Winter is coming…and that means the outdoor patio heating season is now in full swing. What better way to spend time outside with friends sipping a winter IPA than outside on the patio overlooking a snow-white backyard.
This sounds like a good time but can quickly go from bad to worse if you don’t have any way to heat the patio. Your friends will just be shivering in their oversize coats while trying to “casually” sip their beer.
One friend will call it quits and then another and then another before you are left outside alone trying really hard to stop your hands from going numb. In this guide, we’ll go over all the different types of patio heaters so you can sit out and sip one with the boys this winter.
Just as there are many patio heater brands, there are also many different types which are set out below.
Important Patio Heater Buying Considerations
It’s not easy choosing a patio heater. Last year for our first massive house party in the Spring, we needed patio heaters for the patio and backyard tents. We bought a quartz tube freestanding (which is our favorite), a mushroom table-top model and two fire pits.
When it comes to choosing a patio heater, you need to consider the following:
Location: Before choosing the perfect patio heater, it helps to know where you’ll put it. Will it be
Heating direction: As you’ll see below, different patio heaters by design will emit heat different with respect to direction. Some heat downward from above. Some heat outward from the side.
Square footage: Related to heating direction, and probably one of the most important considerations is how much area the patio heater can heat up. This is dictated by heating direction and BTU. The higher the BTU (British Thermal Unit which is a unit of heat. BTU for patio heaters range from under 10,000 to 75,000+), the more area it can heat up. Heating direction and height also matter. If it’s a tube-style freestanding, it will heat outwards 360°. If it’s a wall-mounted, it will heat downward in one direction.
Just so you get an idea of patio heater capabilities, the larger, more powerful freestanding can heat up to 1,000+ sq. ft. which is quite a bit. It goes down from there. Most patio heaters heat 100 sq. ft. to 400 sq. ft. Ours (see my favorite below) heats 400 sq. ft. at full power which is quite a bit.
Outward vs. downward heat: Most restaurant patio heaters, which is what you’re probably most familiar with, heat downward. The heat source is situated above the tables and directs heat downward. While these work just fine, you might prefer an outward-heating option like the freestanding tube heater where heat is emitted outward 360°.
Features: Do you want a heating source that also serves as a table? Do you want to a smaller heater to place on a table? Will you mount the heater to your house? Or do you prefer a large freestanding style that will heat up a large area? Once you know where you’ll put your patio heater, you’ll narrow your options considerably.
Power source: Most patio heaters’ heat source is propane. However, some use the small camping propane bottles while others use the large propane tanks that are used by most full-sized grills.
My Favorite Patio Heater
While I don’t normally inject my opinion in our researched-based buying guides, I am here because we recently bought several patio heating options and the differences are remarkable. In fact, there is only one type of patio heater I would buy going forward unless I had a specific need. The type I would only buy and is my favorite is a quartz-tube freestanding style patio heater as shown below:
A. Types By Design
1. Wall Mount Patio Heaters
What Is It?
Patio heaters that you can install on your wall or on your ceiling are a very good solution to saving space if you have a smaller patio but still want enough room to socialize around. These heaters are typically electric and utilize a kind of infrared heat to heat up your outdoor space. They can be installed by using wall-mounted brackets that allow the heater the flexibility to be pointed up or down. While they do save space, make sure the mounting brackets can fit into your wall. Most drywall and sheetrock applications will be optimal for mounting but if you have exposed brick or concrete as your wall and you have already ordered your heater, then you will have to lay it on the ground as these materials won’t allow for the brackets to mount properly.
Wall-Mounted Patio Heaters: A Brief History
Electric heaters have been around since the metallurgist Albert Leroy Marsh invented them in somewhere around the early twentieth century. Since wall mounting had already been a technology that had already been developed, it’s safe to say these panel heaters were made soon after.
2. Tabletop Patio Heaters
What Is It?
Tabletop patio heaters are ideal, again, for saving space on your patio. If you are just sitting around the table or want to eat outside but it is cold, you can turn the tabletop heater on and have a comfortable experience. These kinds of patios are typically the smallest and come in electric and propane varieties. You will find that the smaller kinds of heaters on this list are powered by electricity while gas powering works for larger models that utilize more energy. Some models have anti-tipping weights to avoid them from toppling over if your guests get a little too rowdy. While tabletop heaters won’t spread the heat around to a large space, they are great for sitting and socializing around a table.
A Brief History
As you can tell, tabletop heaters look like the miniature version of freestanding heaters. These were initially developed as a way to make the freestanding heater a lighter, more portable heating apparatus. Once manufacturers were able to add weighted bases for these miniature patio heaters, they started marketing them by putting them on top of tables.
3. Freestanding Patio Heaters
What Is It?
Probably the most ubiquitous style of a patio heater, freestanding patio heaters are the original model that was developed to ensure heat while outside. Because of this, there are a wide variety of different types of freestanding patio heaters:
A unique design makes the Quartz Tube stand out as a patio heater. While the chief function seems to be the design appearance, it is a great smaller freestanding heater that will provide you with ample room to move about on your patio without it getting in the way. Unfortunately, these do no spread the heat around and are the least efficient in their heating capabilities.
The original style of outdoor heater, the Mushroom style patio heater comes in many different sizes (with some being ideal table-top patio heaters). They are noted for their design efficiency. The mushroom shape allows for the infrared heat, if the heater is electric, to spread out and heat up fairly large spaces from a smaller sized source. While these kinds of heaters are the least expensive to purchase, they can be the easiest to tip over as some models do not have weighted bases.
A Brief History
The beginning of patio heaters really starts with freestanding patio heaters that were initially developed from space heaters that were created to heat a single, small area. They are also currently some of the most common items people use to heat their apartments up with during the freezing cold winters in New York City. By using the same space heating principles, engineers were able to convert a space heater into an outdoor heating unit powered by propane, natural gas, or electricity.
4. Hanging Patio Heaters
What Is It?
A very unique design to an already existing unit, the hanging patio heater is probably the least intuitive but the most impactful device on this list. Instead of mounting your heater on a wall (that could take away space from other essentials like televisions or dartboards) or set it up on the floor or table (that takes away movement space), the hanging patio heater hangs from the wall and brings the heat down from the heavens. We’re guessing you don’t have any planets hanging from your ceiling so the thing that makes sense the most is having a hanging heater. This can be extremely useful if your patio has a hard ceiling roof from which to attach the heater. If it doesn’t, then it might not be the right product for you. Additionally, they require a longer installation time depending on whether or not you’d like to install it on your own or hire someone to do it for you.
A Brief History
Continuing off the electric heater threat, because most hanging patio heaters are electric, these were developed once we had primaryed the wall-mounted patio heater. Hanging heaters were found to be a space-saving solution to the problem of electrical heating.
5. Indoor/Outdoor Patio Heaters
What Is It?
Indoor/outdoor patio heaters operate in that unique space of being able to be heated indoors as well as outdoors. That was as obvious to write as it probably was to read. Nevertheless, these patio heaters are extremely versatile when it comes to how low or how high a temperature they can reach. They are also great for patios that operate in that strange place of being indoors yet not completely not outdoors. While they are great as versatile space heaters, they typically only circulate heat within a small area so you will need to crowd around them to get any valuable heat. The best practice here is to get multiple of these and place them all over the patio. This might cause some obstructions but at least the patio will now be more comfortable.
A Brief History
Take the space heater and bring it outside. That is the brief history of indoor/outdoor patio heaters. Just kidding but on a more serious level, this kind of heater arose out of sheer practicality and were likely the first patio heaters because they were indoor solutions to heating problems that were already working for people. Making the temperature able to go higher for outdoor purposes was a later development in the evolutionary timeline of patio heating.
6. Lighted Patio Heaters
What Is It?
A great addition to the design and look of your backyard, lighted patio heaters can serve two purposes by being that definitive piece of art in your backyard while serving your guests as a wonderful heat source. These heaters come in all different shapes and sizes but are most commonly found in large, seven ft. stainless steel pyramid varieties. As you may have guessed, these are typically used for commercial and restaurant settings so if you are planning to get one for your own home, be sure you have enough space and are ready for the cost it will take to generate the heater. The lights themselves are made from an LED base square with a caged flame sprouting out the top. These are great accessories to have at entranceways to your restaurant or home. They use propane and are the most expensive but if you are aiming for a decorative look, they are well worth the cost.
These lighted heaters came about once LED lighting technology had advanced to such a level where you could add them as screens to the base of the heater. What’s cool as well is that these LED lights change colors so you can have a unique color-changing scheme to match the festive spirit of your location.
7. Umbrella Mounted Patio Heaters
What Is It?
Also known as electric parasols, these patio heaters are the closest relatives of the hanging patio hanger. Like the hanging patio heater, they save space by taking up residence in a place where people will not be bothered by them and are usually run via electricity. Additionally, many are also waterproof so using them during the winter with snow is probably a pretty good idea. They don’t heat up too far so, like the tabletop heater, you need to be sitting around the table underneath the umbrella to get the full impact of the heat that is delivered.
A Brief History
Once mounting heaters to walls and ceilings was a possibility, it only made sense that the next place we could stick a heater on would be underneath umbrellas and parasols. Table umbrella technology has been around for a while so the idea of mounting a heating device to one was not a very groundbreaking idea but was a good idea nonetheless.
8. Fire-Pit Patio Heaters
What Is It?
Sometimes I feel like we use technology for so much that we forget what life was like before it came along for the better (or worse). This brings me to the final type of patio heater and certainly the most original type of heating mechanism in human history. Outdoor firepit patio heating is a very cost-efficient way to heat your backyard during an event. While you can dig up a pit, toss some kindling in and light it on fire, it is probably a better idea to get an actual pit designed to maintain a burning heat source. While you do have a very simple, and easy to use the device in the firepit, sometimes firepits are not the most environmentally friendly and can be a nuisance to maintain, unlike their distant plug and play electric cousins. While they do add a little bit more of a rustic flare, they might require a special installation that is not as easy as it seems.
A Brief History
Where to even begin with this? The earliest pits were dug in the ground by our cavemen ancestors as a way of preventing flames from spreading and alerting would-be predators and enemy tribes of knowing our location. It then developed into a way to control heat sources so we could sleep in the cold winters peacefully (much as we do today).
9. Patio tables with built-in heater
This is actually a very clever table-style patio heater because it emits heat to everyone around the table. As you can see there is no propane. Instead, the power source is electricity.
10. Mobile Patio Heater
Actually, most freestanding patio heaters come with wheels, but they’re still unwieldy. The wheels are tiny and not very strong (ours broke) so you can only move them around the patio and not elsewhere.
However, some patio heaters come with better wheel systems that are designed to be moved around. Here is an example:
11. Smart-Heat Style
As you can with most things in the home, you can now buy “smart” patio heaters which are options that you can control via apps or some other smart control system. Here’s an example. Note the smart options are fairly limited so I’m not sure it’s worth it, but for tech aficionados, it’s an option.
B. By Power Source
There are two types of propane canisters you can use. Smaller patio heaters use the smaller camping style propane cylinders. Larger patio heaters use the large propane tanks. Here are examples of each:
Many patio heaters are powered by electricity. The obvious benefit is you don’t need to mess around with changing propane tanks. It’s also a lot cheaper to run because propane tanks are expensive. It costs me $25 to swap out a large propane tank in our area which means we can spend a couple hundred dollars each summer just heating our patio. Fortunately our grill lasts quite a bit longer per tank.
The downside to an electric patio heater is you need to run a cord from it. Cords on patios aren’t a good mix.
Here’s an example of a popular and fairly popular electric patio heater:
Other heating sources
Most likely you’ll get a patio heater that runs on propane or electricity. However, other heat sources include:
- Natural Gas
- Wood Pellets
C. By Heating Mechanism
And yet another consideration is whether you prefer radiant heat or infrared heat. I prefer radiant heat by far, but you might like infrared.
Radiant heat is heat being directed through space. It’s the more common type of heat for patio heaters. Propane fueled patio heaters emit radiant heat. You feel the heat (unlike infrared technology).
Infrared heaters run on electricity and emit waves that heat your body. You don’t feel the heat (unlike radiant heat) but it warms you up nevertheless. It operates like an infrared sauna. For more details, check out this good article explaining infrared technology.
Here’s an example of an infrared patio heater:
What types of fuel/power sources do patio heaters use?
Patio heaters can use different types of fuel sources. Many require gasoline or propane to operate. However, some can use electricity and other are even powered by solar energy and a battery. Keep in mind that a patio heater is designed to act like a fire. So, most units will use a burning fuel source to provide heat.
You can also purchase electric models and plug them up to an outdoor power source in your backyard area. Carefully running outdoor extension cords from your home to your patio area or shed is another option. You can even use an outdoor generator to fuel your electric patio heater. Solar patio heaters create electricity from the sun and then used stored up energy in a batter to operate the unit.
Are patio heaters safe to be used indoors?
Patio heaters are designed for outdoor use. While you can use them inside of your home, you probably should consider another heating option for this purpose. The problem with patio heaters is that they primarily use a fossil-based fuel source for energy. Burning gasoline or propane in an enclosed environment is a bad thing to do. It’s a sure way to poison everyone inside of your home with carbon monoxide gas.
So, if you decide to use a fuel-based patio heater inside, you would have to open all your windows in your home to avoid the dangerous gases. Even then, you would still risk your family’s well-being. You can use an electric or solar powered patio heater indoors. Keep in mind that the unit will need to be monitored because it gives off a lot of heat. If you have small children or pets this could pose a burning hazard. Ultimately, use a patio heater for outdoors.
Are patio heaters waterproof? Can they be used in the rain?
Patio heaters must be designed to withstand the elements. If they are not, they will not be effective for outside use. Patio heaters are not necessarily waterproof unless they were designed to be that way. However, they can be created to withstand the rain, snow and other forms of outdoor moisture. Even dew or frost are other forms of water and they could ruin a patio unit that could not withstand these elements. Don’t forget that some patio heating units come with coverings and or special casings that protect from excessive moisture.
How much surface area can patio heaters heat up outside?
Patio heaters warm up areas by the number of BTU’s they emit. For example, a unit that produces 1,300 BTU will heat up a 13-foot circle or perimeter. The higher the BTU number, the more heat a unit will emit. There are some patio heater units with a BTU rating of 36,000 or even higher. That is enough heat to warm up a standard home. However, you will not need this much energy for your outdoor area unless you have an incredibly big backyard. Just keep in mind that you should get a unit with a 7,000 BTU – 8,00 BTU rating. This is enough to heat up areas between 0 – 350 sq. ft. which is more than enough energy for most patios and backyards.
Do patio heaters give off light?
A patio heater unit can give off light if it has a flame or if it has been designed with lights. Patio heaters are not necessarily used for lighting. However, since they emit a heat, this means they might give off light. Heating sources typically produce enough heat to give off light. Your patio heating unit will provide light according to how it has been designed.
How do I calculate how many patio heaters I need?
Truthfully, you don’t have to figure this out. Remember, one good sized patio heating unit will provide enough heat to warm your patio area. Now, if you are a person with a lot of property just remember that larger patio heating units will warm up big areas. As a rule of thumb, one patio heater putting out enough heat will do the job. If you want to purchase more than one unit, then get smaller patio heaters that warm up a small area. You should not need more than three or four units for this purpose.
Can I rent patio heaters?
You can rent a patio heater. They will cost between $60 – $300 to do so. You can rent these units from some home depot stores or from hardware stores. Some home gardening stores will rent them as well. There are different types of sizes and units that you can rent to heat up your backyard area.
How do infrared patio heaters work?
Infrared patio heaters use a fuel source to generate energy. Once this energy is created, it is then released into objects and into people. How does this happen? The heat travels through the air but instead of staying there, it moves directly into an object. Remember, convection or air heating units use fans to blow heat into the air infrared heaters simply radiate heat to warm up an object. They don’t put a lot of heat into the air to accomplish this task.
Where To Buy Patio Heaters
You can buy Fire-pit patio heaters at the following stores:
- Lowe’s Home Improvement
- True Value
- Academy Sports
- Camping World
- Patio Shoppers
- Woodland Direct
- Home Depot
- Outside Modern
- Fire Sense
- Patio Living
With winter on its way and the Starks in full battle preparation to face off against the Night King, it will be very important to stay warm. Sure that’s a dated reference to Mr. Martin but you get the idea. Winter is indeed coming and, in some places, is already here. Before you decide on the kind of patio heater to purchase, make sure it will not be an obstruction to your guests and will serve the look and feel of your backyard well. The last thing you want is for some rambunctious house guest to stumble around and knock over the expensive seven feet tall LED patio heater you somehow convinced your family was a good purchase decision. On the other hand, having a very large space but skimping on the cost of outdoor patio heating can spell disaster for your function as guests leave for warmer (and more comfortable) positions inside of the house.
The goldilocks method of figuring out the right patio heater may be a bit of an experimentation process but with patience and this guide, you can easily figure it out. Doing it sooner rather than later can save you many unfortunate nights of wanting to use your sweet outdoor space but not getting the chance simply because it is too cold for you and your friends.