations in the section below.
The majority of propane patio heaters are compatible with standard 15-20 pound propane tanks, but some portable versions work with smaller, 16 ounce canisters. You'll have to buy propane tanks separately from the heater, as you would for a gas-powered outdoor fireplace or grill. Fortunately, small and large propane tanks are readily available at most hardware stores; it typically costs about $20 to $25 to refill or buy a 20 pound propane tank at Home Depot.
How much gas your patio heater uses depends on its heat output, what setting you're using, and the surrounding air temperature (the colder it is, the more gas you'll use to heat the area). Amerigas says that you can expect to generate 22,000 Btu per hour for each pound of propane. So if you have a 40,000 Btu patio heater, it'll burn through about 2 pounds of propane every hour you're operating it on its highest setting. Patio heaters guzzle a lot of propane, so I always like to keep an extra tank on hand, since I have multiple outdoor gas-powered appliances like a grill and an outdoor fireplace.
Electric heaters are usually cheaper and safer to operate because they produce less heat. They also don't require regular trips to the hardware store for fuel refills. But the heat isn't very powerful or far-reaching if you're looking to keep a crowd warm.
If aesthetics are important to you, keep in mind that electric and propane heaters give off different types of light. Gas-powered patio heaters create actual flames, which produce a natural, fireplace-like glow. Bonfiglio said he settled on gas models for his restaurant because of their ability to evenly diffuse heat without adding unnecessary bright light.
Bonfiglio also chose patio heaters with controls that are high up and out of reach to customers, which keeps diners safe and the atmosphere consistent. If your household has children, pets, or fidgety adults who like to play with controls, you might also consider a patio heater with out-of-reach controls to prevent any accidents. Most tall, freestanding patio heaters naturally have controls that are high up. My AmazonBasics patio heater has controls so high that I need to stand on my tippy toes to reach them.
On the flip side, if you don't have any wayward hands in your home, you might find it a pain to break out the step ladder every time you want to turn on your patio heater. Some models come with remote controls for easier operation, or you may opt for a tabletop unit.
Portability and storage
Experts told us you can store most propane heaters outside all year round. Just add a cover to prevent unnecessary wear and tear during rainstorms and cold winter months. We recommend choosing a model with wheels if you're opting for a standalone unit like a dome-top or pyramid heater, so that it's easy to wheel out of the way when not in use. If storing a portable patio heater indoors, remove the propane attachment before doing so.
Patio heaters are ultra-convenient and can easily turn your humdrum patio or deck area into a luxury retreat. But there's a lot to consider safety-wise when bringing any heat producing appliance into your home.
Griffith said it's important to follow manufacturer recommendations during installation, which means reading the owner's manual—something many buyers never do. He also recommends keeping your patio heater away from anything combustible, and making sure you allow for at least 4 or 5 feet of clearance in all directions, including vertically. Be careful of trees, umbrellas, and, if you have an apartment balcony, any balconies above you made of flammable materials. Propane-powered heaters have actual flames coming out of them, which is why it's essential to always be alert when they're lit.
With most patio heaters, you don't need to worry about accidentally burning yourself via fully-exposed flames. The flames on most tall freestanding heaters, for instance, are well out of reach from curious little hands. But you should never leave your outdoor heater unattended, and be extra cautious on windy days.
General propane tank safety also applies, Griffith said. Keep propane tanks at least 3 feet away from entrances or building openings, discard tanks that are damaged or more than 10 years old, and never store a propane tank indoors. It's OK to keep a tank outside all year round. "There's no danger for it to be out in the cold," says Griffith.
Most importantly, never use an outdoor propane-powered heater inside. "Those are meant to be outdoors where it's ventilated…[carbon monoxide] is an odorless, colorless insipid gas. You simply aren't able to detect it without a CO detector. There's cases every year across North America of people dying, unfortunately, because of things like that," Griffith said.
While electric patio heaters are a bit safer because of natural restrictions to electrical output and built-in safety mechanisms in modern home wiring, you should be careful about placement, said Dan Mock, brand manager for Mister Sparky, an electrical services company. Taping down wires can prevent accidental knock-overs, and especially important if you have kids or pets running around. Plug-in heaters require a lot of electricity, so Mock also recommends having too many things plugged in at the same time as your electric heater. Electric patio heaters aren't all dust and waterproof either. Check the manufacturer specifications and look for an IP Code rating of at least 55, which means the device can handle some dust and water. Here's a handy chart of IP ratings and what they mean.
Griffith suggests calling your local fire department if you're unsure about placement or have questions related to patio heater safety, and he also adds that it's a good idea to check whether your town has any specific regulations for this kind of outdoor heating appliance.
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