The Outdoor Patio Heaters We’re Testing in Fall 2020
Updated October 1, 2020
In lieu of picks, we have new buying advice that factors in the sparse availability of outdoor heaters everywhere. We’ve also added a new Environmental considerations section.
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Winter is coming—and social distancing is about to get harder. That’s where outdoor patio heaters come in. Historically, these heaters have been most popular in the Sun Belt, throughout the American South and Southwest, according to Bo McMillen, executive vice president of AZ Patio Heaters. “When it gets to be in the 60s, everybody’s breaking out their patio heaters,” he told us over the phone.
The coronavirus pandemic is also changing the appeal of outdoor patio heating in less-temperate regions. That has led to a surge in demand—we’ve heard more requests on this topic than ever before, and we’ve also seen models arriving (and selling out) at retail sooner than in years past.
We began this research in summer 2020 and started testing our finalists in September. It quickly became clear that our finalists could be more helpfully distinguished by type—mushroom-style propane heaters, pyramid-style propane models, electric heaters, and tabletop options—rather than our traditional model-by-model roundup. That’s due to scarcity, as well as some very similar heating performance we’ve already observed within each category. For more details, including the specific models we evaluated, take a look at What you should get.
How we picked and tested
Outdoor patio heaters come in many shapes and forms, from wall-mounted infrared heat lamps to permanently installed fire pits that run on the same natural-gas line as your stove. Seeking something versatile and ready for immediate use, we limited our search to more portable options, which typically rely on one of two heat sources: electric or propane.
Electric patio heaters are pretty much the same as your standard indoor space heater; they even tend to produce about the same power, maxing out at 1,500 watts or the equivalent of about 5,100 British thermal units (Btu). The energy they produce is infrared, which means it works like direct sunlight and gets absorbed straight into your skin and clothes instead of the air around you. And just as with your average indoor space heater, you simply plug ’em into an outlet and flip ’em on, and you should be good to go.
However, electric patio heaters present considerations beyond the standard indoor heater safety practices. Bo McMillen from AZ Patio Heaters recommends an IP Code rating of 55 or higher, which means the unit should be protected from dust and light water sprays. We did find a few decent-looking models that were rated IP 44 (safe from splashing water and solid objects larger than 1 mm, such as wires, slender screws, and large ants). 1 Anything rated lower than that—including any of our indoor space heater picks, none of which are IP rated—is an accident waiting to happen.
Propane patio heaters tend to put out more heat than electric heaters—about eight times as many British thermal units on average. This radiant heat does more to warm the ambient air instead of heating you directly. As the name suggests, this type of heater requires a propane tank. The tank you might have under a grill will do fine, though you may want to invest in an extra tank. Propane heaters are usually made of aluminum or a similar lightweight metal, and they’re often pretty weather resistant in winter temperatures. If you look at the safety data sheet (PDF) of a tank manufacturer like Worthington Industries, for example, most of the warnings focus on excessive heat. Anecdotally, though, we found reports indicating that colder weather can cause some pressure problems for a propane tank, making it appear as if it has less fuel than it actually does.
Unlike electric heaters, however, propane heaters require a bit of maintenance. You should clean them at least once a year (before you put them away for storage at the end of the season) to remove any carbon buildup or other blockages in the burner or pilot area due to bugs, dirt, and debris. Because these heaters create actual fire, some of the parts may eventually start to wear out. “Your emitter screen up top is essentially burning, and then cooling, and then burning, and then cooling. Over time that will deteriorate,” explained McMillen. “If you can’t replace that, then the heater is useless after a few years.” Some companies (including AZ Patio Heaters) sell replacement parts in case anything does go wrong; if you buy an off-brand heater, however, you might have trouble finding parts that fit. Although this kind of maintenance might sound daunting, it means that a good propane heater will prove more resilient over time. (If anything breaks on an electric heater, the whole thing is pretty much shot.)
We specifically looked for models of either heat source that were weather resistant and offered some kind of safety feature such as a tip-over switch, a thermocouple, or overheat protection. From there, we divided our search into additional categories: smaller heaters (for tabletop or personal use) and large models with a wider coverage area (mostly “mushroom top” and pyramid tower heaters like the kind you see at restaurants, plus some heat lamps). We read owner reviews and other recommendations across multiple sites, keeping track of the Btu and wattage as well as the claimed coverage area; we dismissed anything with less than 1,500 watts or 40,000 Btu of power (10,000 Btu for tabletop models) or with a heating area that wouldn’t allow people to comply with social-distancing guidelines.
At first, we didn’t limit our search to any specific price range, but we eventually found that most outdoor patio heaters tended to cost around $100 for a tabletop model and in the $150 to $250 range for a larger one that covers at least 100 square feet. We paid attention to warranty information during our research, too, but we didn’t find any models that were guaranteed for more than a year. And finally, we factored in aesthetics, just to make sure our readers would have options that fit their specific patios and lifestyles.
In order to determine how well these different heaters worked, we followed a similar methodology to the one we use to test space heaters every year. We set up each individual heater on a 100-square-foot walled-in cement patio, with one Lascar data logger placed 3 feet away and another placed 6 feet away. We ran each heater for an hour, and the data loggers measured changes in temperature and humidity every five minutes. As with our normal space-heater tests, we focused our results on the overall changes in temperature; it’s difficult to control the outdoors and isolate every possible variable. We used an infrared thermometer gun to measure the casing, to see how hot it got to the touch after an hour; to see how long each heater retained heat, we let the data loggers continue measuring for another hour after the heaters turned off.
While running these objective tests, we also sat outside with the patio heaters operating, taking subjective notes about how warm they made us feel, what user interface features made one model or another easier to assemble and use, and what it was like to live with them overall.
What you should get
We’ve been testing a dozen outdoor patio heaters since mid-September 2020. Unfortunately, due to stock issues, we weren’t able to get our hands on every model that we wanted to consider for our picks. Even if we did, those models likely would have sold out before anyone else had a chance to buy them. So we’re hesitant to make any specific product picks until we can do more comprehensive testing.
However, we can tell you what we’ve learned so far. Because at this point, if you’re looking to make an immediate purchase for something to use in the coming months, you’re better off buying whatever’s available that fits your circumstances. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of our potential test candidates, which we’ve sorted below in groups by heat source and style. We recommend using this information to guide your purchase based on availability, rather than waiting for one specific model to come back in stock at the right store and at the right time. In the meantime, we’ll keep testing and collecting data on the models we can find, and we’ll continue to update this guide as we learn more.
Mushroom-top propane heating towers
If you’re just looking for sheer heat output, get a 48,000 Btu mushroom-style propane heater (so named because, well, look at them). Some of the most prominent examples include the AZ Patio Heaters Hiland HLDS01-WCGT, the Garden Treasures NCZH-G-KMZMSS, and the Dyna-Glo DGPH202S. Although you can find mushroom-style heaters with lower Btu ratings, we think the main appeal of this style is its raw power; by contrast, pyramid-style propane heaters usually max out around 42,000 Btus. A mushroom heater’s flame is contained within the burner at the top, and the mushroom “hat” serves to deflect the heat downward. Of course, heat rises, and in our testing so far we’ve noticed this can result in some uneven heating. Fortunately, at 48,000 Btus, you’re still getting a lot of heat overall; if you’re trying to social distance, everyone should be comfortable (but some could be overwhelmed).
Because these mushroom heaters tend to produce an inferno, you’ll occasionally need to replace the burner screen. The one on the Garden Treasures NCZH-G-KMZMSS we’ve been testing turned solid black with char after less than an hour of use (although it is still, remarkably, intact).
Most mushroom-style propane heaters come with wheels, as well as some kind of anchor port so you can secure it to the ground or a deck. With a propane tank weighing the base, they shouldn’t tip over too easily, although there is still a risk. Most instruction manuals recommend that you keep at least 3 feet of clearance above and on each side of the heater—otherwise, you could be facing a potential fire hazard. (They also discourage operating these heaters in winds exceeding 10 mph.)
Unlike electric heaters, propane heaters are designed to heat the air around you instead of heating you directly. That ambient warmth can last longer than infrared heat, but it also means you’re competing against and mixing with the outside air.
Although propane is generally considered to be cleaner and more efficient than other fuels derived from petroleum or natural gas, there are still some environmental factors to consider. We’ve dedicated a section of this guide to addressing these concerns.
Pyramid-style propane heating towers
Pyramid-style heaters such as AZ’s Hiland HLDS01 GTHG and the Hampton Bay GSH-A-PC are more attractive alternatives to the mushroom-style models above without sacrificing that propane heating power. In our tests we found these to be the most enjoyable outdoor heaters to sit near overall, even though they weren’t as hot as other propane-powered models.
Sometimes referred to as “glass tube” models, these pyramid heaters contain their fire within a glass tube in the center of their angled structure. If safety is your top concern, this is probably a better option than the top-heavy ignition cages on the mushroom-top models. The glass tube does a much better job of restraining the flame, and the decorative metal grille around it prevents you from touching it anyway. You may still have to clean some occasional carbon buildup, but at least the glass won’t burn and wear out like the metal screens on mushroom-top models.
The mushroom-top heaters can feel like fireballs mounted on a stick, whereas the pyramid/glass-tube heaters just feel nice and don’t get much hotter than that.
Most pyramid-style heaters have a slightly lower heat output than their mushroom-topped counterparts. The AZ/Hiland HLDS01 GTHG clocks at 40,000 Btus, while the Hampton Bay cranks out 42,000; by comparison, most of the mushroom-style heaters we’ve seen and tested put out 48,000 Btus of heating power. At the highest heating levels, you can certainly tell the difference between these power outputs. But the mushroom-top heaters can feel like fireballs mounted on a stick, whereas the pyramid/glass-tube heaters just feel nice and don’t get much hotter than that. This is probably helped by the fact that the flame shoots upward from the center, evenly distributing the heat outward instead of pumping it all out at the top and then trying to deflect it downward. Anecdotally, we found that these models produced the most uniform warmth overall. Of course, we may be biased by the mesmerizing pleasure of watching a flame flicker in a glass tube—which is a pretty cool selling point in itself.
Pyramid-style heaters still rely on propane, however, which means they come with the same caveats as their mushroom-topped cousins: For better or worse, they heat the air around you instead of beaming infrared heat directly at your skin. This produces a more ambient sense of warmth that lasts longer; at the same time, it has to contend with the rest of the cool air around you. This may technically sound inefficient, but you likely won’t notice it in either the moment or the cost. But it is one of several environmental factors that readers should consider before investing in any outdoor propane heating.
Electric heat lamps
Electric heaters are generally easier to find right now; even if you buy an off-brand model, it may very well have come from the same manufacturing plant as a name brand. We tested several, including the AZ Patio Heaters Hiland ZHQ1537 adjustable heat lamp and the EnerG+ HEA-21821SH-T. These typically have much lower heat outputs than propane heaters, maxing out at around 5,100 Btus (1500 watts). But they also produce infrared heat, which beams warm waves directly at your skin (or whatever other object stands in their way), so the heat often feels more immediate and satisfying.
One thing to be aware of: A lot of pole-mounted models, like the EnerG+ HEA-21821SH-T, come with mushroom-style tops to deflect the heat downward (not unlike mushroom-style propane heaters). The outward-radiating heat doesn’t travel very far from the center of these models, so you might find yourself awkwardly huddling around the pole. This is why EnerG+ also makes the HEA-21288LED, which is nearly identical to the HEA-21821SH-T but mounted on a chandelier chain instead of a pole. This makes it easier to gather around. We also like the Westinghouse WES31-15110, which directs its heat blast horizontally rather than vertically. This makes it feel like there’s a lot more heat reaching a lot more people with greater distance (even though that’s probably not technically true).
If you’re shopping for an electric patio heater, you should also pay attention to its weatherproof rating on the Ingress Protection Code (IP) scale. IP 55 is ideal, but as long as the second digit (which refers to waterproofing) is at least a four, you should be fine. (The EnerG+ models we tested are both IP 44, while the horizontal Westinghouse WES31-15110 is rated only IP 24; a person could feasibly stick their fingers inside and seriously injure themselves, but it should hold up against some basic rain.)
Tabletop heaters (propane or electric)
Tabletop heaters are a tricky category. We looked at propane-fueled models such as the AZ Patio Heaters Hiland HLDS032 and the Hampton Bay HPS-C-PC, as well as infrared electric ones like the Star Patio STP1566-BT and the Westinghouse WES31-1566. But between their lower heat outputs and the space they take up on the table, you may ultimately be better off just buying a larger propane heater or an electric heater and placing it nearby.
The electric tabletop models we tested definitely got hot, but the umbrella shape of their lamps meant all that heat was directed downward (not unlike the mushroom-style propane heaters above). This could be great for keeping food warm with one or two other people; but it’s going to be hard to social distance without leaning in to share the heat. Overall, these are fine for raising the temperature a bit, but they probably won’t do much if it gets below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or so. Many of them include a light or otherwise illuminate the table, which is a nice touch.
The propane-fueled models we tested from AZ Patio Heaters and Hampton Bay both require 1-pound propane canisters, which we learned the hard way are nearly impossible to find within the entire Greater Boston area. Paradoxically, this includes Home Depots, where the Hampton Bay models are exclusively sold. That deterrent alone is enough for us to dismiss these. (We did try to use an adapter hose to connect these heaters to our standard 20-pound propane tank, but they wouldn’t stay lit. Perhaps this was because of a pressure difference between the tank types; perhaps there was another problem. The fact that we couldn’t diagnose it added to our frustration.)
If you’re looking for something to help you enjoy a tabletop activity outdoors, we’d recommend looking for a chandelier-style model like the infrared EnerG+ HEA-21288LED. AZ Patio Heaters also makes an electric Hiland heater specifically designed to mount directly to your patio umbrella pole, although we haven’t tested it.
There were several other models that we hoped to look at, including the Dyna-Glo DGPH202SS mushroom-top heater and Dyna-Glo DGPH402SS quartz pyramid heater, but stock issues made them too unreliably available for us to test. We also considered the $1,000 Nova Patio Heater and the $4,500 Lightfire Patio Heater, neither of which appeared to offer any additional features that could possibly justify the price (although they do, admittedly, look nice).
We considered a number of propane heaters that suddenly and conveniently appeared on Amazon in the middle of August, but we dismissed them all without calling them in for testing—frankly, we just weren’t comfortable building combustible fire machines from mostly anonymous entities that offered no customer support or replacement parts. This group included the AmazonBasics Outdoor Pyramid Patio Heater, the BMS 47,000 BTU Commercial Gas Standing Patio Heater, the Garden Sun GS4400BK, the hOmeLabs Gas Patio Heater, the Legacy Heating Quartz Glass Tube Patio Heater, the Pamapic Patio Heater, and the Sunjoy A306006403 Avanti Heater.
The Fire Sense Hammer Tone Bronze Table Top Patio Heater and the Bali Outdoors Portable Patio Heater, both tabletop propane heaters, looked fine. But considering that they offered only 10,000 Btu each, we didn’t think they’d be powerful enough to be worth our while.
The electric/infrared models we dismissed without testing included the EnerG+ HEA-21212 and Ventamatic HeTR H1014, which failed to hit our minimum wattage threshold, and the Air Choice Free Standing Weatherproof Patio Heater HCH-1500, whose listing descriptions were concerningly vague on what exactly its “weatherproof” claims entailed.
EnerG+ also makes an electric heated bistro table, the EnerG+ HEA-1575J67L, which certainly looks neat but was too difficult to compare with any other model we were testing (we couldn’t find it in stock, either).
Finally, we considered some wall-mounted and umbrella-mounted electric heaters, including the AZ Patio Heaters/Hiland HLI-1P, the Dr. Infrared Outdoor Heater, the Muskoka Lifestyle Products SunWave 3000, the Trustech Outdoor Patio Heater, and the Well Traveled Living 60460, but ultimately we decided to focus on more portable outdoor patio heaters.
On the face of it, something seems inherently contradictory about artificially warming the air outside when our entire planet is already warming at an unnatural and unprecedented rate, mostly because of human meddling. Shortly before we began working on this guide in summer 2020, the French government went so far as to ban outdoor patio heaters at restaurants beginning in 2021, citing concerns over carbon emissions. 2
As we’ve mentioned, propane heaters are by far the more powerful option for outdoor heating—a little goes a very long way. Propane also has a lower carbon content than gasoline or diesel fuel, according to the Department of Energy; it has a higher heat content compared with natural gas, so you need to burn less propane in order to achieve the same Btu output. The Environmental Protection Agency considers it a clean alternative to gasoline, diesel, coal, and other similar fuels.
However, propane is produced as a natural by-product of petroleum refining and natural-gas extraction. Though it might be one of the least-worst options when it comes to burning fuel, it’s not necessarily good for the planet, either. If you’re concerned about things like fracking or underwater oil drilling, propane use won’t exactly clean your conscience. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not terrible, especially if you already drive a gas-powered car.
As to whether propane heaters are more environmentally friendly than electric patio heaters, that largely depends on where you live. Again, propane heat is much, much hotter than electric infrared heat, which means you need less energy to produce the same result. So if your electric heater ends up using more energy, and your local energy grid relies largely on nonrenewable sources, your ultimate carbon output might not be that much better than if you’d used a propane heater.
Ultimately, the way you balance your outdoor-heating decisions with your personal responsibility to the planet is up to you and your specific situation. New York City, for example, has discouraged the use of propane heaters at restaurants; with a 70% to 80% renewable energy grid, it makes sense the city would want to incentivize electric heating options. If you’re not pumping heat out all night every night, however, the occasional blast of propane heat for brief outdoor socializing is probably fine.
What matters more is that you’re making an informed decision about your personal environmental impact. That includes considering the fact that more than two-thirds of global emissions are produced by just 100 companies. But you do you.
We don’t know why folks decided to use ants as a metric for outdoor electrical safety, but it may or may not (probably not) be related to the Philip K. Dick story “The Electric Ant (PDF).”
Consider what Thierry Salomon, vice president of the French energy conservation group NégaWatt, told Archyde in January 2020:
“Take a 75 m2 terrace heated by five gas braziers. If you use it 14 hours a day from mid-November to mid-March, your heater will emit 13.6 t of CO2, the equivalent of what a new car would emit if it went around the Earth three times. . As they are exposed to the wind, these terraces consume on average 20 times more heating per square meter than well insulated housing. . In Paris alone, where more than 12,000 terraces are heated, this is equivalent to the annual specific electricity consumption of 220,000 inhabitants.”
Note that this claim is based on natural gas, which produces slightly less CO 2 than propane when burned as fuel but also burns much faster, meaning you need to burn more (and thus, produce more CO 2 and other waste) to achieve the same heating result. But it’s still not a good look. By comparison, the University of British Columbia published a study of carbon emissions from various energy sources required to fuel the heated rooftop patio of a restaurant located in its student union. Although propane produced only about half as much carbon as natural gas or gasoline, it still produced about eight times more carbon than hydroelectric power.We are gathering data on patio heaters from Hampton Bay, AZ Patio Heaters, and other brands, with plans to present our full test results as soon as possible.
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