What heat source is best for your outdoor space?

outdoor firepit

On days when the thermostat dips, the best way to avoid getting chilly outdoors is with a decent heat source. There are several things to consider when deciding which type to use, and which will be most effective in your space. Here is a primer for determining how best to stay warm when the weather isn’t quite on your side.

Safety First

Before you buy (or build) anything, always consult your local laws, regulations, homeowners’ association and fire codes with regard to the types and sizes of heaters, fire pits and fire tables you are allowed to use.

All heaters, fire pits and fire tables shown here should be used outside.

Make certain your heating source is constructed of fire-proof, CSA-certified materials, and always read the manufacturer’s manual as it will provide the best installation and safety instructions. Also, have fire safety equipment nearby, including a fire extinguisher, a bucket of sand, a fire blanket and fire gloves.

Seating near any heating source should be sturdy, able to withstand the heat, mobile enough to move when needed and positioned far enough away for safety. Make sure the area is well ventilated to avoid the buildup of potentially dangerous smoke and fumes.

Natural gas is delivered through a utility line (available in certain areas) and should only be installed by a professional. Fuel lines, either for natural gas or external propane tanks, should be properly and safely secured and positioned so they aren’t a trip hazard or accidentally disconnected.

Clean and maintain your heat source on a regular basis to keep it running safely and efficiently. And, finally, when your heat source is not in use, a good, properly fitting cover will help protect it from the elements.

How Hot Will It Get?

Fuel-based heat is often measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units). The greater the BTUs, the more heat that is put out and the larger area it will warm. Generally, 30,000 BTUs will warm a radius of 5 to 8 feet, 50,000 BTUs about 8 to 10 feet, and so on.

Electric heat is typically measured in watts, but you can convert it to BTUs by multiplying it by 3.41 (so a 5,000-watt heater would put out approximately 17,050 BTUs). The surroundings and wind conditions also affect heat distribution, with large walls or solid fences reflecting heat or strong winds blowing most of the heat in one direction.

copper fire pit

Wood-burning Fire Pits

Fire pits are the most rudimentary heating source and, depending on the style and construction, usually the least expensive. They offer a romantic flickering glow, plenty of heat and a naturally smoky aroma.

Constructed of durable outdoor, fireproof materials – typically metal, stone, fire bricks or concrete – fire pits sit on the ground or on a fire-safe surface such as stone, brick and concrete. Never place on a wood deck.

Due to the nature of fire and open flames, you’ll need to make sure the fire pit is outside in an open area, well away from buildings, trees and overhangs. It’s a good idea to use a mesh fire screen to contain sparks and keep the ground and seating from igniting.

The area the fire pit will heat depends on the size of the fire, so you’ll want seating to be mobile enough to get into the warm spots and out of the path of blowing smoke. The bigger the fire pit (and the fire) is, the more people and spaces it will keep warm.

Fire Tables and Gas Fire Pits

A fire table typically sits higher off the ground – as low as a coffee table or tall as a dining or bistro table – and has a rim on which drinks or plates can rest. A gas fire pit works the same way but usually doesn’t have a place to set drinks or house a propane tank. Both provide even, radiant heat and can be enjoyed in a more intimate arrangement.

These can burn natural gas, propane or ethanol, depending on the construction and connection type. Propane will typically offer the most heat and BTUs, about twice that of natural gas, which burns a bit cleaner. Natural gas will provide a constant fuel supply, while a typical 20-pound propane tank will last approximately 8 to 12 hours, depending on the BTUs. Ethanol is smokeless and the most environmentally friendly fuel source but provides the least heat.

Special conversion kits allow many fire pits and tables to be converted from propane to natural gas – or from natural gas to propane – but check your specific product’s manual to be sure. Depending on the size and construction of the fire table, a propane tank may either be housed inside the base of the table or near the table (such as under a tank cover that could be used as a side table). And, depending on the construction, fuel is ignited using either a battery-operated button that creates a small spark or an external source such as matches or a lighter.

With many, fuel flow may be regulated using a knob, so seating can be positioned fairly close. Some fire tables and gas fire pits may be OK to use on a covered patio, as long as the surrounding area has the proper ceiling height, ventilation and flooring (as determined by the product’s manual, local laws and regulations). To be safe, we recommend they always be used outside in the open, on a fire-safe surface and away from flammable surfaces such as wood and rugs.

Patio Heaters

Patio heaters are designed to provide even, radiant heat and – especially those with wheels – are often intended to be moved so they can provide heat where you want it most.

Most freestanding patio heaters run on propane or electricity, while mounted/stationary patio heaters can run on natural gas, propane or electricity. Propane and electric heaters are easier to relocate because the propane tank can be moved, and you can use another electrical outlet, making them  more versatile than natural gas heaters, which are tied into a utility line. Most heaters have a safety automatic shut-off valve that will turn the heater off if it gets knocked or blown over.

Patio heaters typically use heated coils and glass or metal diffusers that evenly distribute heat. Tall heaters often have a domed, metal cap that reflects heat down, while horizontal, hanging or mounted units are designed to focus heat toward a specific direction.

They can be used outside either in the open or, if designed for it (such as electric heaters), under a non-flammable covering and away from flammable objects such as rugs and cloth chairs. The propane and natural gas heaters we offer are meant to be used only outside, in an uncovered area.

Warm It Up

Now that you’ve determined the best type of heating source, explore our selection of fire pits and tables and patio heaters to find the perfect fit for your space.