Outdoor heaters got their start in commercial establishments, like restaurants, where 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. Free-standing models, which cost between $150 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, priced between $100 and $200, use smaller disposable propane-gas cylinders or, in some cases, can be hooked up to a large 20-pound canister. However, these smaller models are less powerful, producing about 10,000 Btu of heat as opposed to 40,000 or more. Thus, you'll need to be within a few feet to feel their warmth -- and because they sit on a table, they can only warm your head and shoulders while you're seated.
Tabletop propane heaters also need to be secured to the table, often through the hole that holds the patio umbrella, to keep them from being knocked over. One plus of tabletop models is their portability. They can move around a patio and even be carried along for tailgating or camping. Despite this perk, however, we did not find any current tabletop models with strong positive feedback from users.
Propane patio heaters are not the only option for warming an outdoor space. Another popular choice is an outdoor fireplace (or fire pit). Most are designed to safely contain a log fire, either of cut wood or quick-lighting pressed-wood logs. They range from simple metal bowls with legs, costing as little as $80, to elaborate structures upwards of $500. Some outdoor fireplaces actually burn propane or natural gas rather than wood, but their stocky shape and open flame sets them apart from standard propane patio heaters. Those who want to avoid a flame altogether can opt for electric patio heaters, which use either infrared or halogen bulbs to generate heat. These can cost anywhere from $130 to $450 initially, but they are inexpensive to run and eliminate the hassle of either chopping wood or buying and returning propane cylinders.
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. However, electric heat isn't interrupted by wind. And while a brisk breeze can fan the flames in a fire pit, it may also blow smoke right where you want to sit. The editors of Buzzillions.com note that since warm air rises, covering the patio area with a canopy or awning can help retain the heat a patio heater disperses.
Most professional consumer publications do not test patio heaters. Thus, to find the best models, we relied primarily on user reviews from retail sites such as HomeDepot.com, Amazon.com and Hayneedle.com. We looked for patio heaters with good heat output that are sturdy, easy to assemble and use, and include important safety features such as an automatic tilt shut-off, which shuts down the heater if it tips over. We also factored in manufacturer warranties and the quality of customer service.