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Outdoor heaters are hot accessory as it gets colder
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Outdoor heaters are hot accessory as it gets colder

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A patio heater can help keep outdoor socially distant gatherings going.

As the weather starts to cool off, and in any other year, we would all start to move indoors to keep warm. But we're still in a pandemic, and a lot of us are looking for ways to keep our socially distant gatherings safely outdoors in our backyards, patios and decks when the temperatures start to get chilly.

One popular way to do that: patio and outdoor heaters. You know, the types of warming devices often seen in outdoor dining and beer garden settings. They can help heat an outdoor space well into the colder months of the year and make brisk evenings outside just a little more bearable.

And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, consumers are catching on. Online retailers like furniture seller Wayfair have reportedly seen a 70% increase in searches for patio heaters compared to previous years, and ditto for online retail juggernaut Amazon.

So what are your options when it comes to buying your own patio heater, and what should you look out for when purchasing one? Here is what you need to know:

What kind of fuel does it use?

Generally, you have three options:

Electric patio heaters plug into standard electrical outlets and use a heating bulb to warm up your outdoor area. They are low-maintenance and convenient, says Lowe's Home Improvement store manager, Janeen DeVillava, and good for smaller, enclosed spaces. The downside: They require close proximity to an electric outlet and can be affected by power outages.

Propane-powered outdoor heaters use propane from tanks like those attached to your standard gas-powered grill, and heat up relatively quickly compared to electric heaters. They're also a little more portable and flexible, as they don't need to plug into anything. They do, however, sometimes require some assembly, and, as DeVillava says, are best suited for "well-ventilated outdoor decks and patios."

Natural gas heaters are connected to natural gas lines, and generally are more stationary than the other two options because their fuel source is usually fixed. (So if you go with this option, make sure you like where you're putting it.) They provide "exceptional heat," says Molly Parker, vice president of category experience at online retailer Overstock.com, and, according to Home Depot, are best for larger, more open outdoor settings.

Style of patio heater

The style of patio heater generally breaks down into mounted or hanging, tabletop, and standalone heaters (plus fire pits, but that's another article).

Mounted and hanging outdoor heaters attach to a ceiling or wall, and stay in place, so they're more permanent solutions. This style is often electric, and better for smaller spaces.

Tabletop heaters are more compact, and may come in electric or propane gas versions. Generally, they're more portable, and better suited to heating a smaller area, like an outdoor dining table or seating area.

Standalone heaters are the familiar, freestanding outdoor heaters that we've all seen on restaurant patios. Parker says that these types of patio heaters are Overtock's most popular, because they are versatile and able to heat larger areas.

"Think about your space, how often you would need to use the heater, and which fits best for you and your family," Parker says.

Consider the climate of your area

Think about the size of the area you want to heat, and how long and how often you want to use it.

Then, figure out how much heat you need. The amount of heat a particular outdoor heater can put out, DeVillava says, is determined by its "British Thermal Unit" (BTU) rating. A good rule of thumb, according to one manufacturer, is to divide the BTUs by 40 (or 30 for more chill environments) to figure out how many square feet a device can effectively warm up.

One thing to look out for though: wind. Parker recommends placing your outdoor heater in a place that avoids as much wind as possible in order to maximize the effects of the heat it puts off.

As with any heater, you should be careful when using a outdoor or patio heater to keep warm. To start, both Parker and DeVilla recommend reading the manufacturer's instructions and warnings, including any advice on how far to keep them from flammable objects.

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