The coronavirus pandemic has thrown more curveballs at the restaurateurs than anyone could easily count, but pulling off outdoor seating during the colder months may prove among the trickiest. Whether you’re dealing with limited funds, a unique space setup, or local restrictions, choosing the best outdoor heaters and heat lamps can present a real dilemma, especially as demand has made options scarce.
Every sale counts, so there’s no need to forfeit an inch of seating space. As tricky as it may seem, finding the right fit will turn chilly days and nights into profitable ones.
Don’t fret about making the wrong choice. We’ve sussed out some of the best options to maximize your outdoor investment. Below are some top picks for patio heaters and heat lamps.
First, though, consider a few key questions.
Because they’re only seasonal in most US cities, you may be tempted to rent a heater. But do some math first. Pricing on most daily or weekly rentals tends to shake out to the price of buying. Renting makes sense if you’re planning an event or a limited use of your outdoor space. But in most cases you’re likely to save by buying. And if you're not using your heaters? Resell 'em.
This can be a tough one to figure. Roughly speaking, a single heater with an output of 30,000 BTU (British thermal units) can cover about 2,500 square feet of outdoor space. Of course, this figure depends on the outdoor temps, the wind exposure, and the height of any overhead cover. In most cases, it’s better to add slightly more heating power than you think you will need and run the units at a lower power if necessary.
This is largely a question of your budget and your local regs. Propane heaters crank hottest and can be efficient in the coldest temperatures, but state or municipal restrictions may prohibit them. Propane and natural gas units also shouldn’t be used in any covered or enclosed seating areas: The fumes are dangerous. Propane-powered models also require you to swap out a lot of empty fuel canisters, which get expensive.
Electric heaters can be mounted on walls, ceilings, or even tabletops so long as they can be plugged in, and make a simple solution so long as your electrical system can handle the burden. Battery-powered and solar heaters offer great on-demand tableside heating for the occasional chilly night, but they’re often too weak to heat a large space.
NO ONE LIKES TO SHOUT DURING A QUIET NIGHT OUT. To keep noise low, look to electric-powered infrared heaters, which are completely silent, or to propane-powered heaters, if you don't mind a quiet din. Units that force circulation, with their moving parts and whooshing air flows, will usually be the loudest.
Member's Mark Patio Heater with LED table + Wheels for Moving. People like propane-powered patio heaters for turning chilly patios into warm, inviting spaces with the push of a button. These units take up less floor space and pump out more BTUs on average than other styles of heaters, and moving the wheeled units is a snap. While they may be strong, their heat dispersion can be spotty, making them iffy for larger areas where diners are social distancing. Consider models like this one from Member’s Mark, which features a small table that makes it an easy replacement for a standing bar or for use in non-seating areas.
Global Industrial® Infrared Patio Heater w/Remote Control, Wall/Ceiling Mount, 1500W. For quick and easy installation, it’s hard to beat a lightweight infrared heater. They pump out less heat than gas-powered options, but they work efficiently by warming up people with direct beams of infrared heat that can be felt immediately — a huge bonus in drafty spaces. Mounted units can also be operated by remote control and typically can start pumping out heat at full strength within minutes, making them ideal for high-use spaces. Just be sure to account for the load on your existing electrical system if you’re planning on using several on the same fuse.
EnerG+ 1500-Watt Infrared Electric Freestanding Outdoor Heater with Remote. If you’re not working with a space that can house a permanently mounted heater — or if you’re someplace that may not need heaters all the time — freestanding units offer an easy, cost-efficient way to keep guests warm. This budget-friendly lightweight model from EnerG+ can be carried onto the floor to provide tableside heat on demand and brought back inside when not in use. The only drawback is that cord. Make sure you can safely plug each unit in without creating a tripping hazard.
Hampton Bay 42,000 BTU Gold Gas Patio Heater. Customers will come for the heat but stay for the vibe. Glass pyramid heating units such as this unit from Hampton Bay provide the warmth and offer an eye-catching, ambiance-setting column of flickering flame. It pumps out slightly less heat on average, but these propane units provide a somewhat safer alternative to top-heavy mushroom-top models.
Dyna-Glo™ Workhorse LP Forced Air Heater, 30K-60K BTU. Not all outdoor heating options rely on radiant warmth or rays to keep people toasty. Forced air heaters such as this Dyna-Glo model disperse heat through a seating area, and this powerful unit pushes 60,000 BTUs of warmth for spaces up to 1,350 square feet. It's a fit for courtyards or patios with ample draft protection if local regulations in your area allow for propane-powered heaters.