There may be no outdoor accessory more in demand in the fall of 2020 than a patio heater.
Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, experts say the safest way to socialize with others is outdoors at a safe distance. As the mercury drops, these affordable, portable propane heaters are a good way to extend the seasonal life of your porch, deck or patio.
Patio heaters emit radiant heat, which can warm up people in a way similar to sitting in the sunlight. While there are other types of patio heaters available -- such as natural gas and electric-fueled ones -- this round of testing focuses solely on propane-burning heaters.
I tested seven propane heaters overall: five in the traditional pole design, two in the modern-looking pyramid style. The price range fell roughly between $150 and $500, but -- during my evaluation period -- prices have increased, and nearly all of the models evaluated here have gone out of stock at most retailers.
In other words, like everything from toilet paper, hand sanitizer and even yeast earlier this year, these outdoor heaters have become the latest category to suffer COVID-related shortages. So, while we realize it's frustrating to see our picks without the ability to buy them, we're electing to keep our recommendations posted so you can compare and contrast our choices with other models you may be considering. If and when we see major changes in availability -- or we've tested newer models worthy of this list -- we'll update this story accordingly. In the meantime, we've included the list prices on our top picks, and wouldn't recommend paying more than that in each case.
The best-overall heater (as well as the cheapest, best-performing and made by the company with my favorite name of the bunch) goes to the model 96054 by XtremePowerUS. This heater checks in at 48,000 max BTUs and it shows. All measurements within two feet of the heater average out to a temperature increase of 7.51 degrees. All measurements within four feet read 4.78 degrees warmer than ambient. This traditional-style heater has a base, a pole and a heating element up high, with a saucer above for reflection.
Instead of an access door like many of the other models, this one has a base that lifts up to access the propane tank. It has wheels to assist with moving, but I find the traditional style pole heaters balance nicely and are easy to carry from one point to the other.
The $170 price tag makes this the most inexpensive model I tested, but keep in mind that the warranty is substantially less generous. Unlike many of the other heaters that come with a one-year limited warranty, this one is only covered for 30 days from purchase. Pricing for this one seems to vary, but generally it's under $250. Originally, I picked this heater as the best performer when I found it for $249. Walmart has it for $196, but but when I found the lower price tag of $170 at Home Depot, it was difficult not to give it the gold. Since then it's been tough to find in stock, but as long as you can find it in this same price range, this model is my top choice.
Initially, I picked the Hiland HLDS01-GTCB as the best overall patio heater I tested. With its pyramid shape and glass tube running the center length of the heater, it has a more modern look than the pole and saucer style of traditional patio heaters. Similar to staring at a campfire, watching the flame continuously rising up through the glass tube is absolute entertainment. It throws heat, too.
Looking at all the points I measured within four feet, you'll see an average temperature increase of 4.59 degrees. Within two feet of the heater, averaging all points, you get a change of 7.49 degrees. Within one foot, this heater provided an average temperature increase of 11.72 degrees, which happens to be the highest average recorded. There are heaters that reach higher temperatures at certain points, but this one has even heat distribution when you are near it. The Hiland also has an easy-to-use control system that lights effortlessly every time.
One downside to this model is that it's a little less portable than some others; it's heavy, and even though it has wheels, it's unnerving rolling the glass tube across a rough surface like concrete. If you try to carry it, the safety guards will come unset. The hinges the door rests on have also already started bending. And while I like staring at the flame, this heater illuminates the surrounding area so much that you or your neighbors might find it too bright.
At $270, this 40,000 BTU heater is priced around the middle of the pack and comes with a one-year limited warranty. This isn't the hottest heater of the bunch, but it will warm you up if you can stay close to it, and I really liked its appearance.
Full disclosure: I had high -- maybe unrealistic -- expectations for patio heaters. Any time I saw one at an outdoor venue, they always burned hot enough to warm the surrounding area sufficiently, and they generally looked like substantial pieces of outdoor equipment. They do burn hot (up close), but they don't seem as sturdy as I had expected. They actually tend to feel a little cheap. Usually I would take into account features, ease of use, looks, etc. to determine the winning model, but other than some models requiring a AA battery for the igniter and one model having an adjustable table, these units are all so similar.
The Cambridge stands out in this crowd on the basis of looks alone. It's the shortest -- only 6 feet tall -- and has a glass tube structure similar to the Hiland model. The unit feels sturdier than some of its competitors, and the mesh guard around the heating body stayed put throughout the moving and testing process. It's compact, easy to carry and will take up less storage space during the warmer months.
Performance-wise, this heater didn't deliver as well as some of the others, as you would expect from a 34,000 BTU unit. With a $499 price tag, this heater is only worth it if the aesthetics and sturdiness and size are more important to you than the performance.
How I tested
In addition to the models above, I tested these other propane heaters:
All of the heaters arrived packed in boxes and required assembly. The level of difficulty was roughly on par with assembling Ikea furniture: there were manuals occasionally needed a little interpretation.
Of the traditional-style pole heaters, there was so little variation between the products -- from assembly to operation to looks -- that they might as well have all come from the same factory. Nevertheless, I followed each set of instructions as they were written to ensure testing accuracy. By the time I got to the last of the pole heaters, I was a pro and it was a breeze. Nothing about the assembly process really stood out, except for the fact that it highlighted the similarities between all of the traditional models. I was however, pretty happy to see that Amazon sent not one, but two cheap wrenches to aid my efforts! The excitement was short-lived, though, because the pyramid-style heaters were a little trickier to put together.
None of the heaters I tested are going to sweat you out at long distances, but getting up next to one will certainly warm you up. Some manufacturers claim the heater will warm up to eight feet away from the heater, and the results prove that to be true -- sort of. All but one heater showed an increased temperature at eight feet away. But keep your coat on, because at that distance we're talking about only half a degree warmer than the ambient temperature. The warm glow on your face will be nice, but you're going to need to move closer to the heater's flame to keep warm on the coldest days. I took temperature measurements at four set elevations relative to the heaters' cap, and 11 equal distances from the heater for a total of 44 points of measurement. Because a patio heater isn't necessarily made to warm at a distance, the useful range for most of them is about four feet.
I measured each unit by recording temperatures with a one-dimensional, horizontal array of 11 thermocouples that I moved to four different elevations. The thermocouples, starting one foot away from the burner, are each placed in one-foot intervals. For test equality, the elevation of the thermocouples are determined by the height of the unit being tested: 10, 20, 30 and 40 inches below the unit's cap. I then compared the temperature at each location to the ambient temperature (also recorded by a thermocouple removed from the reach of the heater's effect). I don't have a temperature-controlled environment here at my home in southern Indiana, so I tested all of the heaters in one session, to minimize the difference of the ambient conditions on the test results. In order to get through the tests as quickly as possible I put together a drill-powered system to raise and lower the array of thermocouples to premeasured elevations.
After crunching the data, the Hiland heater emerged as a strong contender. It was one of the hottest models I tested, and when you combine that with the cool visuals of a flame darting up a glass tube, it seemed like a no-brainer.
But then I added an additional step to the test: sitting outside beside each heater on a cooler evening. That revealed something that the thermocouples didn't: the traditional pole-style heaters give off a much more concentrated heat. When I was sitting next to one, I felt comfortably warm. While the glass tube of the Hiland heater still performs pretty well -- and looks neat -- having the heat dispersed along the length of the tube simply didn't warm me up as thoroughly.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the heaters were similar. But when I tested them, it was clear that the Hiland and Amazon model 62516 -- despite being nearly identical pyramid-style tube heaters -- weren't alike. The Hiland was one of the best-performing; the Amazon 62516 was one of the worst. Upon inspection, the reason was clear: the only difference was in the regulator controls. That simple variation made all the difference, and it proved true among several of the identical pole heater models, too.
When all of these heaters appear so similar, it may also be tempting to choose one based on additional accessories. The model from HomeLabs had one that stood out: a table attached to the heater. However, I wouldn't recommend putting your cold beer on a table attached to a heater.