How Do Patio Heaters Work? Complete Guide


On a cold winter’s night, you still want to enjoy your patio. You could turn to a bonfire, but that can’t get messy. What’s the better option? A patio heater. Cool, sleek, and elegant, they’re the best friend for your chilly backyard. But how do they actually work?

Whether you purchase a fuel or electric patio heater, it will work using a radiant heating method. This allows the heat to be felt throughout the area. The amount of heat that is dispersed depends on the BTUs of the patio heater, so pay close attention to the style and amount of BTUs of the patio heater.

If you’re curious about how patio heaters work, keep reading. This article will explain how patio heaters work and some other interesting information you will want to know.

How Do Patio Heaters Work?

There are two types of patio heaters:

  • Fuel – Fuel patio heaters rely on propane or natural gas to operate.
  • Electric – As you may assume, electric heaters are plugged in and run off electricity.

Typically, natural gas patio heaters are the most popular. This is because they can rely on existing natural gas lines that are typically found in backyards. Natural gas patio heaters burn clean and are easy to maintain. However, they tend to be more expensive and require professional installation. To use natural patio heaters, install, turn on, and indulge in warmth.

Propane patio heaters are another option and tend to work quicker than other models. They’re also far more portable, so you’re not stuck to a single location in the backyard. The major downside is that propane tanks tend to be more expensive than natural gas. To use a propane patio heater, you will need to purchase a propane tank.

Electric patio heaters are also quite popular as they’re simple to use and do not require professional installation or replacement of a propane tank. Electric patio heaters tend to be a bit more pricey (higher energy bills)  and may be slower than fuel-burning patio heaters. To use an electric patio heater, simply plug it into an outlet and enjoy.

Whichever type of patio heater you have, it will use radiant heating instead of forced air heating. But what exactly is radiant heating?

What is Radiant Heating

Fuel and electric patio heaters rely on radiant heating. This means that heat travels through the air, and you can feel the warmth from across an area.  Radiant heat occurs when a material is heated up to a particular temperature. Then, it emits heat through electromagnetic waves in a specific zone. That’s why you can feel the heat all around you.

On the other hand, forced air heating is when hot air is pushed into the surrounding areas. This type of heating is found on most other types of heaters, such as space heaters. Source: (Energy)

What is Convection Heat?

While most patio heaters use radiant heat to warm your patio, some use convection. A convection patio heater involves electricity being moved throughout a resistor or a material that inhibits an electrical current. It is then transferred into heat energy and moved throughout the space. These types of patio heaters are less energy-efficient than radiant heat patio heaters.

Here’s a great video showing how to heat a patio and the different results between electric and gas heating:

You can find the most popular and highest rated electric or propane Patio Heaters Here (link to Amazon).

What About the Dome Shape?

Take a look at any patio heater, and you will notice they all share something in common – a dome shape. Does this serve a purpose, though? Yes, in fact, the dome construction helps the patio heater to work properly. But how?

The sole purpose of the dome shape is for an even disbursement of heat. With an opening along the sides of the dome, radiant heat is easily dispersed in a horizontal direction, providing heat to your backyard gathering.

How much heat the patio heater actually provides is directly related to the number of BTUs discussed in this next section. Source: (HeatingCoolingHome)

How Much Heat is Dispersed?

How much heat your patio heater disperses depends solely on the BTU specifications. To calculate how many BTUs you need, use this formula: number of cubic feet times how many degrees you want to raise.

For example, if you’re working with a 20-foot space and want to raise the temperature 20 degrees, your calculations would look like this: 8,000 x 20 = 64,000 BTUs. With that in mind, it is important to find the right size patio heater with enough BTUs to suit your needs. Source: (Portable Fireplace)

Here’s a quick walk-through video showing how easy it is to actually set up and use the most popular gas patio heater:

Do Patio Heaters Really Work?

Yes, patio heaters really work, although they are not miracle workers. The most important thing to remember is that how well your patio heater works depends on the size, BTUs, location, and temperature of the area that needs heating.

Be realistic about your needs and calculate the amount of BTUs necessary to avoid disappointment. Most of the time, you can find luck with a single patio heater, especially if it is a small space. However, for chillier climates, two may be more feasible. Source: (SunshineAndPlay)

Do Patio Heaters Work in the Winter?

Yes, patio heaters work in the winter. That’s good news, too, considering that is the most likely time you’re going to want to heat your patio. Keep in mind, though, that a patio heater can only do so much. Trying to raise the temperature by 50 degrees might not be realistic, but raising the temperature by 20 or 30 degrees is possible.

Are Patio Heaters Expensive to Run?

Generally, all types of patio heaters aren’t too expensive to run – unless you’re running them 24/7. The actual pricing will depend on your location and the market. Typically, though, electric patio heaters tend to be a bit cheaper than their gas counterparts. Source: (DesignBuildersMD)

Which is Better Fire Pit or Patio Heater?

Whether you opt for a fire pit or a patio heater depends on your specific wants and needs. Some may want the roasting abilities and ambiance of a fire pit, while others want the ease of use and complete control over their warmth with a patio heater.

Fire pits have the benefit of creating a fun and relaxing environment with a flickering light that is highly enjoyable. They can be used to roast marshmallows or sing songs around. There are also many design options, making a fire pit a more customizable experience for shoppers seeking warmth in their backyard.

Most of the time, though, patio heaters tend to rank higher than fire pits. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Safer than a fire pit (no sparks, flying embers, or open flames)
  • Better temperature control
  • It warms a larger space
  • Lower maintenance and no mess
  • Quicker heating abilities
  • Far more portable

There are some drawbacks to patio heaters, though. For one, you don’t have a whole lot of design choices, and they look more commercial and professional than fun and recreational. They also require a fuel or power source, unlike the fire-needing fire pit.

The cost is the biggest drawback to patio heaters compared to fire pits, though. While you can buy fire pits or create your own to spend even less money, a patio heater requires money upfront and monthly costs. If you’re on a tight budget, you might want to go the fire pit route for a while. Source: (PatioMate)

Final Thoughts

Patio heaters start working right after they’re switched on. While they can use convection heat, it’s more common for patio heaters to use radiant heat to warm up the surrounding space. The amount of heat that is dispersed depends on the BTUs and the location of the patio heater, so keep that in mind while shopping for the right one.

Robert Sampson

I'm Robert Sampson and I live in Colorado where I spend a lot of time in the backyard with my family either grilling, playing games and sports, or working on a project to make our backyard a better place to be.

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