—Buying tips for choosing the best unit for your backyard
Once found only in restaurants to make outdoor dining more pleasant for their patrons, patio space heaters have expanded to private backyards, helping warm homeowners across the country.
This trend has come about for a good reason: By extending the months possible to enjoy a pool and patio area, outdoor heaters maximize opportunities to take advantage of exterior living spaces.If you do not already have a fire pit or fireplace in your backyard, a space heater can fill the void. Even if you do have a hearth feature, a space heater can effectively and economically augment the temperature in various spots in your backyard.
For example, if you have an outdoor dining area that’s set away from your fire pit, a space heater can help keep everyone more comfortable as they sit and eat a meal.
These units deliver silent, instant heat to warm the air for a short distance in any given direction. On average, they boost surrounding air up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient temperatures.
The technology requires only minor upkeep, creates few air-quality concerns, and comes in an array of sizes, styles, and models to handle a variety of outdoor needs.
Compare outdoor space heaters
When shopping in stores or looking online for a space heater for your patio, you have two key criteria to consider: power source and style.
Let’s look first at power. Because the energy source to run the unit affects both the size of the area that can be heated and the unit’s ongoing operating costs, your first decision should be about choosing the appropriate power source.
Three distinct types are available. Each offers certain benefits, such as heat level and visual appearance. Maintenance requirements also vary. The three types are:
Electric space heaters (also known as infrared)
Perhaps the simplest of the outdoor-heater family, the electric version plugs into a standard 110-volt outlet. It emits an infrared spectrum of light to increase the temperature of any space within its reach.
The amount of warmth that electric heaters give off varies by model and brand. To get an idea of how much heat output you can expect, look for the number of watts for which the unit is rated.
This rating will also help indicate how far the heat will reach in terms of square footage. In turn, knowing this information will help you calculate how many heaters it will take for the backyard area(s) you want to heat.
One benefit of electric space heaters is convenience. If you don’t want to worry about buying and refilling propane tanks or gaining access to a natural-gas hook up, then this type of model makes a great option for you. Simply plug in these units, and turn them on to begin raising the mercury in your immediate outdoor space.
Typically, electric heaters are manufactured with weather-resistant hardware so they can be used outside. However, when one gets plugged into an outlet outdoors, it’s still a good idea to keep it in a sheltered or semi-enclosed location.
Examples include a covered pavilion structure or in a patio enclave or nook of a home with one or several walls and/or a space with a virtual roof made of screen, netting, or a fabric canopy or a foliage-covered arbor. Surroundings like these provide some amount of protection from the elements and help partially contain the heat emitted.
These electric models tend to be affordable, ranging from about $100 to $800 for high-end units. They come in several styles (described in next section below).
Generally, electric patio heaters do not offer the same heating capability as their gas-powered counterparts. Therefore, they are better suited for smaller areas like the sheltered, semi-enclosed spaces described above.
Another caveat: They must be situated close to electricity. That means you need an available outlet that’s also adjacent to the spot where you want the heat—usually within a few feet—unless you use an extension cord.
Also, unless the heater’s light is shining directly on your body, you will not feel its warmth. Instead, you will feel the heat of the air around you that the unit has warmed.
Now, if you are looking to heat a larger amount of outdoor space—and you like the convenience and affordability of these electric models—consider using several units to meet your needs. Keep in mind that you need a setting where each unit will be both partially sheltered and near an electrical outlet.
Propane space heaters
If electric is the simplest kind of power source for patio heaters, then propane is the most popular one. In large part, the reason is due to its ample heating power. They have a higher BTU (British Thermal Units—a measure of heating) range than most electric models. As a result, they can bring warmth to a larger area.
Propane fuel is fairly convenient to use. It comes in easily portable tanks, which makes the unit extremely versatile for moving around anywhere on your patio.
For ease of mobility, many propane heaters come with or have a wheel kit that can be purchased separately. The units are also designed to store their propane tanks in their base; this way the tanks are kept out of sight and do not take up additional space on your patio.
If you want the most effective patio heater, propane is the way to go. Most heaters of this kind require a standard 20-pound fuel tank. However, smaller models of propane heaters like tabletop designs, utilize compact-size tanks.
Once the fuel runs out, you can purchase another propane tank to connect to it. You can usually find them at a local grocery or home-improvement store, and many outlets offer a discount when you bring in the empty tank for exchange.
Another option is to take your current tank to a gas station and refill it—which is the most economical option.
Although propane heaters are highly effective at boosting the mercury on the thermometer, they do cost more to operate. In fact, due to the cost of fuel, propane units typically are the highest-priced of the three heater types.
From a convenience standpoint, the occasional refueling task is viewed as a bit of a hassle to some homeowners who prefer having no more effort than inserting a plug into an outlet.
Natural-gas space heaters
Perhaps the least-common kind of outdoor space heater is one that runs on natural gas. The fuel is supplied from a permanent natural-gas line in your yard.
These units provide a higher BTU and can typically heat a larger space than electric heaters. Refer to the BTU of an individual unit to estimate its range in your outdoor area. Most units come in the free-standing variety like these.
Like propane patio heaters, natural-gas units offer a higher range of BTU output. Therefore, they can capably boost temperatures in a larger outdoor space.
They are also a snap to operate: Once they are connected to your natural-gas outlet, all you ever need to do is turn it on to the desired setting. However, unlike propane versions, you won’t have to worry about running out of fuel and replacing the tank.
In many homes this fuel source is not so easy to come by. Availability of residential natural-gas lines vary heavily by regions. In some states, they are rare.
If you do not already have an available line, then putting one in is costly and probably not worth the expense if the only purpose would be to power one or two space heaters. Depending on the setup of your natural-gas outlet, these heaters may require professional installation to prevent potential gas leaks.
However, homes with easily accessible natural-gas outlets do provide opportunities for this convenient heater.
Compared to the units with other power sources, the style range is narrow. Another drawback: Like electric heaters, their dependency on proximity to an outlet may also limit options for placing them right where you want.
Once you have zeroed in on the kind of a power source to meet your preferences and outdoor needs, you can pick a style from four options: tabletop, free-standing, wall-mounted, and parasol. However, do note that some styles are not available with all power sources.
The best style for your patio or outdoor space depends on several factors. Among them is the size of the space, whether or not the space is covered or open and exposed to the elements, and the average range of ambient temperature of space you wish to heat.
Tabletop lamp space heaters
With their compact design, tabletop heaters take up a minimal amount of space while offering excellent portability. They also come in various sizes and designs, making it easy to find one that matches your outside furniture and décor.
One drawback to their size is that they put out less heat. However, they are ideal for small spaces and intimate settings. Adding one to a table or ledge can also be used to augment the heat from another style of space heater.
Standing space heaters
Also referred to as floor heaters, the most popular type of outdoor heaters are free-standing ones. They can put out a lot of heat to warm large areas, which is why you often see this style used in outdoor restaurants seating.
They also offer easy portability, and their narrow vertical shape allows them to fit into smaller spaces. Some can be incorporated into the center of a large dining tables with a center cutout to accommodate one.
These large, tall units work well in both open and covered areas. However, their height can be an issue if you plan on placing them in a patio with a low roof or beneath an arbor or trellis covering.
With their brackets or hardware, these heaters can be mounted on walls or ceilings. (Some also come with a tri-pod style stand that can be moved around.)
Most have adjustable vents that allow you to direct the heat up or downward. In particular, they work well in tight areas where you don’t want to sacrifice space to accommodate a floor or tabletop device.
Wall-mounted heaters are only available with an electric power source. To ensure safe operation, take care to carefully install them.
Parasol space heaters
With its fan-shape configuration, the parasol- or umbrella-style patio heater is an electric unit that’s either attached to a large—usually canvas—umbrella or suspended from the interior of the dome of a gazebo.
Parasol units are simple to install and use. They are ideally suited for heating a small setting directly under the umbrella, but they don’t warm a large area.
Unless they are placed very close to an electrical outlet, this design requires the use of an extension cord—which can get in the way of guests.
The takeaway: Pick the space heater that's right for our patio
Patio heaters allow you to enjoy your outdoor space beyond the spring and summer months. With a variety of power source and design styles, you can select a unit—or several—that functions well for your patio while warming you well in brisk days and evenings.