Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.
There are different types of patio heaters, and they’re distinguished by their fuel source: electricity, propane, or natural gas.
Models that use electricity from manufacturers such as Fire Sense and Thermoflow are either wall-mounted and hardwired like a light fixture or free-standing and plug into an outlet. They’re typically controlled by a thermostat. They don’t emit smoke or the smell of burning propane, but they still need airflow on all sides, about a foot in each direction away from anything that might catch fire.
They’re priced from about $200 to more than $1,000, depending on how many watts of power they consume and the area they can warm. The more powerful hardwired units pull 6,000 watts, keeping about 300 square feet toasty.
Propane heaters from manufacturers such as Dyna-Glo and Hiland often have hollow bases that hold a 20-pound fuel tank, like you’d use for a gas grill. These models are usually tall, free-standing, and umbrellalike. They often have wheels on the bottom, making them easier to move around the patio. The larger ones, like those made by Lava Heat Italia, can be up to 8 feet tall and crank out up to 66,000 Btu, which means they can heat about 36 square feet for about 12 hours.
Gas units often require more air space around them, about 3 feet in every direction. That size is on the higher end of the price range for this category, at just shy of $2,000, but there are smaller versions that use camp-style 1-pound propane tanks meant to rest on tabletops. Those heaters can cost less than $100.
Natural gas-burning heaters from brands such as Sunglo work the same way as the propane variety, but with a slimmer look. Gas is carried to them through a pipe. They’re easy to use, but they have more permanent fixtures that are harder to adjust as your seating needs change because they thread into rigid gas lines.
The natural-gas burning and hardwired electric versions require professional installation; other heaters are mostly plug and play. Propane and plug-in electric heaters can be placed on your patio or other noncombustible stable surface, and turned on. Like an indoor space heater, these have a dial that lets you adjust the heat level. With propane versions, lowering the heat can extend how long the tank can burn.
If you plan to use a patio heater on a wooden deck, read the manufacturer’s recommendations first. They often call for a flat, hard, noncombustible surface. Never leave it unattended, and always have an adult nearby when children and pets are around. With a narrow base and top-heavy design, they can tip easily, and they’re not the best fit in the middle of a lumpy lawn or uneven gravel patio. On windy days they’re far less efficient, too. If you use more than one plug-in electric version, you’ll want to check that your home’s circuits aren’t overwhelmed.
Linear electric heaters can be permanently mounted to the underside of a covered surface provided they still have the manufacturer’s recommended amount of airflow around them. They can be more expensive than those that run on gas, but you can flip them on and off with a switch without worrying about running out of fuel.
Shorter tabletop propane versions might be all you need for an intimate dinner outside. Like hardwired electric versions, natural-gas models are more of a permanent installation that will require a plumber, though they work as effortlessly as an indoor gas fireplace.
Without the danger of a roaring flame, it can be too easy to have a false sense of security around patio heaters. But their heating elements get red-hot and can burn skin or ignite flammable materials that touch the heater, like a wind-blown paper napkin or clothing.
Because the gas-burning models produce carbon monoxide, they should never be used inside. Vigilance, even when there isn’t a flame, is important. “Eighty percent of all fire deaths occur in homes,” says Susan McKelvey, communications manager for the National Fire Protection Association. She says part of the reason for this high percentage is that many homeowners think they’re safe and feel certain it won’t happen to them.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2020, Consumer Reports, Inc.