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The Best Option for Heating your Outdoor Patio this Winter

Winter is here! Well, for most of the country at least. Our office is in California, so we are just starting to see temperatures dip. In a lot of the country, cold weather has been around for a few weeks now. While most of us retreat inside during the colder months, adding warmth to your outdoor spaces can mean comfortable access to fresh air, al fresco dinners, and back yard parties even through the colder months! But what is the best option for creating a warm environment on your patio? In our office, we are split between propane fire pits, wood fire pits, and portable propane heaters, as they each have advantages and disadvantages depending on your preference. 

Wood Fire Pits

Traditional wood fire pits have a lot going for them; they add ambiance and romance, they can put out a lot of heat, and can be very inexpensive. There are usually options at most hardware stores starting under $100. You can even create a DIY pit out of recycled washing machines, a circle of stones, or other fire resistant materials, and this allows you to customize the size of the pit for your space. Wood fire pits are also great for group settings, because everyone can gather around to roast sausages or make s'mores.

There are of course downsides with wood fire pits. To start, they can be a bit messy, requiring that you buy and store wood, make kindling, and clean up ashes from time to time. They require constant attention, both for safety and to make sure you keep adding wood to keep the fire going. You’ll want to make sure you have a fire extinguisher and a bucket of water at hand, just in case! If you’re main goal is outdoor dining around a table, the heat from a fire pit might not reach everyone around the table since it’ll likely be off to the side. They also aren’t a great fit for those with small yards or apartment balconies, as they can create a fire hazard and the smoke can be a nuisance to close neighbors. Speaking of smoke, if you don’t like smelling like a campfire, then this option obviously is not for you!

Propane Fire Pits

Propane fire pits bring together some of the best qualities of wood fire pits and propane space heaters. They still add that level of ambiance and romance by creating a focal piece for everyone to gather around, and there is a huge variety of styles, sizes and designs available, from traditional to ultra-modern. They are much easier to light and extinguish than wood fire pits, so you may be more likely to use them regularly. Propane also burns very cleanly, so you won’t disturb your neighbors with smoke or go to bed smelling like a campfire. You can run many models off of refillable propane tanks, or even have them hard-plumbed to your gas lines for the ultimate convenience.

One of the biggest drawbacks to propane fire pits is simply the cost, a decent model is going to run you several hundred dollars at least, and that’s before you consider connecting it to your main gas supply (which requires a contractor). In our experience, propane fire pits tend to put out less intense heat than traditional wood pits, so they may not be the best option for larger groups or very cold nights. Just like with wood fire pits, propane pits might not put out enough heat to reach everyone around your outdoor dining table. And while you can safely roast marshmallows or sausage over a propane pit, they are usually more decorative and you’re more likely to notice a mess from dripping food.

Propane And Electric Patio Heaters

Stand alone patio heaters come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. You can get stand up propane powered heaters that are easy to move around or store when not in use, or wall mounted electric units that work perfectly under covered patios. The various options available means it’s not difficult to find a model that fits your specific budget and space requirements. Propane and electric patio heaters are very easy to use, so you’re more likely to use them often. They make it easy to pop out and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate for a short while before bed, or to curl up on an outdoor loveseat and watch the stars. Many models don’t require any installation beyond unpacking them, and electric models can be plugged in so you never have to worry about running out of propane or wood. You can also position patio heaters around or above your outdoor dining table, so you can dine al fresco and still be comfortable.

The downsides to patio heaters are pretty obvious, most of them are not the most attractive tools for the job. There are a lot of styles available, ranging from those that look like inverted grills to standing UFOs. They get the job done, but they aren’t something you’ll want to gather around with friends in the same way as a fire pit. Most of the designs are not conducive to roasting marshmallows or sausage, so you miss out on that outdoorsy feel that you get with fire pits. Finally, a lot of space heaters put out very localized heat. They aren’t going to provide warmth to a circle of friends in the same way as a fire pit, so their more of a utilitarian appliance than an activity.

Final Thoughts

Fire pits are our personal favorite option for their sheer aesthetic qualities and the amount of heat they put out, but they aren’t the easiest or safest choice for every environment. Here in California where we get to spend a lot of time outside, wood fire pits make sense. In other areas where snow or inclement weather might cut short your barbecue night, propane or electric options are likely a better choice since they are easier to stop and start. If you’re main goal is outdoor dining around a table, patio heaters are likely a better choice since they give you much more flexibility with where they can be placed. And don’t forget the most simple, low tech option is simply to bundle up in a blanket and enjoy the fresh air!