Updated March 2015
For those slightly nippy spring, fall and occasionally summer nights, a patio heater can make hanging out in your outdoor spaces more enjoyable. A fire pit can do the same, or just add some wonderful ambience. But whether you want a fire pit or a patio heater, there are lots of things to consider, including design, fuel type, heating performance and more. Our editors look at expert advice and compare user ratings from a variety of sources to identify patio heaters and fire pits to extend your enjoyment of the great outdoors.
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Red Ember Bronze Crossweave Firebowl Fire Pit
Red Ember Bronze Crossweave Firebowl Fire Pit

Best wood-burning fire pit

The Red Ember Bronze Crossweave Firebowl Fire Pit gets terrific feedback from owners. Positives include attractive, classic styling; easy assembly: large capacity and durable construction. Extra features include a steel mash spark guard, a fire poker, and a PVC cover to keep it safe from the elements. There's even a grill grate for outdoor cooking.
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Landmann 28335 Big Sky Stars & Moons Fire Pit
Landmann 28335 Big Sky Stars & Moons Fire Pit

Best value wood burning fire pit

The Landmann Big Sky Stars & Moons Fire Pit's cute cut-out designs make it a popular choice with owners who want to decorate their patio with a whimsical flair. You'll need to budget an extra $25 for a protective cover if you plan to store the fire pit outdoors between uses, but it comes with a spark guard and a grill for outdoor cooking fun. This version features stars and crescent moons; wildlife and western themed cut outs are also available and all get great reviews as well.
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Blue Rhino GAD860SP
Blue Rhino GAD860SP

Best propane fire pit

The Blue Rhino GAD860SP provides a terrific blend of style, performance and value. Ease of use is terrific as well, with a battery operated igniter and a slide out tray that makes swapping propane tanks easier. With a rating of 41,000 Btu, it can meet or beat the heat output of many patio heaters. The metal lattice body and multi-color slate tile mantle are classic and classy.
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Heininger 5995 Portable Propane Outdoor Fire Pit
Heininger 5995 Portable Propane Outdoor Fire Pit

Portable propane fire pit

If you want the ambience and fun of a roaring campfire without the nuisance and cleanup of burning wood, the Heininger 5995 might be just what you are looking for. At 19 inches across and weighing just 22 pounds, it's just small and lightweight enough to be brought along on outings to the park or beach (though don't forget you'll also need to haul along a propane tank as well). Tailgaters love it, too, and at a rating of 58,000 Btu, it can take the chill out of a frosty morning. User feedback is ample, and impressive.

Fire Sense Hammer Tone Bronze Commercial Patio Heater
Fire Sense Hammer Tone Bronze Commercial Patio Heater

Best propane patio heater

The Fire Sense Hammer Tone Bronze Commercial Patio Heater gets high marks from users for its fast heating, sturdy construction and stylish looks. The adjustable flame is easy to light, and once you figure out the instructions, owners say assembly isn't too bad either. It's available in lots of color and finish options to fit any outdoor décor.
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GardenSun HSS-A-SS
GardenSun HSS-A-SS

Budget patio heater

Though it's rated for less heat output than some other propane patio heaters, the GardenSun HSS-A-SS draws solid feedback for heating performance and value. Assembly is straightforward enough that poorly written instruction don't get in the way too much. Some report an issue with a balky ignitor, but most say that this GardenSun patio heater meets or exceeds their expectations. One noteworthy negative, at least to some, is that there are no wheels to make moving the heater around easier. It comes in stainless steel.

Est. $130 Estimated Price
Fire Sense Indoor/Outdoor Wall-Mounted Infrared Heater, Stainless Steel
Fire Sense Indoor/Outdoor Wall-Mounted Infrared Heater, Stainless Steel

Electric patio heater

With the electric Fire Sense 02110 Stainless Steel Wall Mounted Infrared Patio Heater there's no flammable material to worry about, no fuel to buy and no noise. Power costs are very low as well, although replacement bulbs can be expensive. On the downside, reviews are mixed and some users say this heater doesn't provide as much heat as they'd hoped -- a common complaint with all electric patio heaters we spotted. This heater comes in stainless steel, but is also available in a black finish.

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Fire pits and patio heaters provide warmth, ambiance

Check out any design- or garden-oriented website or magazine and you can't miss the fact that an outdoor fire pit or fireplace is all the rage. Designs range from the simple and sublime, to the elaborate and expensive. You can buy a simple fire pit for less than $100 -- or even make one yourself out of common household items, such as a galvanized steel wash basin or a recycled drum from an old washing machine. On the other side of the coin, you can spend thousands on a large, outdoor fireplace or fire pit that can light with the touch of a button and will warm a crowd.

Whether they're plain or fancy, a fire pit's main function is to safely contain a fire. Some fire pits are designed to burn either cut wood or quick-lighting pressed-wood logs. Other fire pits burn propane gas rather than wood, casting their flame on glass or ceramic rocks and/or log sets. Design choices are only limited by your -- and the manufacturer's -- imagination. Fire pits can be permanently installed, but those are usually part of a larger design plan and are often customized, or they can be somewhat portable so that they can be placed as needed for an occasion or stored away once winter weather sets in. Fire pit tables surround a central fire pit with a metal, stone, glass or ceramic surface that may be large enough to use for holding food or drinks. Some fire pits are relatively small and lightweight, so they can travel with you when you go on an outing or on vacation. In this report, we discuss the most popular types of fire pits -- freestanding units that are attractive, yet fairly affordable and easy to use.

If warmth is more important than ambience, or you don't desire an open flame, a patio heater is a good alternative -- and a propane patio heater can cost substantially less than a propane fire pit with a similar heat output. Outdoor heaters got their start in commercial establishments, like restaurants, so they could extend the use of outdoor dining areas beyond the warmer summer months. Today, however, these heaters have found new homes on private patios, swimming pool areas and any other place people lounge outdoors. Patio heaters produce radiant energy that heats the objects in their path, rather than the surrounding air. In areas with long cool seasons, a patio heater can make outdoor living spaces comfortable well into fall or even winter.

Most patio heaters burn propane, also called LP gas, from the same kind of refillable tanks used by gas grills and propane fire pits. Free-standing models, which cost between $100 and $300, stand a bit over seven feet high and can warm an area within five to 10 feet of the heater. Smaller tabletop models, which draw their fuel from disposable canisters rather than refillable tanks, are also available. These are priced between $100 and $200.

Those who want to avoid dealing with propane and propane tanks can opt for electric patio heaters instead; these use either infrared or halogen bulbs to generate heat. Electric patio heaters, which can cost anywhere from $130 to $450, are relatively inexpensive to run and eliminate the hassles of dealing with propane, but put out less warmth than most propane models.

Finding the best fire pits and patio heaters

Credible, expert reviews of patio heaters are hard to find, but you can read some good general advice regarding fire pits and outdoor fireplaces at sites such as HGTVGardens.com and FamilyFirePit.com. Instead, we relied primarily on user reviews from retail sites such as HomeDepot.com, Amazon.com and Hayneedle.com to find the best models. We looked for fire pits and patio heaters that are sturdy, easy to assemble and use, and include important safety features. We also factored in manufacturer warranties and the quality of customer service to compile our list of the best fire pits and patio heaters.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Fire Pits: From simple wood burning models to elaborate ones that can produce a propane-fueled blaze at the touch of a switch, these are the fire pits that reviews say are best.

Best Patio Heaters: These patio heaters won't let a nippy night drive you indoors. Full sized, tabletop and electric patio heaters are explored.

Buying Guide: Can't decide between a fire pit or a patio heater, or what type of fire pit or patio heater is best? Our editors discuss the key things to consider to help you find what's right for you.

Our Sources: These are the experts and user review sites we consulted to find the best fire pits and patio heaters. They are ranked in the order of their helpfulness.

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