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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:


Brand

Endless Summer™
FireSense®
Arctic Sun™
BackHome®
FirePole®
Sun Glo
Homestead
Dayva™
Patio Plus
Patio Comfort™
Zubri


Company

Uniflame/Blue Rhino
Well Traveled Imports
Arctic Products LLC
The Coleman Company Inc
Whalen Manufacturing Co
Infrared Dynamics Inc
Grand Hall Enterprise Co, Ltd
Dayva International
Easy Radiant Works
AEI Corporation
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 CSA certification.

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 costs.

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 d├ęcor. 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 at kalan@nobetterstuff.net Some of the products he manages can be found on our Patio Heaters page.

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