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Do patio heaters really keep decks warm in winter?

Cold, snow, wind? We’re game

Outdoor patio during winter months covered in snow. Credit: Getty Images / artist-unlimited

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A January 2021-released study on the importance of outdoor living spaces during what has become a pandemic era found that 90% of Americans consider their outdoor living space more important than ever before.

The reason? Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of the American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA) and executive director of its outdoor division, the International Casual Furnishings Association (ICFA), says, “In normal times, outdoor spaces are areas of recreation for ourselves and our families, yet today, we need them for restoration for our bodies and minds.”

The research, conducted among 1,000 nationally representative U.S. adults ages 18 and older by Wakefield Research on behalf of AHFA and ICFA, also determined that outdoor space function is as important as aesthetics and ambiance.

As temperatures drop, outdoor heating allows continued function of exterior spaces. And, unless residing in one of the states where winter temperatures can plummet well below 0°F, consumers can expect outdoor heating systems to provide adequate warmth.

Bryan Molina, vice president of operations, Irvine, Calif.-based AEI Corporation, which is both a supplier and a manufacturer of a variety of outdoor heating systems, says, “Most outdoor patio heaters are designed to produce infrared heat, which heats objects and mass. They do not work like conventional heaters, such as forced heating, where you are controlling the room temperature.”

He notes that some misunderstandings of outdoor heaters are that they will change the temperature of an area versus that the patio heater provides some comfort when standing near the infrared heat rays.

“Infrared heat works like the sun,” says Molina. “The longer you stand in the sun the hotter you will feel. The farther away from the heater, the less heat you will feel. Most outdoor heaters can provide a comfort change of 5°F to 10°F.”

David Vetter, a vice president at Transblue, an exterior construction company based in Seattle, Washington, adds, “It can be snowing outside, and you will still enjoy a conversation near a heater and be relatively comfortable.”

The only main “enemy” of patio heat is wind, says Vetter. “It can be a mild evening, but when a strong breeze begins, your heater will be rendered almost useless.”

Heating options vary

Metal outdoor patio heater with lit flame inside.
Credit: Getty Images / skyNext

While an open flame can be more desirable due to its visible heat source, the pricey install and safety hazards could be discouraging.

When it comes to keeping your patio or deck warm, there are so many choices. But, what is best?

Heating systems extend the use of patios, decks, and porches, etc. Yet, with the wide variety of outdoor heating systems currently available to consumers in the marketplace—from small plug-in space heaters to industrial strength installed systems to tall stand-alone units—determining what is right for a residential exterior space can be a daunting, confusing mission.

Benefits and drawbacks exist regarding each type of outdoor heater source, whether you’re using gas, electric, propane, or wood.

Some electric heaters give off an orange glow, while others present no light source. And, because they put out heat but not a flame, they are considered a safe bet. Electric heaters can be expensive to purchase and operate, depending on make and model, and an electric outlet and cord is required—unless an electrician installs the system.

When it comes to natural gas and propane, fuel transforms fire into infrared heat and this type of heating source outdoors is often desired because there is a flame, unlike electric heat. If an area is not already plumbed for natural gas, however, installing a line can be pricey. And, although propane is relatively inexpensive, purchasing new tanks or taking tanks to a site for refilling may be bothersome.

A flame can also pose safety issues, and National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) report reminds consumers to realize that proper ventilation in an outdoor space is necessary when using natural gas and propane to avoid carbon monoxide dangers.

For people who want the natural, flaming heat, wood-burning patio heaters, fire pits, and chimineas are often affordable options, but sparks from burning wood present a safety hazard—and cut wood can sometimes be difficult to find and/or expensive to buy.

In general, NFPA recommends consumers read carefully any instructions associated with an outdoor heating product and to always “keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet away from heating equipment.”

Consider what style is best for you

Fire pit with burning logs inside.
Credit: Getty Images / Mila Naumova

Luckily for lovers of the great outdoors, heating options are abundant–enjoy your patio through all four seasons.

Outdoor heaters are designed a variety of ways: to be flush-mounted into the ceiling of a covered exterior space or nearby eaves; as large freestanding units (some of which have adjustable “heads”); as stand-alone towers; as tabletop designs; mounted underneath patio umbrellas; as hanging light-fixture-like components; as fire pits; and more. There are even outdoor bistro tables with built-in heaters.

Molina notes, “There are many reasons and scenarios of why a consumer would choose one over the other. For example, limitations on the source power, mounting height clearances, and cost of installation to name a few.”

Space size matters if you want to stay warm

Group of friends gathered in outdoor space around open fire.
Credit: Getty Images / Anchiy

Working with a limited amount of space? No worries. Find an appropriately sized heat source that works for you.

Shopping for an outdoor heater requires taking into account the size of the exterior space needing heat and the expected number of people who might require warmth.

Vetter says, “My rule of thumb is typically one heater per conversation. I have found that if you have a larger deck or patio, you will want one heater for every spot that people gather in that space. For example, if there is a patio set where people want to sit after dark, have a heater in the center, such as a fire pit, or have a heater behind or between a couple of the chairs.”

Vetter shares helpful, albeit technical information to specifically determine the necessary number and size of outdoor heaters per the space.

“You will need between 40-70 BTUs for every square foot of space you wish to heat, the low range being in warmer climates and the higher number for colder climates,” he says. “It’s very easy math. For example, multiply how long the patio is by how wide the patio is. Length (in feet) by width (in feet) equals the area (in square feet). Then multiply the area times 40. So, for a mid-size 25-foot by 30-foot patio it would look like (25x30) = 750 square feet. Then, (750x40) = 30,000 BTUs needed. Most patio heaters produce between 30,000 and 45,000 BTUs.”

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