Often called “mushroom” heaters due to their likeness to a giant portabella, propane patio heaters have gained surprising popularity as a solution to the challenge of properly heating a residential or commercial patio…..but do they really do the job and if so, at what cost?
Basics of Operation
To evaluate the worthiness of a propane patio heater, it is helpful for us to understand some of the basics of its operation.
The common propane patio heater is in true industry terms a “high intensity infrared heater”. By definition that means it uses an open flame of burning fuel (in our case propane) on a ceramic grid as its source of infrared energy. That energy then shoots off as infrared beams that eventually release heat when they impinge upon surrounding solid objects like people, tables, and chairs. Using an open flame as the infrared energy source means heater surface temperatures of around 1600 degrees and an orange glow to go with it. It’s also the reason that virtually all units have a “tilt” switch to shut them down in case they fall over…..something that can really happen since they are rarely permanently installed and are often moved around. The very familiar mushroom “cap” you’ll see at the top is really a large reflector that serves to bounce any upwardly misguided infrared beams back down to where the heat is wanted. To accommodate changing outdoor patio temperatures, some units have staged output or “hi-low” switches.
So the operation of the unit is fairly simple, but how effective is it?
Truly, we can only measure the true effectiveness of an outdoor patio heating system one way…by answering the question; Are the patio occupants comfortable?
But let’s also agree that “comfort” is an ambiguous term that can mean many things to many people. In my years in the outdoor heating business, I have found that the best way to evaluate a patio heating system’s performance is to talk to the owners of the commercial patios (like the ones at bars and restaurants) who live with the patios on a daily basis and have, in their best interest, the task of keeping their patios full of patrons who are “comfortable” and happily spending money as a result.
Here’s what they have to say:
2012 SURVEY OF BAR / RESTAURANT OWNERS WHO HAVE
USED PROPANE PATIO HEATERS
Question: Are you generally satisfied with the ability of propane patio heaters to
keep patio guests comfortable?
Completely Satisfied: 3%
Somewhat Satisfied: 12%
Somewhat Dissatisfied: 45%
Completely Dissatisfied: 39%
Clearly with nearly 85% of respondents indicating either somewhat or complete dissatisfaction, we can only conclude that propane patio heaters fail in their “comfort” objective. Further evidence of this is heard in bar/restaurant owner comments such as “it’s too hot close up but cool not very far away” or “the heat hits only one side of the people”
Are there other considerations with propane patio heaters?
You might expect that a heater that performs rather poorly in its intended purpose would provide some consolation to its owner by providing low operating cost. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Consider the following operating cost comparison by fuel type of a typical 160,000 BTU patio heater system (equivalent of four propane patio heaters) operating 40 hours per week:
Propane: $344 / week*
Natural Gas: $54 / week**
Electric: $225 / week***
There is also a secondary “operating cost” that requires consideration. Since the propane heaters occupy space where there would otherwise be guest tables, a savvy owner would ask the question…what is the financial cost of the lost table capacity?
Because propane patio heaters are generally considered “portable” devices, they are rarely permanently installed. This causes additional headaches for the bar/restaurant owner.
Since the supply of propane fuel is not “hard piped” to the heater, propane tanks must be changed out at each heater on a regular basis, often two or three times a week. Over time, this becomes quite a costly inconvenience, to say the least. In some cases it could even require a dedicated employee for an owner with multiple restaurant/patio locations. In addition, since the heaters are typically not anchored to the patio floor, there exists a safety concern with falling units. Remember the 1600 degree temperature mentioned above. Whether the units fall down or not, the fact that they are moved around frequently results in incidental damage to them that over time will require heater replacement, sometimes in as little as 1-2 years.
With poor effectiveness, excessively high operating cost, and an array of operational headaches, it is safe to say that propane patio heaters simply do not deliver as promised.
So with superior alternatives available, one might ask…. why do I see these heaters so often? The answer is simple……low first cost. For somewhere typically between $100-$300, a commercial grade propane patio heater can be purchased at a “box” chain store or on the internet. It seems attractive at first, but the reality is eventual dissatisfaction in terms of both performance and operating cost. And that’s not to mention that fact that they’ll need to be replaced in as little as 1-2 years. But there are alternatives, one being natural gas infrared tube systems. These systems are extremely effective, eliminate the operational headaches, and can pay for themselves in less than a year in fuel cost savings alone.