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, old tire rims 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.
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.
Types of fire pits and patio heaters
Wood Burning Fire Pits
Whether they're plain or fancy, a wood-burning fire pit's main function is to safely contain a fire. Design choices are only limited by your -- and the manufacturer's -- imagination. In this report, we discuss the most popular types of wood-burning fire pits -- freestanding units that are attractive, yet fairly affordable and easy to use. These are somewhat portable so that they can be placed as needed for an occasion or stored away once winter weather sets in. Some are relatively small and lightweight, so they can travel with you when you go on an outing or on vacation. Wood burning fire pits can also be permanently installed, but those are usually part of a larger design plan and are often customized. Fire pit tables incorporate a surrounding metal, stone, glass or ceramic surface that may be large enough to use for holding food or drinks.
Gas Fire Pits
While wood-burning fire pits are inexpensive and versatile, gas fire pits have advantages of their own. Propane-fueled fire pits are easier to light than wood-burning models, they produce less smoke and soot, and you don't need to deal with the ash and debris that remain after the fire is extinguished. They can also produce quite a bit of heat -- some are rated to produce as many Btus as a propane patio heater. However, they tend to be quite a bit more expensive than wood-burning fire pits and are generally not portable, or even very easy to move around. Some, especially stone gas fire pits, are designed to be permanently installed on your patio.
Propane Patio heaters
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 7 feet high and can warm an area within 5 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.
Electric Patio Heaters
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, Lowes.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.