While fire pits provide heat, their big selling point is the ambiance they lend to an outdoor gathering. However if a solution that provides the most heat on a cool evening is on the top of your priority list, a patio heater is still your best choice. Most propane patio heaters put out as much heat as a propane fire pit, and many produce more, but they generally cost less.
Keep in mind, however, that even a top-rated patio heater has its limits. Patio heaters can make cool weather pleasant for sitting outdoors, but reviews indicate that they're far more effective in mild climates. People who live in the South or on the West Coast are more satisfied with their patio heaters than those who live in chilly northern climates. Windy weather is an Achilles heel for patio heaters: It can make propane heaters harder to light and even disrupt their flames.
Propane heaters come in both free-standing and tabletop versions, but we did not find any tabletop models with strong enough or sufficient reviews from users to make the cut for inclusion among our Best Reviewed patio heaters. Among their drawbacks, tabletop patio heaters are less powerful, producing about 10,000 Btu of heat as opposed to the 40,000 Btu or more produced by the best freestanding models. Thus, you'll need to be within a few feet to feel the warmth from a tabletop patio heater -- and because they sit on a table, they can only warm your head and shoulders while you're seated, leaving your lower quarters still relatively chilled. One plus of tabletop models is their portability. They can move around a patio and even be carried along for tailgating or camping.
Among free-standing propane heaters, the model 60485 Fire Sense Hammer Tone Bronze Commercial Patio Heater (Est. $160) looks to be a top choice. Once you decipher the confusing instructions, the heater is easy to assemble, and the finished product is sturdy and stylish. This model features a hammered bronze finish, but there are bevy of colors in hammered, smooth and wicker-look finishes, as well as versions with an integrated drink table. At 46,000 Btu, it carries one of the highest heat ratings of any residential patio heater.
Owners find that the Fire Sense 60485 delivers fast, powerful heat, although a few complain it's not actually capable of warming the full nine-foot radius claimed by the manufacturer. Still, user feedback is more plentiful and more positive than with most other patio heaters. At Amazon.com, the Fire Sense Patio Heater in its various colors, finishes and options garners a rating of 4.2 stars following nearly 450 reviews.
If you can get by with a little less heat, or are on a tighter budget, the GardenSun HSS-A-SS (Est. $130), looks like a reasonable alternative. We found the most feedback for this patio heater at HomeDepot.com, where it earns a 4.1-score following more than 250 reviews. Its chief drawback compared to the Fire Sense patio heater is a lower Btu rating --41, 000 versus 46,000. Still, most users are content with the heat output. Instead, we noted that those down-rating this patio heater report issues with a balky ignitor. Assembly is described as relatively straightforward, though the instructions are poor enough to be a source of complaints and confusion. Still, nearly 85 percent of owners say that they would recommend this GardenSun patio heater to a friend.
Electric patio heaters are less popular than propane models, and don't put out as much heat. Feedback is generally lackluster, but if you don't want the hassle of dealing with propane or a flame that can be extinguished if the wind kicks up, electric patio heaters provide instant, reliable heat at the flick of a switch.
Among electric patio heaters, the model 02110 Fire Sense Indoor/Outdoor Wall-Mounted Infrared Heater (Est. $145) looks to be worth considering despite only so-so and somewhat inconsistent feedback. This heater gets an overall rating of 3.7 stars from about 30 owners at HomeDepot.com, with around 75 percent saying that they would recommend it to a friend. However, user feedback at Amazon.com is notably lower. Owners appreciate that this electric patio heater is inexpensive to run, produces no fumes and does not involve burning or storing flammable materials. However, they are divided over how effectively it actually heats. Those who have used the heater in an enclosed or covered space generally find it effective, but some users who installed it on an open patio complain they must stand right in front of it to feel any warmth. Another quirk of this heater (and others of the same type) is its vivid orange glow, which some users compare to the heat lamps at a fast-food restaurant.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Reviewed Fire Pits & Patio Heaters: Whether you want to add the ambience of a roaring fire to an outdoor gathering, or just a little warmth, there's a perfect patio heater or fire pit for you. These are some top choices.
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.
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.