Outdoor heating buying guide

Whether you’re hosting a barbecue, taking the dining room outside in the autumn months, or just gathering a few friends around the fire, outdoor heaters can transform your back garden into an extension of your home for year-round use. Find out which heaters and fuels are best for you, and for the environment, with our guide to outdoor heating solutions for your garden.

Radiant vs convection heaters

Most portable heaters work in two ways: convection heaters circulate warm air, while radiant heaters heat objects directly. When it comes to outdoor spaces, convection heaters are fine for smaller, sheltered gardens where the warm air can benefit people sitting there, but direct radiant options are more energy-efficient for larger, open gardens where the heat generated might otherwise get lost. Check how an outdoor heater raises the temperature of your space before buying.

Patio heaters

The favoured type of outdoor heating for pub gardens and entertaining, patio heaters tend to give off a more powerful heat than other models. They usually come in two main types: gas flame or electric, but both work through radiant heat, rather than convection.

You can also buy free-standing, wall-mounted or table-top patio heaters, with the common type being those that stand on the ground much like a floor lamp. Sizes range from over two metres down to just over a metre for table-top models.

You may want to consider a fixed-point heater if you have children or pets running around the garden. However, most modern free-standing heaters now come with anti-tilt switches to automatically switch off if the heater tips over.

Fire pits

In some ways the most basic of outdoor heating devices, fire pits also provide a more natural focal point for outdoor parties, as well as having that real fire appeal – they can even be used to cook snacks like marshmallows. Fire pits are extremely versatile in shape and design, from heavy cast iron bowls to rustic-looking clay pits and neat ornamental versions for your table top.

As many fire pits use logs or charcoals, covered over with a wire mesh, they can be a little smokier than chimineas and produce a fair amount of ash. However, there are also gas-fuelled fire pits available, which are easier to light, less messy and don’t produce that wood smoke smell – a pro or a con, depending on preference!

Chimeneas

Originally a Mexican design to provide heat for nomadic tribes, chimineas are proving popular for heating domestic gardens, as they’re weatherproof and the enclosed fire makes them safer than other models. Either heat logs or untreated wood ensure that they are highly efficient in producing radiant, directional heat, with a chimney to divert smoke away from eyes and hair.

In terms of materials, traditional clay chimineas look more attractive and don’t get as hot as metal varieties, so they are safer but tend to be less durable, lasting an average of one to two years. Contemporary steel or cast iron versions are more resistant to cracking and though they can rust in heavy rain, they are easy to repaint.

Choose your outdoor fuel

Outdoor heaters use a range of different fuels and even basic types like charcoal or logs now come in easy-light varieties, so you can quickly get a fire going. For easy summer barbecues and outdoor parties, instant light charcoal bags can be placed directly in a wood-burner or chiminea and lit with a firelighter.

You can use any type of log or kindling with fire pits and chimeneas too, but you may want to think about the kind of wood, smoke emissions and length of burning time involved. As far as heat output goes, the drier the better – try to find kiln-dried or seasoned logs for the most effective fire, as freshly-chopped logs will contain between 60 - 90% water. Hardwoods are usually more efficient than softwoods and burn for longer, meaning you will have to re-stock less often.

Blended fuels, such as briquette logs, are now manufactured to give you a combination of high temperatures and reduced smoke output. Charcoal briquettes can give a more consistent burn than traditional hardwood charcoal, but because they are mixed with other ingredients like sawdust, they may also produce more ash and burn for a slightly shorter time.

If you just require something for a one-off party or back garden event, you can also buy outdoor heaters that combine both heater and fuel in one, known as ‘fire logs’ or Swedish torches. These upright logs are split part of the way down, so that as the kindling burns on top, the heat is sucked down into the cracks and emanates warmth for up to two hours.

Environmentally-friendly outdoor heating

If you’re concerned about whether an outdoor heater is eco-friendly, look out for those that run on cleaner fuels.

You can now purchase gel fuel table-top burners, which produce cleaner emissions, as well as those that burn renewable energy sources like bio-ethanol – recycled from organic matter.

Burning untreated wood is considered carbon neutral, as it releases the same amount of CO2 back into the atmosphere as the tree would have absorbed while growing. You can also buy ‘eco-logs’, recycled from wood waste products, however, smoke may still be an issue for yourself or your neighbours, so look for smokeless coal and log briquettes.

1