For people looking to extend their patio use into the chilly season, a suitable outdoor heater may be in order.
To ensure you’re getting enough BTUs for your buck, ask yourself some questions before purchasing: How large is the patio space? Does it have a ceiling or cover? Does it get wind? Are there specific areas — table or sofa, for example — to be heated or is a general 360-degree warmth preferred? Prefer electric, natural gas or propane? What is the budget? The answers to these questions will narrow down the plethora of patio heater choices.
Durability, functionality, safety features, aesthetics and, of course, heating performance should all factor into the final choice.
What a gas
The online retailer Patio Heat and Shade explains the pros and cons of patio heater fuel types.
— Natural gas heaters are connected directly to a gas line. While they are the cheapest to operate, they must be installed by a professional and have higher costs upfront. They may also be extinguished by wind gusts.
— Propane heaters are the most convenient to add to a patio, as they usually require little assembly and are portable. Most run off of a 20-pound propane tank, although tabletop heaters use a tiny 1-pound propane tank. However, the tanks must be replaced after 8-10 hours of use.
— Electric heaters have many mounting options — wall, ceiling, flush mounted— so they don’t take up floor space. This type does not emit carbon monoxide, so they can be installed indoors or outdoors by any certified electrician. They are not susceptible to wind gusts, but they may add significantly to your electric bill.
Better living inside and out
Sam Stoltzfus, owner of LanChester Grill & Hearth, says electric patio heaters are more user friendly, and safer, than gas powered.
“They use 240 volts, about the same as a dryer,” he says, adding that once they are installed, they are more maintenance-free and they can be mounted closer to (or recessed in) the ceiling than gas-powered heaters.
His shop in Gap has an assortment of heaters, fire pits, grills and fireplaces with most brands U.S.-made. Ceiling-mounted electric heaters come in different lengths and start at $800 plus installation.
Freestanding patio heaters
According to independent reviews in the New York Times’ Wirecutter in 2022, the best outdoor “mushroom” upright propane heater is the Hiland HLDS01. This design has a metal cap on top to direct the heat downward. Customer reviews are mostly favorable; it fires up quickly with 48,000 BTUs of heating power. It sells for $157 and up. This heater is broadly available, even from Amazon, which also offers accessories like a heater cover and a heat-focusing reflector.
For a more mesmerizing heater design, check out a pyramid-style heater with a glass tube containing the moving flame. This style is available at many stores. Generating 40,000 BTUs, this heater doesn’t have the heating power of the mushroom-style, but it makes up for it with its visual appeal. However, many customer reviews complained that it was difficult to assemble, hard to light, and didn’t throw heat very far. It is available through The Home Depot online, selling for $320, plus $60 for a propane tank and $26 for a heater cover. They also offer a three-year warranty for $60, which may be a good idea, given the potential for parts like the igniter to fail.
The Home Depot on Fruitville Pike sells Hampton Bay (their store brand) in both mushroom and pyramid style, which carry a one-year warranty. One of the mushroom-style heaters has an adjustable “bonnet” to better direct the reflected heat. A salesman pointed out the battery under the igniter that enables the heater to fire up at the touch of a button, as well as an area in the bottom of the 7-foot-tall heater to fill with sand to stabilize it. Most heaters have wheels to facilitate moving short distances.
ACE Hardware in Lititz offers the Bomberger’s brand patio heaters called Living Accents — two mushroom style and one pyramid style. According to the specs, the mushroom style generates 48,000 BTUs to heat a 250-square-foot area, while the pyramid-style heaters generate 40,000 BTUs and heat 500 square feet. Their patio heaters range from $190 to $400. Consumers should be aware that the propane tank is sold separately, no matter where you purchase it. While most patio heaters have safety features like automatic shut-off when it’s tilted, buyers should be mindful of placement and keep it away from flammable structures and materials.
When the warmth fades
Not everyone is satisfied with their patio heaters, as numerous product reviews and YouTube videos showing how to repair them reveal.
Larry Horst, a business owner and egg farmer, bought two mushroom-style heaters from a big-box store in Lancaster. He says that if you’re lucky, you get two years out of them and then they don’t light.
“While they’re working, they work great,” he said. “But they just don’t last.”
When the company building his pergola offered to install electric heaters in the ceiling, he took them up on it. There are adjustable switches in the wall for the two electric strips. But, he says, his best heater is a custom-made gas fire pit that doesn’t smoke and provides all the ambience you could want. His patio space uses the best of both worlds.
Retired Lancastrian Wally Otto has a 3-foot-high flat-top, metal-base propane heater with flames dancing on crushed stones — when it works. He says he used it for four years on his enclosed patio, then it failed. He found YouTube videos demonstrating how to fix it, but nothing worked. He says that while it is heavy to move, if there was someone in town who repaired this type of patio heater, he would haul it in. He hasn’t found a repair person yet.
“With our Pennsylvania Dutch community, who use a lot of propane-powered things, there must be someone who can fix them,” he says.
While staying toasty on a chilly evening outside is a luxury, there’s also a timeless allure to staring into the flames of a fire pit. There are scores of different types, from making your own pit from recycled materials, to sleek, smokeless steel fire containers.
Lancaster-based Breeo makes heavy-gauge 304 stainless and Corten steel fire pits with a lifetime warranty. They start at $399 and offer accessories like spark screens, lids and covers.
No matter which type of heat source you choose, consumers should always be aware of their local ordinances concerning fire pits and keep heaters away from combustibles.
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