The whole point of having an outdoor space is to spend more time outdoors, right? Well, the idea of being in the elements after the sun goes down or the calendar turns to winter can be enough to send a chill down your spine. But you don’t have to settle for shivering on your patio or looking longingly into your backyard as it goes to waste in the cold — not when you can invest in an outdoor patio heater! These appliances extend the outdoor season even amid brisk evenings and colder months, creating a year-round outdoor space for family and friends.
Outdoor heaters are fairly inexpensive and low-maintenance appliances, but you may encounter some frustration sorting through the hundreds of models on the market today. Many seem identical, with only a few subtle differences of note. To help clear up the confusion, our outdoor heating experts compiled this guide covering the main points to consider when buying a patio heater. It’s our hope that the warmth of wisdom will lead you toward the right decision for your space.
Outdoor Heater Fuel Type Options
The track to toastier outdoor gatherings starts here. This decision will play a major role in which outdoor heater you settle on, mostly because certain fuel types present particular installation requirements. Gas heaters, for example, have different concerns that arise depending on whether the unit runs on natural gas or propane. Electric models bring fewer considerations — it’s much easier to plug something in than to constantly supply it with combustible fuel — but let’s get to the specifics.
Electric Patio Heaters
With up to 98% energy efficiency and no harmful emissions or byproducts that occur when fuel is combusted, electric outdoor heaters are extremely eco-friendly. They’re also among the easiest to install — no need to manipulate gas lines or call out a plumber! Electric patio heaters that operate below 1500 watts can sometimes be plugged straight into a standard, 120-volt circuit, but many require hardwiring into their own circuit. This can actually be helpful when installing multiple outdoor heaters, which can then be controlled from the same circuit.
Propane Patio Heaters
These models work with 20-pound, portable propane tanks as well as bulk tanks kept on your property. Portable tanks are typically paired with freestanding or tabletop units that can be moved around your backyard, with the propane cylinder hidden from sight in the base of the heater. If your home already has a bulk tank, then all you need is a licensed plumber to connect the gas directly to a permanent-fixture outdoor heater. Your plumber will know whether your current bulk tank has the necessary volume and pressure to support an additional appliance.
Natural Gas Patio Heaters
Already have natural gas piped into your home or business by a utility company? If so, then it’s probably the best fuel option for you. It’s certainly best for permanent or high-use heater installations (like in commercial settings) where refilling propane tanks would be highly inconvenient. Again, always contact a licensed plumber when installing natural gas appliances or manipulating gas lines. Keep in mind the placement of your outdoor heater — the distance from the gas main will play a large role in how much pressure the gas lines need to have.
Keep in Mind: Because gas patio heaters produce heat by combusting gas, they produce harmful byproducts that must be vented. That’s why most gas outdoor heaters require constant airflow, can’t be recessed into walls or ceilings, and shouldn’t be installed indoors or in enclosed areas with inadequate ventilation. Many electric heaters, however, don’t have airflow requirements and can be recessed or installed in areas with poorer ventilation. No matter which fuel type you choose, always refer to your owner’s manual for proper installation requirements and clearance to combustible materials.
Infrared Patio Heaters vs. Conventional Heaters
Heating type? Huh? All we’re talking about is whether your outdoor heater uses infrared wavelength or conventional heat transfer. The difference lies in how they interact with air — conventional heat transfers thermal energy to air molecules surrounding it, whereas infrared heaters project thermal energy directly to objects in their path without heating the air. Speaking of paths, let’s point you toward the heating type that makes sense for your space.
Infrared Patio Heaters
Time for a quick science lesson: the sun produces certain wavelengths of light that are unbothered by atmospheric factors, which is how sunlight can reach and warm us even through the vacuum of space. This type of heat transfer (often referred to as “radiant heat”) is exactly what infrared patio heaters generate! Because short- and medium-wave infrared outdoor heaters warm only physical objects in their path, they strongly resist wind and allow you to target specific areas with heat. When paired with directional mounting brackets, these units send a cone of radiant heat deep into spaces for lasting warmth, something conventional gas heaters struggle to do. Another benefit – infrared patio heaters are available in all fuel types.
Conventional Patio Heaters
This type of transfer is produced by a heating element or a gas-burning flame element that then shifts thermal energy to the surrounding air. Patio heating units that use conventional heat transfer are often omnidirectional, meaning they warm only an area in a radius around the heater, and face a higher risk of losing heat in windy conditions. Contrast these traits with those of infrared heaters, which can target specific areas and are far less prone to heat loss from wind interference. Conventional heaters are usually gas-powered, mostly freestanding, and often come equipped with safety measures to cut off gasflow if the unit begins tilting or is blown over by strong wind.
Patio Heaters Offer Several Mounting Options
Fuel type: check. Infrared: check. Next up is the actual type of outdoor patio heater, which we classify based on how it is (or isn’t) mounted. Luckily for you, this decision is heavily dependent on the ones you just made — mounting type is closely tied to fuel source. Unsure of what we mean? For instance, freestanding and tabletop patio heaters are often fueled by portable propane tanks. Permanent installations like post mounted outdoor heaters, on the other hand, typically run on bulk propane or natural gas. In the event you need another example, electric patio heaters are most often available in wall or ceiling mounts and have the added benefit of allowing recessed or flush-mounted installations. There’s a bit more to it than that, though, so let’s turn up the heat on mounting types!
Freestanding Outdoor Heaters
Do most of your parties take place in a single, small slice of your outdoor space? Ours don’t, either. Properly heating a large area requires a portable patio heater or multiple permanent units, the latter of which can be expensive. Freestanding patio heaters solve that problem — their mobility is aided by wheels on one side of the base, and they almost always have a propane-tank enclosure to hide fuel cylinders. Believe it or not, we also offer freestanding natural gas heaters that attach to fuel lines via a quick-disconnect gas hose. Placement will be somewhat limited, but you can still disconnect and store them during hot spells.
Wall/Ceiling Mount Outdoor Heaters
This type of outdoor patio heater is meant to be permanently installed in the walls or ceiling of an outdoor space and is great for areas you know need consistent heat, like seating and dining areas. Commercial settings often use wall or ceiling mount patio heaters because they can be hardwired together into circuits. Brands like Bromic, Solaira and Infratech give you several options for wiring so the heaters can be controlled together or separately on a switch, dimmer, or remote control. (Talk about convenient!) Remember that most gas patio heaters don’t allow recessed installation, so the majority of flush-mount outdoor heaters run on electricity.
Tabletop Outdoor Heaters
Either patio heater manufacturers enjoy helping their customers save space, or they developed a shrink ray and haven’t told anybody. Regardless, tabletop patio heaters are essentially smaller versions of their freestanding counterparts, best for heating small seating and dining areas. They generally run on 1-pound propane tanks — making them much lighter and easier to move around — plus their small footprint won’t eat up too much storage space. Certain models, such as Fire Sense tabletop outdoor heaters, are designed more like pieces of decor than ordinary heating appliances because they’re highly visible elements in your outdoor space.
Post-Mount Outdoor Heaters
Natural gas is the only fuel type available for these units, which is actually quite convenient — there’s no hassle of refilling or changing propane tanks, and it’s one less choice you have to make! Post-mount heaters are best installed in permanent seating areas, especially when used in tandem with other outdoor fire features. While something like a fire pit or outdoor fireplace provides a beautiful focal point in your space, anyone who’s ever sat around a campfire knows it heats you only from the front. Adding a post-mounted patio heater nearby, though? Now you’re enveloped in toastiness you didn’t know was achievable outside your home.
Other Things to Consider When Shopping for Patio Heaters
Feels good to be done with the big decisions, doesn’t it? Before we let you go, however, we’d like you to think over a few more pertinent points when it comes to buying a patio heater. Warranties: they’re a pretty big deal. Average heating area: kind of the whole reason you’re buying one of these things. Outdoor heater accessories: you might actually be surprised by how much is out there! Let’s take them one by one so you can leave this article with all the knowledge you need to move forward.
These units are fit for both backyard and commercial use, so make sure you select a model with the right type of warranty. Bars, restaurants, and other businesses that want to keep guests warm year-round must choose from a brand that offers commercial warranties to ensure their heaters are covered. Though these appliances are generally low-maintenance and hold up well under continuous use in any setting, you never know when something could go wrong. Don’t know where to start? Our patio heater warranty chart will help you find the right type of coverage from a trusted brand.
Average Heating Area
Obviously, this is one of the most important factors to keep in mind as you do your research. Start by measuring the length, width, and total square footage of the space you need heated. With the knowledge that the average heating area for any outdoor heater is about 100 square feet, the size of your space will largely determine the type and number of units you should choose. There’s also the fact that post-mounted heaters and free-standing conventional models produce heat in a circular radius, so they’ll need to be centrally positioned in a space. Wall or ceiling mounts, meanwhile, generate directional heat and should therefore be installed to cover the entire space you wish to heat. Factoring in the type of heat transfer alongside your total heating area will help you make the right decision.
Outdoor Heater Accessories
It might be hard to imagine accessories for patio heaters, but they do exist! Control devices are the most prominent among them, and they can get fairly complicated. Remember that permanently mounted heaters usually need to be hardwired — when installing just 1, you have a simple choice of an on/off switch, dimmer switch, or remote control. But in the event multiple units are being set up, several brands provide various control systems based on the complexity of your arrangement.
You know what’s not complicated? Patio heater covers! Keeping your outdoor heater covered when not in use will help it look new for years to come and extend its lifespan, so including this accessory is a no-brainer. Though freestanding and portable models can be easily stored inside during the warm season, we still recommend covering them to block out moisture and dust.
Mounting brackets are another must-have for units positioned on ceilings and walls. Directional brackets are particularly helpful because they let you tilt or turn your heater right where you need warmth most, while drop brackets play a similar role for specifically ceiling heaters. As always, be sure to check your owner’s manual for proper clearance from combustibles and mounting options before installation.
That warm, fuzzy feeling you’ve got right now — that’s the feeling of knowing you’re ready to make some big decisions. Coincidentally, that’s also the feeling you get when sitting in front of a patio heater. Anyway, we want to continue guiding you toward the right heater for your outdoor space, so call our experts at 1-877-743-2269 if you have additional questions. It would also be wise to visit our Free Outdoor Living Design Service, especially if you’re having trouble figuring out how many units you need to properly heat your space. With their help and the information from this article, you’ll have a warmer backyard in no time!