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Patio heaters: are they worth it and how do I pick one?

Gardens and patios are becoming social hubs, so find out how to shop for an outdoor heater that doesn't leave you cold

Patio heaters: are they worth it and how do I pick one?

Last weekend was the first time this year that households were able to gather in gardens and outdoor spaces, as social distancing rules eased and the weather perked up. 

As we enter the spring months, we’ll be spending more time outdoors, whether we’re basking on a sunny day or huddled under blankets for warmth during a frigid evening.

With a patio heater, you can stay comfortable even when temperatures drop, meaning you can enjoy the outdoors for longer.

Offering a pleasant ambience across the seasons, patio heaters ensure your outdoor space is a perennial retreat and the perfect hosting area for socially distanced gatherings.

If you’re looking to get outside, check out our gardening section where we’ve shared our top tips and reviewed the tools and accessories you need to cultivate a great garden.

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What is a patio heater?

Outdoor heaters are specifically designed in both form and function to work best in non-insulated environments.

If you try to use an indoor portable heater to heat outdoors, you’ll be disappointed, as most of them work via convection, which means they heat the air around them. This is great in an insulated environment, but when you’re outdoors, you’re basically draining energy for no reason.

Electric patio heaters specialise in radiant heating, which means that they warm objects directly rather than the air around them. As radiant heating warms up people, furniture, ornaments, and any dense object they transmit energy to, these objects retain the heat and radiate it further.

Patio heater fuel sources

Pyramid style gas heater

There are various types of patio heaters:

  • Electric heaters need to be plugged into the mains. They offer radiant heating through directed infrared radiation, so their heat isn’t wasted, and they consume much less energy than gas heaters. For most home owners, they’re the preferred option.
  • Gas heaters are the type of outdoor heater you normally find in a pub garden. They rely on propane gas cylinders or a fixed gas pipe. They’re sometimes cheaper to buy up-front, but they can be much pricier to run than electric heaters, so don’t get drawn into a false economy if you intend to use your heater regularly.
  • Solid-fuel heaters include fire pits and chimineas, and they run on wood, pellets or biomass. They’re a traditional way to keep you warm outdoors and can create ambience, but they require a lot of management, and solid fuel produces smoke, which is harmful to inhale and will leave your clothes smelling smoky.

Gas and electric heater designs

Heaters come in a variety of designs:

  • Freestanding heaters can resemble lamps, steel pyramids or towers. This is how gas heaters are built, and some electric heaters also have this design. Gas heaters with a naked flame will emit heat around the whole circumference of the unit as well as above it, while electric heaters will have heating elements pointed in particular directions.
  • Wall-mounted heaters are electric heaters that can be fixed to the wall. They’re unobtrusive and don’t take up floorspace, but they still need to be placed so that they can plug into the mains.
  • Parasol heaters are electric heaters built to fit on the inside of an umbrella. This is an ideal place for them to be fitted because they’re protected from wind and they’re able to keep a close distance to people sat at a table below. This requires a stable parasol to be put into place.

Do patio heaters attract bugs?

Wall mounted patio heater

The simple answer is yes, but for a few different reasons. Like us, they’re attracted to the warmth that patio heaters produce.

Certain insects, including most flying insects, are biologically programmed to chase light stimulus and they flock to a bright patio heater. Other insects that are instinctively repelled by light because they have a negative phototaxis, such as earthworms, will flee them.

Finally, the carbon dioxide that gas patio heaters produce attracts some insects. Most unpleasantly, mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide emissions. Because electric heaters don’t burn combustible fuel, they don’t emit CO2 and attract mosquitoes like gas heaters do.

Insects can prove to be a serious nuisance for patio heater owners, although it depends on your tolerance for these visitors.

You can invest in pest control, such as a fly zapper, to attract and eliminate insects if necessary, so this isn’t an insurmountable problem.

Which is the best patio heater for me?

Patio in the evening

This depends on your space and your needs. There are some key considerations to bear in mind.

The space you have

You need a heater that properly suits your space. A heater that’s some distance away will be less effective. The arrangement of your patio or garden will help determine this: you may want to tuck a small unit into a parasol or put it up against a wall by your seating area.

Or you may want a freestanding heater that can be dragged to stand next to the table like in a pub garden, or a fire pit that is the centrepiece of a seating area.

Wind will reduce the warmth you get from your heater, and a heater that’s exposed to the elements on a blustery day will struggle to warm the environment. Depending on how enclosed your seating area is, you may need more than one heater.

The price you want to pay

An electric heater will have the lowest running costs by a wide margin.

A reason for this large gap is because electric heaters concentrate their heat, whereas gas heaters heat the whole circumference around it and the space above the gas heater. This amounts to misdirected and wasted heat which creates a long-term cost.

Gas heaters also use much more energy, at an average of 13kW, whereas electric heaters are generally 2kW or 3kW.

So buying a cheaper gas patio heater can be a false economy when you pay large running costs. A good electric heater can become good value through frequent use.

The environmental cost

Gas heaters produce significantly more CO2 than electric heaters. Not only does this make them a mosquito-magnet, but it also creates an environmental cost so steep that European Parliament MEPs voted to endorse banning them in 2008 (this vote didn’t create a law, but it was a show of support for the concept of banning patio heaters).

Electric patio heaters reduce the environmental impact significantly and are undoubtedly the more eco option.

Of course, electricity drawn from the grid stems from a mix of carbon-free and carbon sources, and wasted electricity will still have an environmental impact, depending on your tariff.

The appearance

If you want a roaring flame to create an ambience, then a gas heater or a fire pit are your only options. But if you want a heater that is subtle and modern, then an electric heating unit will better fit the brief because they can be much smaller.

Some pricier electric heaters offer low-light or no-light options if you need a discreet unit.

Where can I buy a patio heater?

People huddled under a blanket

As we head into the spring with relaxed social distancing regulations, availability will vary, and we’ve noticed that many heaters are temporarily out of stock.

Some businesses are experiencing issues with shipping, which has affected timely deliveries.

  • Amazon’s marketplace has thousands of patio heaters which cover every price range, from the budget to the high-end. But before you invest, read our guide on how to spot fake reviews on Amazon.
  • B&Q doesn’t offer much in the way of garden heating, but it does have some affordable options for solid-fuel heating, including chimineas and firepits.
  • HeatersUK sells a modest collection of patio heaters among its large heater stock.
  • Heat Outdoors is a more specialised seller, and it offers a wide range of gas and electric heaters, plus fire pits and a range of accessories such as fly zappers. It also sells components for some of its gas heaters which enable you to repair them.
  • Herschel sells infrared (electric) heaters across a few curated ranges, including the ‘sunset range’, which offers a warm glow in your garden, as well as a ‘designer range’ of zero-light heaters which provide heat discreetly.
  • Homebase has a small collection of patio heaters, which are at the affordable end of the market. First-time heater buyers might find it appealing to visit the store and see the heaters for themselves before they buy.
  • Wayfair provided us with 216 results when searching for patio heaters. You can filter by design to search for standing, mounted, hanging and tabletop styles across a range that primarily consists of electric heaters. Many of its products are budget offerings.

How much does a patio heater cost?

Patio heater

Up-front costs can vary widely, but it’s possible to fork out a lot of money to set up a system of heaters in your garden. If you want to cover a large space, then you may need multiple heaters which will multiply the costs.

It’s also important to remember running costs. Electric heaters will usually be 2kW or 3kW, and you can calculate roughly what you’ll pay per hour depending on your electricity tariff and the amount you plan to use them. Gas heaters will cost significantly more and you may need to purchase gas canisters from DIY stores.

Budget options

A firepit or a chiminea can cost you between £20 and £100, so they have the lowest up-front costs. A basic steel or clay design will be cheap, while a more intricate and ornamental design ups the cost.

We’ve found electric heaters that cost as little as £60, such as Homebase’s Oswald 2000W Wall Mounted Heater, but most cheap electric heaters cost £100 to £200 at a minimum, like the Hawaii 2000W sold at Herschel.

Wayfair offers many £100 to £200 patio heaters, although unsurprisingly they’ve proved popular and stock is currently limited.

Gas heaters are usually more expensive – one example of a cheaper gas heater is HeatersUK’s Orchid Green II Gas Patio Heater for £219.

Mid-range options

The majority of gas and electric heaters cost approximately £200 to £600. At this price, you have more choice, whether you want a freestanding heater, a wall-mounted heater, or something specifically styled like a parasol heater or a hanging lamp.

This is also the price range that offers the majority of pyramid-shaped gas heaters .

Every retailer we’ve shared in this article sells mid-range products, so this range is the starting point for any prospective buyer and possibly the easiest to shop for.

Premium options

Patio heaters can cost thousands of pounds, although many retailers don’t go above £600. But some do, such as Heat Outdoors. It sells products like the Solamagic 2.8kW Infrared Parasol Heater for £1,040 which consists of two lamps that can be affixed to a parasol, with low-glare technology to create a gentle luminance without compromising on heat intensity.

Premium gas heating options usually feature stylish designs to decorate your garden with. For example, Wayfair’s Patio Heater for £750 that runs on propane encases a flame in a chic and minimalist cube that would fit into a modern garden.

If you want multiple heaters to cover a larger space or to create different hotspots around your patio or garden, it’s likely to cost you well over £1,000.

Energy costs

Electric patio heater

Electric patio heaters are considerably cheaper to run than gas patio heaters. Patio Mate claims that gas heaters are ‘a diminishing cost saving when you factor in the cost of gas’.

An average electric patio heater runs at 2kW, with some models letting you run it as high as 3kW. A 2kW heater running for an hour will cost approximately 30p on average.

A well placed and well functioning patio heater will use this energy to heat you directly. Because electric heaters can aim their infrared waves towards objects you want heated, there’s less potential for waste.

Gas heaters use a comparatively huge amount of energy compared with electric heaters, And presuming you won’t be wiring a gas pipe to a heater in your garden, you’ll be racking up large bills in buying gas canisters.

If this has you thinking about your gas and electricity costs, then use our Which? Switch tool to compare energy suppliers and make sure you’re saving money.

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