Outdoor Patio Heaters: Meaning, Types, Electric vs Gas Options

Updated: Mar. 18, 2024

A patio heater can make your outdoor living space a year-round gathering place. Learn the basics to determine which heater will best suit your needs.

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Making an Informed Patio Heater Decision

The advent of cooler weather often means we abandon our patios and other outdoor living spaces in favor of cozy indoor spaces. But with an outdoor patio heater, you can turn your spring and summer entertainment areas into year-round outdoor venues for dining, socializing and family fun.

Why Buy a Patio Heater?

If you’ve ever been to a restaurant and sat outside in chilly weather, you probably benefited from an outdoor patio heater. Patio heaters allow you to enjoy your outdoor spaces more months of the year and in more types of weather. In some regions, covered patios, gazebos and open decks can be used year-round with a little help from a patio heater.

Types of Patio Heaters

All patio heaters produce radiant heat, which directly heats the objects — or people and pets — seated near them, rather than heating the air. If you’ve ever used an infrared  or a portable sauna, the effect is similar. Patio heaters are either gas-powered or electric and come in several styles, including:

Gas vs. Electric Patio Heaters

Gas patio heaters are fueled by propane or natural gas. Natural gas ones require a fixed gas line. Some electric heaters can be plugged into a standard electrical outlet, although most require higher voltage.

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of natural gas, propane and electric heaters.

Natural gas heater pros:

  • Never run out of fuel;
  • Inexpensive to operate.

Natural gas heater cons:

  • Suitable only for fixed, wall- or floorboard-mounted heaters;
  • Require professional installation, including attaching the heater to a new or existing natural gas line;
  • Can only be used in well-ventilated outdoor areas.

Propane heater pros:

  • Easy to set-up and operate;
  • Highly portable.

Propane heater cons:

  • Propane tanks run out — without a back-up tank, you’re left out in the cold;
  • Can only be used in well-ventilated outdoor areas with no overhead covering.

Electric heater pros:

Electric heater cons:

  • Most require a 240-volt outlet;
  • Can be expensive to operate, depending on utility costs in your area.

How Well Do Patio Heaters Work?

That depends on how much space you need to heat, and to what temperature. Heater strength is measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units). The higher the BTUs, the larger the space the heater will heat.

To determine how many BTUs or how many patio heaters you need, measure the cubic footage (length x width x height) of your patio or covered porch. (If your patio is uncovered, you’ll want to heat to a height of about seven feet.) Then consider how cold it gets where you live versus your desired temperature for the patio. For example, if it’s 45 degrees F and you want to heat the patio to 75 F, your desired temperature increase is 30 degrees. Multiply the cubic feet total x 30, and that’s the number of BTUs you need to increase your patio temperature from 45 to 75 degrees.

To put it another way: A 20 x 20-foot patio, heated to seven feet off the ground, is 2,800 cubic feet. Times 30 degrees, it requires 84,000 BTUs, or roughly two of these propane patio heaters to heat the entire area.

Patio Heater Cost and Maintenance

Outdoor patio heater prices vary widely based on size, style, fuel type and BTUs. A basic wall-mounted electric heater can be purchased for less than $100, while portable propane heaters start at around $400. Wall-mounted natural gas heaters are among the most expensive options, starting at around $1,500.

Maintaining an outdoor patio heater is not complicated. If the heater is portable, store it in the garage or other dry space when not in use. If you leave it on the patio year-round, consider keeping it covered in warmer months. Whether portable or wall-mounted, give your patio heater a cleaning at the start and end of every season and it should work well for years.