When it became clear that the impacts of COVID-19 were more than just temporary, outdoor dining and gathering became an important solution for allowing restaurants and community organizations to stay open. However, the changing seasons threaten the sustainability of this important economic and social solution. As the days get colder, the restaurants and other institutions that are thinking ahead to winter and coming up with creative solutions will remain ahead of the curve, while many will be left behind due to lack of outdoor heating and weather management solutions. Outdoor heaters are an important part of this picture.
Making the decision of what type of heater and how many to get for your space can feel overwhelming. The following guide outlines the main categories of outdoor heating options and some considerations as you begin to adapt your outdoor dining or gathering space for the winter months.
Types of Outdoor Heaters
There are three main types of outdoor heaters, electric, natural gas, and propane.
Electric heat lamps are a simple and safe option for heating an outdoor area. They are easy to set up (simply plug them in), but can get cumbersome if there aren’t outlets close by. Use caution when figuring out how many heaters are needed for your space since they can easily overload a circuit. We recommend no more than one heater per outlet. Overall, they are a great choice for quick and safe implementation.
Electric heaters range in price from $80 to $1,500, but many are under $200.
Electric heaters often list how many watts they use. Using this, the number of hours your heater will be on everyday, and an estimate for electricity cost you can see about how much your heater will cost to run. For example, if the heater uses 1500 watts, you want it on for 8 hours a day, and electricity in your area is $0.14 per kwh, then it would cost $1.68 per day.
(number of watts1,000) x (hours heater is on per day) x (electricity cost per kwh) = cost per day
Natural Gas Heaters
Natural gas heaters are effective and easy to maintain. They are generally a higher investment upfront, but will be cheaper to operate in the long run. Natural gas heaters must be connected to a gas line which could require professional installation and also makes them less portable.
Electric heaters range in price from $130 to $1,800, but many are under $300.
The cost of operating a natural gas heater depends on how many BTU’s it uses and the cost of natural gas. If the cost of natural gas is $4 per thousand cubic feet, your heater uses 50,000 BTU and you plan to run it for 8 hours a day, it would cost $1.55 per day.
(cost of natural gas per thousand cubic ft) x (number of BTU) x (1000 cubic ft)(1030 BTU per cubic ft of natural gas) x (hours heater is on per day) = cost per day
Propane heaters are portable and can give you a lot of control over where you place them. Set up usually involves simply connecting them to a propane tank. Propane heaters are more expensive in the long-run than natural gas heaters and you might find refilling or replacing propane tanks tedious. If you don’t have access to electric outlets or a gas line they can be a great option.
Propane heaters range in price from $30 to $1,500. Small ones that sit on a table or directly on top of the propane tank are typically under $100 and many large standing ones are under $300.
Many propane heaters advertise how long they will run with a given amount of propane. Therefore, if you know about how many hours they will be running, you can estimate how much it will cost on an average day. For example, if a heater runs for 43 hours on one 2olbs tank (about $20 worth of propane), and you want them on for 8 hours a day, that will be $3.72 per day per heater.
(cost of propane for amount of time advertised) x (hours heater is on per day) x (number of hours they advertise for given about of propane) = cost per day
Permits for Heaters
Due to COVID-19, many city governments have changed the process for getting a permit for outdoor heaters, in most cases making it faster and easier to get approval. The process will be different depending on where you are and what type of heaters you want. In general, you can find approval forms on the website of your city government.
While the exact requirements are different from place to place, the following guidelines for Boston are a good example of what to expect. In Boston, natural gas heaters require a permit for installation, propane heaters (for commercial use) require a fuel storage permit, and firepits (and any heater that burns solid fuel like wood) is prohibited. The City of Boston website has a portal where you can create an account and find permit forms.
Other Things to Consider
Amount of Heat
When looking for heaters, you will likely see a number followed by BTU (British Thermal Units) which will tell you how much heat it will give off. Many heaters will also list the amount of area they can heat. These measurements are great when comparing models, but the actual performance will depend on outdoor temperature and wind. Although these options are radiant heaters, which heat people rather than the surrounding air, temperatures will vary if there is wind. As a general guide, a heater with 1500 watts or 40,000 BTU will heat an area of up to 15 square feet.
There is a lot of room for creativity when transitioning your outdoor space to be ready for the colder months. Things like blankets, heated cushions and pillows, and fire pits can go a long way in making your space more comfortable for customers or guests.
It is important to consider any safety requirements before choosing a heater. Common safety features include, heavy bases that resist tipping and auto shut off if it is tipped over. If you have a covered outdoor area, an electric heater will be the safest option. Some electric heaters have bulbs that remain cool to the touch, while other types of heaters require more caution. Additionally, some alternatives like fire pits are banned in areas that are dry or have a high population density.
There is a lot of uncertainty around how our lives will change as the weather gets colder this year. Outdoor heaters will help keep our communities vibrant and connected. Whether you are a restaurant owner who wants to keep your outdoor seating area open longer or you just want to continue using your outdoor space, knowing making the right choice for outdoor heating can go a long way.
At CultureHouse we have been working on preparing solutions for community gathering in the colder months. We are learning alongside our partners about outdoor heating lamps and hope this information will support you in making the right decision for your space. If you have any questions you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.