What to Know About Outdoor Patio Heaters

woman warms hands by patio heater

How does a patio heater work?

Unlike an outdoor fire pit, you don’t have to huddle around a patio heater to get warm. They’re specifically designed to radiate heat outward where people are gathered. To generate heat, Patio heaters have different fuel sources – usually propane, electric or natural gas. (Keep reading to find out how to choose which one is right for you.)

Where can I use a patio heater?

Because natural gas and propane heaters use an open flame to generate heat, they can be used in well-ventilated outdoor spaces like patios, terraces, gardens, and outdoor porches or decks.

For safety, don’t use a patio heater in an enclosed area like a building or garage, or too close to the ceiling of a covered deck or patio. Using your patio heater in a poorly ventilated area could be a fire risk, or lead to suffocation or poisoning from toxic carbon monoxide fumes. Experts recommend keeping at least a three-foot clearance around your heater, unless specified otherwise by the manufacturer.

How much does a patio heater cost?

Like other household appliances, the price you’ll pay for an outdoor patio heater will vary depending on its size and quality. A small electric tabletop heater can be purchased for as low as $100, while large commercial-style gas heaters can cost $500 or more.

What size patio heater do I need?

The heat output of a patio heater is measured in “British Thermal Units,” or BTUs. The technical definition of a BTU is this: the amount of energy that’s required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.

Confused? In common terms, a BTU is just a uniform way to measure heat output. More BTUs = more heat. It really is that simple. And every patio heater on the market will have a BTU rating that’s supplied by the manufacturer.

To calculate the right size heater for your space, try this quick math formula: Just multiply the size of your space (in cubic feet) by the desired temperature increase.

For example, raising the temperature of a 10-by-10 foot patio by 40 degrees Fahrenheit – assuming an 8 foot heater height – would require a 32,000 BTU heater (10x10x8x40=32,000). Hint: if you’re not great at math, a square footage range is often provided by the heater’s manufacturer.

What type of patio heater should I buy?

When it comes to purchasing an outdoor patio heater, you’ll choose from three main fuel sources. There’s no right or wrong choice, and each fuel source has its pros and cons. Here’s some information to help you choose a patio heater for your home.

  • Propane patio heaters: These patio heaters work similarly to a propane barbecue grill. They are the most portable heater option because the fuel is supplied through a metal propane tank. But that also means the heater will shut off when you’re out of gas. For a 40,000 BTU patio heater, a full 5-gallon propane cylinder will last around 10 hours – so plan accordingly.
  • Electric patio heaters: As the only non-gas option, electric patio heaters don’t need to be ventilated because there’s no open flame. This can make them great for areas such as covered decks and porches. Because they function like a space heater, they can be permanently mounted below a ceiling, too (just be sure to follow the manufacturer’s specific installation instructions). An electric heater will put out far less heat than a gas patio heater, maxing out at around 5,000 BTUs. But because it’s infrared heat, they’re said to provide a more comfortable feeling of warmth.
  • Natural gas patio heaters: Like a direct line gas grill, much of a natural gas patio heater’s appeal comes from the fact that you’ll never run out of fuel. Because they’re hooked into your home’s natural gas line, these heaters are the least expensive to operate – but they do need to be permanently installed by a professional. Overall, you get the benefits of a propane heater without lugging around heavy propane tanks. However, they’re less portable and the initial cost will be higher.

Are patio heaters safe?

When used correctly, patio heaters offer a safe way to heat your favorite outdoor spaces. But like any home heating source, they can be dangerous if not used correctly. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and never leave a patio heater unattended.

Here are some tips to ensure your patio heater is being used safely:

  • Give it space. Over time, your patio heater will generate a lot of heat. (That’s why you bought it, right?) To prevent fire hazards, keep your heater a safe distance away from walls, ceilings, furniture, carpet or any other flammable material. Experts recommend providing three feet of clearance around all sides of the heater, unless otherwise specified by the heater’s manufacturer.
  • Find a level spot. Only use your patio heater on a flat, level surface. Placing your heater on an incline could cause it to roll or tip over, creating both a fire and burn hazard.
  • Check for leaks. When setting up a natural gas or propane patio heater, always conduct a thorough inspection to ensure there are no gas leaks. You can do this by applying a soapy water solution to your gas tank and hose connections. If you see bubbles rising from any connection points or smell gas, turn off the heater and tighten the connections. If you can’t stop the leak, get your heater serviced before using it.
  • Light it safely. When lighting up a gas patio heater, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. While most heaters have an electric ignitor button, others may require you to light the pilot manually. If so, use a candle or grill lighter that allows you to start the flame from a safe distance. If you can’t get the burner to light right away, turn off the heater and wait at least five minutes. Then try again. This will prevent gas buildup, which could lead to an explosion or flash burn.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Even if you follow every safety precaution, accidents can still happen. That’s why it’s wise to always keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Just make sure the fire extinguisher you buy is the right class for your patio heater’s fuel source (Class B for gas; Class C for electric; or a multipurpose extinguisher for both).
  • Watch it carefully. Never leave a patio heater running while unattended. Be sure to keep kids and pets a safe distance away at all times to prevent burns. And avoid using your heater when winds exceed 10 miles per hour – the heater could blow over, or the flame could blow out.
  • Cover it up. Patio heaters are designed to be weather-resistant. But over time, your heater may develop problems if it’s left out in the elements. Correctly storing your heater when it’s not in use will prevent it from getting clogged with bugs and debris, and also prevent rust. You can purchase a custom cover to protect your heater when it’s not being used. And if you won’t be using it for several months, it’s a good idea to disassemble it and store the heater indoors. Just be sure to leave the propane tank outside. Propane should never be stored indoors — even in a shed or garage.

Be ready in any weather

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that life is rarely predictable. For whatever’s in store, we’re with you on the journey. We’re flexible when circumstances change, steady when the unexpected happens, capable when help is needed and optimistic about what the future holds. To learn how we can help protect your home with the right homeowners insurance, talk to a local ERIE agent in your neighborhood today.

For many Americans, 2020 has been a year marked by more time spent outdoors. And while we all love to get out and enjoy the fresh air, the real reason is obvious: COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus is more easily spread indoors than outdoors. And if you’re like many homeowners, you’re looking for ways to stay comfortable outdoors as the temperature drops.

One solution: outdoor heaters. These handy appliances are finding their way onto restaurant patios and backyard decks everywhere (so, good luck finding one!). A sight once reserved for ski lodges, a patio heater can be a great way to get even more use out of your favorite outdoor spaces. Here’s what you need to know before you buy a patio heater.


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