Extend the Summer with Outdoor Heaters

Associated Expert

Ready to put the patio furniture away for the year? Not so Fast!

Many of us assume that once the cold weather hits, it's time to take life inside. No more dinners al fresco, quiet talks under a starry sky, or cocktail parties around the patio, right? Before you stow that chaise lounge away for the winter, imagine how nice it would be to sit outside staring up at the stars, cozy and warm on the coldest night. Crazy? Well, between gas, electric, and instant firepits, you'll find that heating your outdoor space has never been easier, with options from quick and portable to permanent and efficient.

Before deciding the size and type of heater you need, think about where and how you'll be using it. Is there a single space such as an enclosed patio, garden bench, or arbor that you wish to heat all the time? How many people do you estimate will be utilizing the space on a regular basis? The answers to questions like these will help you better assess your outdoor heating needs before you make your choices.


Heaters (like home heaters and air conditioners) are measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units). More BTUs means more heat, a larger coverage area, and ultimately, larger heating bills. For a typical patio, look for a heater with at least 25,000 BTUs, more if you live in a very cold climate or if you need to heat a large area.

BTUs are the same, whether they're generated by an element burning gas (like natural gas or propane) or radiant coils powered by electricity. The higher the BTUs usually the higher the cost, so be sure to accurately assess your space and how much heat you'll need. The average rule of thumb is at least 10,000 BTUs per 200 square feet of living space.


Much like the heaters you've seen at many outdoor restaurants, permanent heaters typically offer greater efficiency, higher outputs, more rugged designs, and lower operating costs. Plus, with some thoughtful mounting, you can keep the heater from dominating your outdoor space. There are a number of great portable options as well which we'll discuss a bit later.

Gas or Electric?

There really isn't much difference between the types of heat sources, though gas-fired burners are certainly noisier than the silent radiant electric heaters. Certain fuel types are definitely more expensive than others. For most parts of the country, natural gas will be the cheapest source, followed by electricity, then propane.

Electric heaters offer the convenience of never running out of fuel (except in a power outage), and although they can be more expensive than most, they are fairly cheap to operate. Their primary drawback is that they need a source of AC power and will usually need to be mounted.

Electric heaters are great choices for covered outdoor spaces that get regular use and have an outlet nearby. Most electric outdoor heaters work through "radiant" heat which warms people and objects rather than just the air. Radiant heat is ideal for areas that are closed off from most wind and rain as 'vented heat' (i.e. non radiant heat) options can dry out the surrounding area and make the space rather uncomfortable. And because radiant heat works on electricity, there are no dangerous gases or fumes that can accumulate. These heaters come in a wide variety of options from 'box' heaters that direct heat to a specific area to 360 degree heaters that, when centrally mounted, disperse radiant heat in all directions.

Going Gas?

A permanent gas heater is terrific, but it will need to be plumbed-meaning connected to a permanent supply of natural gas (like that used for you water heater or stove). While it can cost a few hundred dollars to have a line run to an outdoor area, the ongoing cost of operating a natural gas heater is surprisingly low even with high fuel prices. Most permanent gas heaters should be professionally installed. If you decide to do this project yourself, be sure to thoroughly review any manufacturer warnings and recommendations for placement and installation.

Fire It Up!

Wood-burning firepits, or fire-rings, are also a beautiful option for permanent locations. While there are "portable" firepits, our experience is that once they're in place, they tend not to be moved. Typically made of cast iron and available in variety of sizes and designs, fire-rings are invariably heavy and dirty.

Safety Check!: Never install a firepit in a completely enclosed patio. The heat and fumes that can be emitted from the fire can be deadly and should always have the ability to escape into the atmosphere.

Chimineas, or freestanding fireplaces, are also handsome choices and can add a rustic touch instantly to an outdoor space. Chimineas look great, but keep in mind they don't generate a lot of heat and you don't want to install one on a wood deck or porch (hot embers!) but they are versatile and come in a dozens of materials and styles. Price range from $250-$1000 or more.

JANE TIP: Now nothing beats the glow of a real fire, but before you take this route, ask yourself how committed you are to stocking wood, hauling ashes, and tending fires. If you've got a fireplace inside the house, think about how often you use it. If you're unlikely to use your fireplace inside, you're probably even less likely to use one outside.


Portable heaters are popular and relatively inexpensive. Fired by propane (like a gas barbeque grill), they're perfect for plopping a heat source exactly where you want it. They'll cast a radius of heat about twenty feet wide, with a radiant canopy that allows guests to stand beneath it. They can be somewhat noisy and a bit unwieldy to move around (some can weigh up to 100 pounds), but they offer relatively low cost, versatility, and can be brought inside when the weather turns extreme. Figure on spending between $150 and $500. Look for electric ignition, temperature control, an aluminum radiator element, and a safety switch that automatically shuts the unit off if it tips over.

You'll also find smaller, tabletop models offering considerably less heating power-and lower price. They offer flexibility and portability, but you will pay a premium in operating cost since you'll be buying small fuel bottles frequently. Well-made units start at about $100. But they're perfect for cozying up that perfect outdoor dinner for two.

Keeping the Glow Alive

Most outdoor heating models require minimal maintenance, aside from keeping them clean. But, no matter which model you choose, no heater should be left unprotected in the worst of winter. A cover is a good investment for both portable and permanent models as is mounting under some sort of protection from the rain.

They're no denying that heating an outdoor space on a cold night will boost your energy bill. So it's a luxury for sure. But it can also be a way to enjoy your whole home, all year round. The romance of entertaining outside on a starlit night, laughing off the winter chill, is a luxury you may just find worth every penny.

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