The right choice of patio heating will extend the useful life of your outdoor space as the chilly months come and can bring pleasant ambiance, comfort, and warmth to your patio or garden environment. There are a wide variety of types of heaters to choose from, and this article looks at the most common types of outdoor heat, considers the pros and cons of each, and identifies which types of heat work best in which environments.
In order to determine the Best Patio Heater setup for your outdoor environment, you’ll need to consider a few significant factors, and pick the right type of heater, or a mix of heaters, for your needs.
However, some just want the short version, and given that, if we had to pick one patio heater that would be the best one for most people, we would go with the Fire Sense 46,000BTU Propane Patio Heater [Amazon Link] with wheels. It puts out lots of heat, uses standard propane tanks, looks good, and is easy on the wallet. If you’re in a rush and want to pick just one heater, this is an excellent choice.
Last update on 2020-03-31 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
We encourage readers to dig deeper, though, and fine-tune their choices to their individual environment. Read on!
- 1 Best Outdoor Heater Buyer’s Guide
- 2 Types of Patio Heaters
- 3 Conclusion: The Best Patio Heater
Best Outdoor Heater Buyer’s Guide
In this area, we will look closely at all of the major variables buyers should consider when they are deciding on the best type of outdoor heater for their needs. These variables include:
- The outdoor environment
- General temperature range
- Heating amount requirements
- Type(s) of fuel
Before choosing the best patio heater for your needs, you’ll first need to consider where you plan to heat, and what the environment in that location is like. You’ll next need to keep in mind the amount of heat you’ll need, which is partly determined by your area (e.g. Houston or Chicago), and the types of heater you’re interested in.
You’ll then want to consider the types of fuel that power heaters, and which fuel(s) will best mesh with your needs.
Finally, you’ll want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each of the different types of patio heaters, before choosing the best outdoor heaters for your needs.
General Temperature Range
Depending on where you are located, and what you hope to accomplish with your outdoor heating setup, you will likely end up with different heating strategies.
If you in a warm to moderate environment, one where snow is rare, and winters are in the 50s, and the winds are relatively calm, you may be able to extend your heating season for much of the winter with a propane heater, or a couple of electric heaters.
If you live in a frigid temperature range, with frequent snows, high winds, etc., then you will almost certainly be unable to use your outdoor space in the depths of winter unless it is quite sheltered, and you really pour on the heat.
Most are not looking to extend their use of the outdoor area to snowy, freezing environments, and it is not that difficult to make a sunny day in the 40s tolerable to be outside, assuming those outside are huddled near the heaters and are wearing appropriate clothing.
The biggest aspect to consider when looking at the target environment to be heated is whether there is a roof or any walls present. If a roof or wall(s) are present, these features will help to hold heat in and prevent wind from immediately taking the newly-generated heat away, however roofs and walls present other circumstances that must be considered when deciding on outdoor heating.
Covered decks or patios have some advantages over uncovered decks — the roof will act as an insulator and wind buffer, as will any walls that are present. Cold wind can significantly impact the efficiency of an outdoor heater, and strong winds will dominate the strongest heaters on the market. Having roofs and walls present can help mitigate heat loss through wind and the stack effect (heat rising).
However, roofs and walls pose obstacles for some types of heaters, and these obstacles should be considered for safety reasons.
Wood Burning Chimineas and Fire Pits
Using a wood burning chiminea or fire pit under a roof is a significant hazard. The wood smoke will rise up and hit the ceiling, staining it and potentially causing a fire hazard. Just as with a charcoal grill, wood burning chimineas and fire pits cannot be used under roofs.
Should you want to use a chiminea or fire pit under a roof, an ethanol fire pit would work, as would some propane gas fire pits (be sure to check the requirements before purchase, though!)
Tall Patio Heater (Pyramid Heater, Infrared Electric Heater, or Pole-Style Heater)
Depending on the height of the ceiling in the covered patio, you may still be able to use these tall style patio heaters. Most of them are 6′-8′ tall and require 2′-3′ of clearance above the top of the heater. If your roof is 10′ or so off the ground, you may be able to find a heater that will meet those requirements.
If the roof is lower than 10′, you should consider a tabletop patio heater or another style of heater that does not have roof clearance issues.
If the space to be heated is an uncovered deck or patio, with no roof, then you don’t have to worry about wood smoke, and there are no issues with the type of fuel to be used.
However, if there is no roof and few or no walls around the space to be heated, you may find it difficult to keep the space warm. Wind gusts will blow away heat generated, and getting the outdoor space up to an acceptable temperature will be more difficult.
Dealing with Walls
Walls are a bit less of a concern than ceilings, however, they should be considered. Walls block wind, which is helpful, but many heaters recommend at least a couple of feet of clearance from walls, so you should be sure to keep in mind the required clearances for any outdoor heater you purchase.
Most heaters that burn any fuel are rated by their BTU output. Electric heaters are usually rated in watts, though the conversion to BTU is fairly simple, with 1 watt equaling 3.41 BTU. For example, a 1,500-watt electric heater will put out approximately 5,118 BTU of heat. Here is an online BTU heat conversion calculator to do the math for you.
To give a rough idea of the BTU output of various types of outdoor heat, see the following chart.
|Type of Heat Source||Typical BTU Output Range|
|Wood Fire Pit||50,000-80,000|
|Wood Burning Chiminea||40,000-60,000|
|Gas Fire Pit||35,000-50,000|
|Gas Pyramid Heater||35,000-40,000|
|Gas Pole Heater||35,000-40,000|
|Infrared Electric Heater 110v||4,000-5,200|
For the most part, a BTU is a BTU, however, there are some distinctions that should be noted.
Electric heat is infrared heat, which is a different type of heat than the other types of heat on our list. Infrared heat heats objects directly, as opposed to heating the air around an object. This type of heat is less impacted by wind than other types of heat, though the quantity of heat output is also lower.
Pyramid Glass Tube Heaters
Though Pyramid heaters have generally the same BTU output as pole style propane heaters, the design of these heaters is such that heat is projected upward through the tube and out the top of the heater. Consequently, a significant amount of heat is lost to the air above the heater and is not directed to those surrounding the heater.
The reflectors mitigate this circumstance somewhat, but buyers should keep in mind that these heaters don’t put out as much usable heat as their BTU quantity suggests.
They do look really cool, though!
Heating Multiple Types of Areas
Depending on where people will be gathering in the outdoor environment, you’ll want to pick the right heater to put in the ideal spots. You can make multiple micro-environments in the same garden or patio space, little oases of heat perfect for their micro-climate.
For example, if you figure that people will be sitting around a table for the most part, then a tabletop patio heater would be ideal for this area. Alternately, you could consider a fire pit table for this type of area.
If, however, people will be standing in another area, you could add a tall patio heater at that location, as the tall heater is much better suited to people standing around it than those who are seated.
Perhaps you have another seating area, or a buffet area, near the house. A wall mounted electric heater would work well in this spot, as there is likely an electrical outlet within a short distance that makes this type of heater easy to add.
By creating several areas of heat on the same patio, you can encourage your guests to mingle with those around the heater in each location, and create a dynamic outdoor space.
Types of Fuel
There are several different types of fuel used to power outdoor heaters. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages, and they will be considered here.
Using wood as fuel for outdoor heating is the “classic” way to heat, and has been used since time immemorial. Wood is an atmospheric fuel — the crackle and snap of embers, the pleasing color of the light emitted by wood, the smell of pine, or pinon wood, the whole experience can be magical.
It can be a hassle, too, though!
If you want to use wood as fuel, you’ll need to acquire the wood either by purchasing it or cutting your own. It will need to be properly stored and seasoned, and you have to deal with smoke and ash, and regular cleanup.
All of these are troubles, but for many, there is just something special about burning wood that can’t be replaced by anything else.
- Warm, crackling atmosphere
- Beautiful colors
- Plentiful fuel, may be very inexpensive if you’re willing to work for it
- Wood needs to be stored and seasoned
- Smoke and ash is harmful to breathe
- Environmental footprint is complex
Propane gas is a fossil fuel, a product of oil and gas extraction. It is an extremely common fuel and is most recognized by the 20lb tanks that power propane gas grills, found everywhere. It’s a fairly easy fuel to deal with, and the biggest hassle of propane is getting regular refuels of propane tanks.
- Fairly easy to deal with
- Not terribly expensive
- Not great for the environment
- Propane gas flames can feel unnatural, lifeless
Natural gas is a heating source that powers houses all over the world. Many furnaces, ovens, etc. are connected to natural gas, and fuel is simply drawn from a central source. The environmental footprint of natural gas is complicated.
It is a fossil fuel, but it is quite efficient and has a relatively mild environmental cost. However, using natural gas for outdoor heat will likely require a plumber to install a natural gas line, which may be very expensive.
- Once it’s hooked up, there’s no need to deal with changing out tanks, filling fuel, etc.
- Energy efficient
- Super easy to deal with
- Requires costly plumbing to hook up natural gas lines
- Results in heaters needing to stay in a fixed location due to the necessity to hook up to fuel
- Most heaters run on propane and will require different regulator systems to convert to natural gas
Electric heaters powered by traditional household 110v plugs are by their nature maxed out at 1,500 watts, or 5,100 BTUs of heat. These heaters all use infrared heating, which does not heat the air, but rather heats the objects in their vicinity, so the quality of heat is different than other sources of fuel. Additionally, these heaters put out not insignificant light, and the cast of the light can ruin the ambiance of an environment.
Ultimately, many people find electric heaters to be too weak for many environments, but there are some circumstances where electric heaters shine.
- Super easy to use, just plug into a standard outlet
- Infrared heat is relatively unimpaired by wind
- Inexpensive to use, no need for dealing with fuel, propane tanks, etc.
- Electric heat can usually be used both indoors and outdoors
- Heat output is generally disappointing
- May require multiple circuits if multiple heaters are needed in an area.
- The light produced by these heaters is often harsh and unpleasant (think french fry warmer light)
- If extension cords are required, they must be heavy duty extension cords [Amazon Link].
Ethanol, also known as bio-ethanol, is a fuel made from left over husks and silage from plant production (think corn husks, switch grass, etc.). It is an environmentally friendly alcohol fuel that burns cleanly, and can work both indoors and outdoors. Unfortunately, heat output is generally low, depending on the size of the ethanol burner, and the fuel isn’t cheap if it’s going to be used regularly.
- Environmentally friendly fuel
- Burner can be placed almost anywhere, and can be used both indoors and outdoors
- Creates a pleasing, real flame
- Generally doesn’t provide much heat
- Fuel is often expensive
Types of Patio Heaters
In this section, we will look at all of the different types of patio heaters available, and consider the pros and cons of each.
Wood Burning Fire Pit
Wood burning fire pits are a classic design, and can span the design from as simple as a metal ring in the sand to $100,000+ outdoor masonry fireplaces. For the most part, when we talk about wood burning fire pits, we are referencing free-standing fire pits with screens, which allow for cooking and heating.
These units are typically fairly inexpensive, and can be pretty stylish. They will typically heat those within a 6-8′ radius of the heater.
- Inexpensive (usually)
- Heats those seated around the fire pit
- Can be used for cooking
- Fuel can be inexpensive, but may require work
- Smoke can be unwieldy
- Wood is a hassle
More Information: Wood Burning Fire Pits
Wood Burning Chiminea
Wood burning chimineas have some advantages over fire pits, and some disadantages. The biggest advantage is that the chimney design channels smoke and ash away from those seated around the fire. If you’ve ever sat around a bonfire and had the wind change direction unexpectedly, you know what we’re talking about here.
The ability to channel smoke away is a significant plus.
However, a chiminea is generally not as convenient as a fire pit, as chimineas frequently won’t be able to fit full sized logs, and logs will need to be broken down into smaller pieces.
Designers have been getting super creative with chimineas, however, and there are loads of amazing modern designs to check out. Some of these chimineas are cooler looking than a pyramid patio heater!
Chimineas will typically heat those within 3-4′ of the heater, though much depends on the size of the chiminea.
- Lots of cool designs available
- Channels smoke away
- Radiates heat to those seated around it
- Many are too small to accept full sized logs
- Wood is a hassle
More Information: Modern Chimineas
Gas Fire Pit
Gas fire pits have some significant advantages over wood burning fire pits. Generally, these work using propane tanks, or occasionally, through natural gas hook ups. These fire pits are usually pretty easy to get going, put out decent heat, and have a nice ambiance.
They are also pretty helpful if you figure your guests will be sitting around a table for most of their time outdoors. The heat is set at table height, making these style fire pits perfect for small gatherings.
Fire pit tables will heat those within 6-7′ of the heater, typically.
- Easy to use, super convienent
- Good heat output, little clean up
- Heats those seated around the fire pit
- No smoke and ash to deal with
- Propane tanks can be a hassle
- Not as much ambiance as other types of heaters
More Information: Gas Fire Pits
Gas Pyramid Heater
Pyramid heaters look stunning when they are burning, with flames coursing through the quartz glass tube, surrounded by a ladder of steel in a pyramid shape. So cool!
If this style of heater could heat by aesthetics alone, we’d be thrilled. Unfortunately, they don’t heat as much as you’d think they would, given the BTU output. Most pyramid patio heaters put out around 40,000BTU of heat, which at first glance is not bad.
However, the design of the heater results in most of the heat going up through the glass tube, and up into the air, as opposed to out to those standing around the unit.
Quartz Glass Pyramid Heaters get major marks for aesthetics, but are only average at heating a patio space. Additionally, these units tend to be on the costly side, which is a downer.
Pyramid heaters will project heat out about 5′ or so of the heater, usually.
- Looks awesome
- Typically easy to use
- Puts out some heat
- Structure stays cool, so these can be used on wooden decks or patios
- Heat output is marginal
- Propane can be a hassle
More Information: Pyramid Patio Heaters
We should note that some companies make tabletop pyramid heaters, which could be a useful alternative to full sized pyramid heaters.
Gas Pole Heater
Gas pole heaters aren’t going to win any style awards, but they are among the most useful patio heaters available. These units typically put out between 35,000-40,000 BTU of heat, and it is radiated out from the unit in a more effective manner than a pyramid heater. This results in more heat getting to those around the heater than what a pyramid heater can produce.
These units will usually heat those within about 7′ of the unit, which is pretty good.
- Puts out great heat to a sizable area
- Easy to manage, small footprint
- Most effective for those who will be standing
- Relatively inexpensie
- Nothing special to look at
- Have to deal with propane tanks
- Ignition can be a struggle at times
More Information: Gas Patio Heaters
These heaters are also frequently available in tabletop heater size, which can be quite helpful.
Ethanol fireplaces can provide attractive ambiance at at least some heat to those outdoors. They also burn with the most environmentally friendly fuel available, which is a nice feature. Unfortunately, they tend not to put out that much heat, and are as much for looks as they are for heat in many cases.
Large units may put out enough heat to be useful, but these units will burn through fuel rapidly, which may be expensive.
- Clean burning
- Easy to use
- Environmentally friendly
- Use both indoors and outdoors
- Many interesting formats
- Low heat output
- Fuel is expensive
More Information: Tabletop Ethanol Fireplaces, Ethanol Fireplace Inserts
Wall Mounted Infrared Electric Heater (110v)
Infrared electric heaters typically plug into a standard 110v outlet, and put almost universally put out 1,500 Watts of heat, or a little over 5,000 BTU of heat. This heat directly heats objects, as opposed to the air, and is not impacted by wind, unlike other types of heat.
These heaters are generally pretty weak, and the heat they emit is accompanied by a reddish-orange glow, depending on the manufacturer (think french fry heat lamp). This glow may be a negative to those looking for aesthetics in their outdoor environment, so keep that in mind. These heaters also only heat those within a few feet of their element.
On the plus side, they simply plug into a standard outlet, and require no messing about with fuels at all. They heat in a 4-5′ range around the heater, in a directional manner.
- Ideal for locations against walls or ceilings
- No messing with fuels
- Plug and play operation
- Can be used both indoors and outdoors
- Don’t put out a lot of heat
- Glow can be unsightly
More Information Wall Mount Electric Patio Heaters
Infrared Electric Pole Heaters (110v)
Electric pole heaters function similarly to wall and ceiling mounted electric heaters. These heaters use infrared electric heat, and plug into a standard 110v electric outlet. There’s no need to worry about fuel… but these heaters don’t generally put out a large amount of heat.
They are fairly easy to deal with, but are simply not very strong. They also can put out a significant glow, which may be a negative to some.
Depending on where you want to locate your pole heater, you’ll need to consider where your outdoor electric outlets are.
These units can be attached to extension cords, but the cords must be heavy duty grade cords [Amazon Link], and typically only one heater will be able to run on a circuit at a time.
Typically these will heat those within 3-4′ of the heater, in a directional manner.
- Easy to use
- No need to worry about fuel
- Inexpensive to run
- Can be used both indoors and outdoors
- Does not emit much heat
- Glow may be unsightly
More Information: Electric Pole Heaters
These are also available in tabletop heater format, which may be useful in situations around a table. Additionally, these heaters are available in umbrella patio heater format, and attach to a standard patio umbrella. This design is pretty clever, and we definitely recommend checking these out.
Natural Gas Pole Heater
Natural Gas powered heaters are very similar to propane heaters, and in fact, many propane heaters can be converted to run on natural gas pretty easily, by swapping out the regulator for a natural gas regulator. However, you’ll need a natural gas hookup in the vicinity where you plan to put your heater, and that will require a costly visit by your local plumber.
On the plus side, once the natural gas line is in, you’ll never need to worry about switching out propane tanks, getting them refilled, etc. The natural gas system is very simple, and the lack of hassle is significant.
These heat very similar to propane patio heaters, and will heat those within a 7′ or so radius.
- No dealing with fuel
- Very easy to use
- Puts out great heat
- Once installed, cannot really be moved
- Requires costly visit by a plumber to set up gas line
More Information: Gas Patio Heater
Conclusion: The Best Patio Heater
In this article, we have covered most of the major types of outdoor heater available, and we hope we have given buyers some context as to what heaters work best in which environments. Consider the pros and cons of the type of heat you’re looking for, and keep in mind the heat output needed, and the type of environment you’ve got. Once you have all that determined, pick out the best type of heater for your needs.
As we said in our opening paragraph, if we had to pick out one general best patio heater that would be most useful to the widest range of users on the market, we would have to point to the Fire Sense 46,000BTU Propane Patio Heater [Amazon Link]. This heater ticks all the right boxes, it’s easy to use, puts out a good deal of heat, can be moved where it is needed, looks acceptable, and is covered under a nice warranty. It’s a great choice for many.
However, your needs may differ, and we hope that with this guide you will find the perfect heater for your needs!
- 46, 000 BTU output
- #304 commercial grade Stainless Steel
- Durable Stainless Steel burners
- Tip over protection system
- Weighted base for stability
Last update on 2020-03-31 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API