PATIO HEATERS – WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?
By Kent Alan
Heating Products Manager
No Better Stuff
SOME PATIO HEATER HISTORY
Are you thinking about a patio heater for your deck or patio? Those cool
days of spring and autumn or slightly chilly summer evenings are keeping
you from enjoying the outdoors, and you are thinking, “I’ve seen those Patio
Heaters, are they any good, or are they just a new fad!” If so, welcome
to Patio Heaters 101.
First off, these patio heaters are the modern decorative units that are
powered by propane or natural gas, have a burner and heating element (emitter)
at the top, and a reflector dome that directs the heat down and out into
a circular pattern, not the commercial units that are directional that you
might see at a construction site.
The concept of a circular radiant heater was first pioneered and developed
by Edward J. Cowan, an infrared appliance engineer, back in the early 1960’s.
The original applications were all commercial, including outdoor restaurants,
cafes, spas and swimming pools. They were complex, expensive, and required
professional installation. In the late 1990’s the outdoor living concept
got into full swing. The first outdoor heating craze got into full swing
with the Mexican clay chiminea, followed quickly by open decorative fire
pits. Next, we saw the first of the modern propane patio heaters based on
the earlier commercial patio heater concepts.
BRAND NAMES AND WHERE TO BUY THEM
Today there are several brands of patio heaters on the market. They can
be found at specialty fireplace stores, garden centers, mass merchandisers,
and on the Internet. The common thread for most of the brands that are available
today is that the importing distributors own each Brand Name, and they do
their own design and engineering work, with each of them holding patents
relating to both their designs and engineering. Almost all patio heaters
are currently manufactured in China.
Some of the Brands and Companies are:
Well Traveled Imports
Arctic Products LLC
The Coleman Company Inc
Whalen Manufacturing Co
Infrared Dynamics Inc
Grand Hall Enterprise Co, Ltd
Easy Radiant Works
Schaefer Ventilation Equipment
WHAT TO EXPECT REGARDING HEATING CAPABILITY
That is enough history and geography! Which brand or model should I buy
and why? Price? Safety? Looks? Warranty? Customer Service? My answers are
yes to all of those questions, but first let us look at propane versus natural
gas, and tabletop versus full size models, as well as standard and residential
versus deluxe and commercial models.
The flexibility of a propane patio heater makes me prefer it to a natural
gas patio heater. You can move it anywhere, take it with you when you move,
and there are many more models to choose. You can also find better pricing
on the propane patio heaters. A natural gas installation also requires a
licensed plumber in most areas.
Buying a tabletop model is great for a small deck or patio, or for a covered
area with limited height. I had a small 5’ by 8’ patio off my dining room
with a covering wood overhang about 8’ high with a small table and four
chairs. A tabletop heater fit my needs perfectly! Unless you are constrained
by size and overhead, a full size patio heater is the better buy. Most tabletop
models run on a one-pound propane tank and generate about 10 to 12,000 BTU’s
of heat, and can run for about 3 to 4 hours on one tank. Most full size
models run on a standard 20 pound propane tank, and generate about 40,000
BTU’s of heat and run between 10 to 12 hours on one tank.
A BTU (British thermal unit,) by the way is a measure of heat. It is the
amount of energy required to raise one pound of water one degree (Fahrenheit.)
The BTU ratings given for most appliances are actually BTU’s per hour. It
is also used almost exclusively in the U.S. with the “joule” being used
in the rest of the world. BTU’s do not mean much to me, probably not to
you either! I know the difference between 20MPH and 70MPH. I know the difference
between 120HP and 400HP. All I know about BTU’s is how warm I am sitting
5 feet away from my tabletop patio heater on a cool night. A tabletop heater
can warm a 5 to 6 foot circle; a full size unit can warm an 18 to 20 foot
circle. However, do not expect too much! At 60 degrees, you could expect
to see a rise to 70-75 degrees. Below 60 degrees, the ability to heat drops
off rather dramatically. Windy conditions also make it harder to heat. At
30 degrees, just go inside!
WHICH MODEL? STANDARD, COMMERCIAL, DELUXE, RESIDENTIAL?
So what is this difference between standard, residential, deluxe and commercial
designations? The marketing people have been working hard to blur the lines.
For the most part, the better models are stronger, heavier, and slightly
larger. They also may have better finishes. They may also have more pleasing
designs that are more complex to manufacture. Most of the standard or residential
designs for example have a canister look to the base. The deluxe models
would have a bullet shaped base, or some other decorative look. More importantly,
look at the weight, and the size of the supporting pole. A light patio heater
(50-60 pounds) is easier to knock over or blow over in a high wind than
a heavy patio heater (70-80 pounds.) I prefer a patio heater with a 3-inch
diameter support pole. Many are only 2 inches in diameter.
So what about extra features? Endless Summer has a commercial model that
has a triple dome reflector. Coleman has a model that has a light incorporated
at the top. Several models have a small “coffee” table around the pole.
My suggestion is to stick with the basics. If you need a table or a light,
find it somewhere else.
SAFETY AND CERTIFICATION
Let us talk a little about safety and certification. First is certification.
None of the patio heaters that I am aware of is currently being sold in
the U.S. without CSA International certification. CSA certification is a
long process, and is accepted in both the U.S. and Canada. If you see a
sticker on your patio heater, requiring a 36-inch clearance above the dome,
but your manual says 18 or 24 inches, that sticker has been required for
As to safety, I am not aware of any patio heaters being sold today that
do not have a safety gas shut-off valve to cut off the propane supply if
the patio heater is knocked over. In addition, every tabletop heater has
been required by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission to have an
ODS (Oxygen Depletion Sensor) to prevent all of us from putting a tabletop
heater INSIDE and using up all the oxygen. Full size patio heaters are not
required to have an ODS shutoff. However, all propane patio heaters should
only be used OUTDOORS. Never INDOORS!
Always follow the instruction manual that comes with your patio heater.
Check for leaks regularly, and always shut off the gas flow at the tank
when not in use. A cover is a nice option to keep the burner unit and dome
clean and free from dirt and debris when not in use.
THE TECHNICAL SIDE
Technology is a completely different subject. I am not an engineer, and
I have tried to understand. However, I must confess, my eyes glaze over
every time I talk to the tech people! I do try, but honestly, I always think,
“say some stuff that I can understand!”
Here is my interpretation: We have a propane gas tank. It is filled with
highly compressed gas in liquid form. When you let it out, it becomes a
gas. Therefore, we need a “regulator” to keep it from coming out too fast.
Then we need some good hoses and stuff to keep it from getting away. Pretty
simple so far! Next, we need a “control system” to set up an ignition, and
a pilot flame, and then a burner, and a heat emitter, the emitter is usually
stainless steel, but some of the deluxe models also include ceramic inserts
that help with heat generation. The heat then reflects off the dome! It
is complex! In addition, safety elements are built in. A piezoelectric device
that is battery driven triggers the pilot light that starts the burner.
A thermocouple device will not open the main gas line to ignite the burner
unless it has been heated by the pilot flame to indicate that the pilot
flame is present. If you are like me, I am glad that there are organizations
like CSA that know this stuff! I just want to get warm on those cool nights.
WHICH ONE TO BUY
OK, now to the easiest part! How do they look? Which one should I buy? Are
any patio heaters better than the others are? I will admit, I am prejudiced,
so, take what I say with a grain of salt. I am partial to FireSense and
Endless Summer, as I have been working with their products for a long time.
However, the other brands that I have seen are all quality products and
it does come down to personal choice.
Uniflame (Endless Summer) is associated with Blue Rhino and has been in
the propane market for many years. They are a great company. Well Traveled
(FireSense) is, to me, the most progressive, they were the first to design
the copper electroplated steel finish that has now been copied by most of
the other manufacturers, and they were the first to use a sectional aluminum
reflector dome to reduce head weight, increase stability and reduce shipping
So which one should I buy? My suggestion is to look around until you find
a design and finish that you like and would fit well with your patio or
deck décor. The easiest way to do that is on the Internet. Do not go shopping
and driving around. You will probably find limited brands and models, as
well as use up a lot of gas and time.
Once you have decided on the brand/model/finish you want, BUY IT ON PRICE!
Prices for a full size patio heater run between $200 and $1,000. For a tabletop
patio heater prices run from $100 to $300. Whether you buy a patio heater
from a local store, a mass merchandiser or on the Internet, every one of
the importing distributors handles technical support, warranty claims or
replacement parts directly. The only other comment I can make is to beware
of “free shipping.” There is no such thing! There are many Internet retailers
that advertise ”free shipping,” but it is ALWAYS built into the price. They
advertise free shipping because it is simpler to run a shopping cart system
without having an integrated shipping calculation method. However, they
just build the maximum shipping cost into their price.
I hope that I have been of some small help. I have had many conversations
with our customers about all the items I have discussed, and thought that
it would be a good idea to put them all together for the benefit of all.
Mr. Alan is a Heating Products Manager for No Better Stuff. He can be reached
Some of the products he manages can be found on our
Patio Heaters page.