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Five things you need to know about patio heating

Image of an infrared patio heater
Electric infrared heaters are great for patios as they're more efficient than conventional electric or gas patio heaters. Take care to set them up and use them safely, and consider using controls to make them even more efficient.

Looking to extend social-distanced patio life? Tips and safety advice

Fire tables. Heat lamps. Fire bowls. With the COVID-19 pandemic heading into the cooler months, there's a growing interest in adding temporary heat to home patios and back yards. We want to see our friends, but it can be easier to maintain a safe two-metre distance outside.

Here at BC Hydro, we're not fans of using energy to heat outdoor spaces. But if you feel you absolutely must heat your patio or deck, or want to mimic a campfire in your yard, we have some guidance on how to do it efficiently and safely.

1. If you want a heater for fall, act now

A lot of the best-reviewed electric and gas options for patio heating are already sold out as the rush to extend patio life into the fall has heated up sales. You'll need to act fast and show some patience. Don't be surprised if in-store pickings are slim or none, and if you discover online delivery is slower than usual.

Too late to the heated patio party? Bundle up, fire up a few flameless LED candles for ambience, and maintain that two-metre distance.

2. Take care to be safe, with both electricity and gas options

Where there's heat, there's a potential for fire. BC Hydro fire marshal Tara Fraser learned that as a teenager when her dad made two mistakes: firing up the barbecue too near the family home, and leaving it unattended.

"The side of our house caught fire," Fraser recalls, noting that the fire was fortunately put out quickly. "The lesson there is to never leave any kind of open fire or heating appliance unattended, and that includes a barbecue. Place your barbecue away from your home, in a place where you can easily see it at all times, even from inside your home."

For patio heating, Fraser offers the following advice (and helpful links) to ensure safety:

  • Check provincial, municipal and strata bylaws: Technical Safety BC has safety guidelines for gas fired heaters used in enclosed but vented spaces. And if you're part of a strata, check strata bylaws, which often prohibit the use of heaters and/or barbecues. Backyard wood-burning fires are prohibited in most municipalities across B.C., but there are some exceptions.
  • Carefully follow the manufacturer's instruction manual: Everything from the assembly of a heater or fire bowl to the placement and operation of it should be covered in the manufacturer's manual. Don't skip this step, even with what appears to be a simple-to-use device.
  • Check to see if an appliance is outdoor and/or indoor rated: Propane fire bowls and heaters are almost always for outdoor use only. Some small electrical space heaters are designed for use indoors and out, but most are not.
  • Never store a propane bottle indoors: Technical Safety B.C. outlines usage and storage procedures, including the placement of propane tanks: If you're using propane to fuel barbecues, heaters or fit pits, make sure the propane cylinder is located at least a metre from the building opening and 3.5 metres from a mechanical air intake.
  • When you attach the propane cylinder to the appliance, check for leaks: See the Technical Safety B.C. video on how to use soap to check for propane cylinder leaks.
  • Use a professional to install a permanently fixed heater: Permanent natural gas heaters and many electrical heaters require professional installation, although many propane and portable electric heaters can be carefully installed without expert help. Check the product manual for guidance.
  • Avoid use of extension cords: Most electric patio heaters are equipped with a two- to three-metre cord, and extension cords should never be used as substitute for permanent wiring. If you're dealing with a portable or free-standing electric heater, avoid using an extension cord by setting up the heater close enough to an outlet to be directly plugged in, but safely away from your home or any combustible materials. Even with heavier-gauge extension cords, circuits can be overloaded and the cord can be overheated, which could lead to an electrical fire.
  • Use fire-retardant canvas to enclose your outdoor space: For added safety when using a patio heater, especially in tight spaces, seek out fire-retardant canvas for the roof or for a fabric wall. In all cases, take care to ensure heaters and fire tables are well clear of any combustible materials.
  • Avoid tripod-style heater stands: To prevent heaters from tipping over to create a potential fire hazard or injury, opt for wall or ceiling mounts, or a sturdy free-standing heater.

3. Go electric to limit your carbon footprint

The carbon emissions associated with patio heating in restaurants have prompted French authorities to ban the use of patio heaters, but given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, they've delayed the ban until after this winter. One group estimates that running five gas heaters on a restaurant patio for the four coldest months produces as much carbon dioxide emissions as driving a car three times around the earth. If you're concerned about the CO2 emissions generated by adding a patio heater or two at your home, consider going electric.

4. Infrared heaters are most efficient, especially with controls

Electric infrared radiant patio heaters are among the most energy efficient outdoor forms of heating, transferring heat up to 80% more efficiently than classical convective heaters. They do so by targeting objects rather than the air. Like the sun's rays, they only emit heat when their radiant infrared light heat waves strike an object, and they remain effective as temperatures plunge. However, there is a point where even infrared patio heaters can't keep up with a cold Canadian winter.

To make an infrared heater even more efficient, consider installing a heating control. Wall-mounted controls often come with dimming options in addition to an on/off control, and some models have wireless controls that can be linked by an app to your mobile phone. Occupancy sensors, which turn heat on only when a space is occupied, can be an option, but only use them after consulting a heating vendor or electrician.

A 1,500-watt electric infrared patio heater operating at four hours a day for 15 days a month would cost around $10 per month to power, based on BC Hydro's residential rate. By using controls, you could reduce that amount by up to 30%.

Since radiant electric patio heaters heat by infrared light, they aren't affected by wind or air flows. They work best when redirected towards the person or object that requires heat. By closely following safety instructions, you can use outdoor-approved models of infrared radiant patio heaters efficiently in places such as your patio, porch, terrace, garage, or workshop.

5. Want to burn wood? Check local regulations

With concerns for both safety and the production of smoke, most cities and municipalities in B.C. prohibit the use of wood-burning fire pits or outdoor chimneys. There are exceptions in more rural areas, such as in Mission, where properly constructed firepits can be used if located a minimum of 4.6 metres away from any building or combustible material, including vegetation.

When allowed by local authorities, backyard fire pits must always conform to local and regional fire bans and restrictions. For information on safe use of fire pits outside municipalities, see the BC Wildfire Service Open Fire Regulations infographic [PDF].