Time spent outdoors doesn’t have to end when summer does. But how do you make your outdoor space comfortable in cold weather? Having a heating element is essential, especially in Maine.

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Gathering around an outdoor fire in cold weather may sound nice, but it’s not the best way to keep you and your loved ones warm outside. Instead, look for an outdoor heater. While fire pits use mainly convection heat to warm the area, the radiant heat of an outdoor heater is more efficient and effective.

“Convection heats the air around objects, [and] it dissipates quickly if it’s not enclosed,” explained Gail Gross, an interior designer based in Brunswick. “If the breeze blows and you’re outside sitting in front of an open fire you don’t feel warm anymore. Infrared on the other hand it is a radiant type of heat and it heats people and objects and it works sort of like the sun. you know how sometimes you feel the rays of sun on you even if the air is kind of cold? This is exactly how these heaters work.”

Choosing the right heater

When it comes to choosing an outdoor heater, Gross said that the main thing she tells her clients to keep in mind when choosing an outdoor heater is how they plan to use it.

“It’s the only time in my life as a designer I’m going to say this, but you really want to decide how you’re going to use it and that’s more important than appearance,” she said.

Gross said that outdoor heaters primarily use three types of fuel: electricity, natural gas or propane. Each comes with their own advantages. Heaters powered by propane tanks are usually available on wheels and tend to be the most versatile and mobile. Electric heaters are the most ecofriendly and allow for a range of options in setup, including hard plumbed, wall-mounted and tabletop. If you already have the set up for, say, a natural gas grill on your porch, setting up a natural gas-powered patio heater would be easier and less expensive than hiring someone to install an outlet outside, and they tend to provide more warmth than either propane or electric heaters.

“Part of it is figuring out what you really need, how much space you need to heat and what your expectations are,” Gross said.

The cost also varies depending on the type and brand that you choose, as well as whether you need to hire a professional for additional installation.

“There’s some, it’s a huge range, really,” Gross said. “It’s probably safe to say that you’re spending $200 to $600 for something that’s going to give you the bells and whistles.”

Outdoor heaters will also boast a certain number of BTUs, or British Thermal Units, which indicate the amount of heat that they can produce. Gross said that a good rule of thumb is to choose a heater with 5,000 BTUs for every hundred square feet you are heating.

Safety is also an important consideration when you’re choosing a heater. Gross said to look for outdoor heaters that are CSA-certified, meaning that they have been tested for safety by a third-party organization. A wider base to the heater will also give it more stability and prevent it from tipping over. Anti-tilt switches are another add on that will turn off the device if it begins to fall over.

“You will also like to find a thermocouple [or a] flame failure device [so that] if there’s a big wind that blows the flame out, it will shut down the gas,” Gross said.

Setting up and caring for an outdoor heater

You also need to consider safety when setting your heater up. Gross said to make sure the heater has at least 36 inches of clearance on all sides of the reflectors and the emitter screens to prevent fires. For small, tabletop heaters, she said that two feet of clearance is probably enough, but to be sure and check the manufacturer’s guidelines.

Also heaters should not be used on fully enclosed porches.

“Air circulation is really really important,” Gross said. “I would also add having really good family rules about who can get near it and operate it. Is it safe from the dog? It’s really relevant to know who your family is and how you’re going to use that space.”

You should, however, have a way to keep your patio heater out of the wind.

“They don’t like the wind,” she said. “Not only can they fall over, but their efficiency gets affected [because] they’re using more fuel to heat that area.”

Gross said that it is also important to have a storage space for your heater or to get a cover to protect it from the weather.

Gross also said to be sure to read the manufacturer instructions and make sure you can easily handle your heater, both for moving it if applicable but also in terms of turning it on and using it. Also, make sure you also know how to maintain it between seasons.

“Check your pilot, light check your burner, check the rubber housing to see if it got brittle,” Gross said. “Read what the manufacturer gives you. That’s how they legally cover themselves so they’re going to give you the information you need to know.”