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. Among free-standing propane heaters, the Fire Sense Hammer Tone Bronze Commercial Patio Heater (Est. $130) 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. At 46,000 Btu, it carries one of the highest heat ratings of any residential patio heater.
Owners find that the Fire Sense delivers fast, powerful heat, although a few complain it's not actually capable of warming the full 9-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 more than 630 reviews. At HomeDepot.com, we see a rating of 4.7 stars following more than 90 reviews, with 97 percent of owners offering it a recommendation.
If you can get by with a little less heat, the GardenSun HSS-A-SS (Est. $140) looks like a reasonable alternative. We found the most feedback for this patio heater at HomeDepot.com, where it earns a 4.0-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, around 82 percent of owners say that they would recommend this GardenSun patio heater to a friend.
While we found plenty of feedback for free standing patio heaters, finding tabletop models with strong enough or sufficient reviews from users to recommend proved more challenging. 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.
If a tabletop patio heater meets your needs, one model worth considering is the Fire Sense Propane Table Top Patio Heater (Est. $120). Available in either stainless steel or a hammered bronze tone, this heater puts out 10,000 Btus of heat -- about the most you are likely to find from a tabletop model. User reviews are mixed. We found largely positive feedback at Wayfair.com (4.4 stars based on nearly 55 reviews) and HomeDepot.com (4.5 stars based on 40 reviews), though most of the latter were originally posted at the importer's web site. However, Amazon.com users were decidedly less happy -- 3.5 stars based on more than 110 reviews. Quality control complaints can be seen, as are complaints about the level of heat produced. However, others say that the Fire Sense Propane Table Top Patio Heater works as expected to warm smaller outdoor spaces, and looks great doing so.
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. However, electric patio heaters are less popular than propane models, don't put out as much heat and feedback is more lackluster.
Among electric patio heaters, the 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 35 owners at HomeDepot.com, with around 74 percent saying that they would recommend it to a friend. However, user feedback at Amazon.com is notably lower, 3.1 stars based on 65 reviews.
On the plus side, 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 the heater 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. If that bugs you, halogen electric patio heaters, such as the Fire Sense Table Top Round Halogen Patio Heater (Est. $135), are also available. Feedback is generally more limited than that of standard electric patio heaters, and generally not notable better -- mainly over disappointment over how little heat it can realistically produce. However, for small spaces in moderate climates, it, too, is worth considering.