When shopping for an outdoor space heater, reading and comparing specification charts can be daunting and pointless, at least if you don’t know the first thing about what to look for in a heater!
If this is your first time buying a heater, you will likely come across a few terms you’ve never heard of before.
This article is meant to explain those terms so that you can make an informed decision and get the outdoor space heater that works best for you.
What is BTU?
When looking for a heater, you will come across the abbreviated term BTU.
BTU – or British Thermal Unit – is used to calculate the amount of energy a heater can deliver.
Most heater models will advertise the maximum heat area in square feet, so you don’t necessarily have to calculate how many BTUs you need, you just need to know how large your space is.
When looking at BTU, keep in mind factors that can interfere with your heater’s efficiency, such as the level of insulation in your building and whether outside drafts will easily get into the area. If that’s the case, you may want to pick a heater with a higher BTU than what your square-footage calls for.
You can also use an online BTU calculator to figure out how many BTUs you need.
What does Heating Efficiency Mean?
Most heaters will come with an energy-efficiency rating. The greater the efficiency, the lower the fuel usage rate. This high-intensity radiant propane garage heater, for example, has an efficiency rating of 99.9%, which means that 99.9% of its fuel is delivered into your space as heat.
A higher efficiency rating usually means you’ll have to pay a little bit more upfront for the unit, but you can expect long-term savings on fuel and energy.
Heater Safety Features and Certifications in Canada
Always make sure your heater is ‘Indoor Safe’ according to Canadian safety standards and be wary that there are differences in safety regulations between Canada and the US. While some portable heaters are approved for indoor usage in the US, Canadian authorities deter all usage of portable vent-free gas heaters indoors.
This is because a heater that runs on propane, natural gas, diesel or kerosene can cause carbon monoxide poisoning if it’s used in confined areas without proper ventilation.
If your furnace breaks down or power goes out during a freezing blizzard, you need to be 100 percent certain that your heater is indoor safe before you run it inside of your house.
Way too many people before you have made the mistake of using an outdoors heater indoors, and some of them have passed away from carbon monoxide poisoning. Remember to ALWAYS CHECK first if your heater model is certified for indoor use.
Also check for these safety features and certifications when shopping for a heater:
- Automatic shut-off in case the heater tips over
- Overheat sensors that will shut off the heater if the temperature is too hot
- A grill or safety glass to prevent fingers from getting too close to the heating element
- Safety certification from organizations such as the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC)
Heater Fuel Types: Propane, Natural Gas, Electric, Diesel or Kerosene
When choosing a fuel type for your heater, you should consider:
- Which of the fuel types is the most accessible to you
- Local utility and fuel source costs to determine your most cost-effective alternative
- How much time you’re willing to spend on maintenance
Propane gas heaters are simple to use and provide instant heat. You don’t need an electrical outlet to run the unit, all you need is a gas tank which you can easily install yourself.
Once the gas tank is empty, you have to replace it, which means there’s a bit of maintenance.
The fuel tank size and its expected run time will commonly be listed with the heater, so you can consider how often you’d have to replace the tank.
Propane heaters require adequate ventilation, that’s why they’re only used in outdoor heaters or in combination with a proper vent kit when used in garages or workshops.
- Easy to access fuel type
- Self-contained and portable
- Tanks need to be refilled or replaced when empty
- Require proper ventilation
If you have a natural gas supply line readily available, you can use it to hook up a heater and enjoy a quiet, clean and odour-free operation. Natural gas heaters usually cost less to operate than propane gas or electric heaters and they also tend to be more efficient.
Most models come with an included gas line, but you may need help from a plumber to connect the lines. Once in place, you won’t be able to move the unit around as easily as you could with a propane heater that utilizes a mobile tank.
- Require a natural gas supply line
- Usually cheaper than propane
- Little-to-no maintenance needed
- Less portable than propane heaters
In some areas, electricity is cheaper and easier to come by than propane or gas. You don’t need any storage space for extra supplies and electric heaters require very little maintenance compared to propane or natural gas heaters.
But there’s one question you should ask yourself, will you have easy access to electricity in your outdoor space or will you have to avoid tripping over a long electrical cord every time you’re running the heater?
- Could be cost-effective, depending on your local hydro charges
- Little-to-no maintenance
- Restricted mobility
Oil-fired heaters are popular to use for heating very large spaces, such as construction sites. This Dewalt heater for example, is expected to heat up to 6,500 square feet!
Most of them have fuel flexibility, so you can use either kerosene, diesel or jet fuel.
Kerosene and diesel are both very powerful cold-resistant fuel sources, but not as clean-burning nor easy to clean up as propane.
- Usually used for large spaces, like construction sites
- Tough to clean up
Heat Technology: Radiant Heat vs Forced Air Heat
Radiant heaters use infrared heat energy from a radiant burner to warm people or objects in its path. The heated objects till retain heat longer than the surrounding air, like how a rock in the sun is warmer than the air surrounding it.
Radiant heat is commonly used in patio heaters, camping and hunting heaters since they provide steady warmth that isn’t affected by the wind. It provides quiet operation and is often run on propane or natural gas.
Forced air, or convection heaters, work by blowing and circulating hot air in your space. With forced air heat, you can quickly and efficiently heat a space, but the heat can also be lost quickly if cold air comes into the space.
If you’re one of those people who run in and out of the garage a lot, a forced-air heater may not work as efficiently as you want it to.
Getting an outdoor space heater will help you enjoy the great Canadian outdoors, even when it’s freezing cold out there. You may want to extend patio season into the fall or keep warm when you’re ice-fishing, hunting or working in the garage.
When deciding which will be the best heater for yourself, keep these things in mind:
- BTU - tells you how much energy a heater can deliver. Most heater models will advertise the maximum heat area in square feet.
- Heating efficiency - tells you the how much of the fuel is transformed into heat
- Desirable Safety Features – Automatic shut-off, overheat sensors and a safety grill or glass. If you want to use the heater indoors, make sure it’s ‘Indoor Safe’ according to Canadian safety standards.
- Fuel types – Consider and compare accessibility, cost and expected maintenance before choosing your fuel type
- Heat technology – Radiant heat warms objects in its path but doesn’t heat the air (like the sun). Forced air blows and circulates hot air (similar to a fan – but the air heats up instead of cools down).