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Fire Pit vs Patio Heater: Which is the Best Option for Your Outdoor Space?

Fire Pit vs Patio Heater: Which is the Best Option for Your Outdoor Space?

Outdoor heating options like fire pits for backyards and patio heaters have become increasingly popular ways to extend the use of your outdoor space into the cooler months. But how do you decide between a fire pit or patio heater as the best outdoor heating solution for your needs?

This comprehensive guide examines the key differences and pros and cons of both fire pits and patio heaters. Read for everything you need to know to determine which is the best option for your outdoor area.

Key Takeaways

  • Fire pits create a more inviting atmosphere and heat broader areas but patio heaters are more portable and safer.

  • Patio heaters rely on propane while fire pits offer wood, coal, gas, or gel options for fuel.

  • Fire pits have lower upfront costs but higher operating expenses; patio heaters cost more initially but have lower ongoing costs.

  • Patio heaters easily direct adjustable heat to small spaces; fire pits better suit groups gathered around.

Graphic comparing heat output between fire pits and patio heaters

Main Differences Between Fire Pits and Patio Heaters

Fire pits and patio heaters serve a similar purpose in helping generate warmth for an outdoor living area. However, there are some notable differences when it comes to aspects like mobility and placement, fuel source options, heat output and coverage, ambiance created, safety considerations, and costs.

Mobility and Placement

Patio heaters are flexible and easy to move. Most feature wheeled bases which allow you to smoothly roll them around your deck or patio to direct heat where needed. Fire pits, on the other hand, are intended as more permanent outdoor living space features. They are generally much heavier structures that can weigh hundreds of pounds. Fire pits need an underlying non-combustible surface like concrete, stone, or patio blocks that can support the extreme heat generated.

Fuel Source Options

Patio heaters predominantly use propane as their fuel source, with newer models offering electric heating elements powered by batteries or an outdoor outlet. Fire pits can utilize natural gas, propane, gel fuel, wood, coal, or bioethanol as the heat source. This variety allows you to choose between dealing with refills or the process of stocking and cleaning up ashes after use.

Heat Output & Coverage

The heat output, measured in BTUs, and coverage area differentiate these two outdoor heating options. Fire pits generate significant warmth with models reaching 35,000 to 150,000 BTUs to cover broader spaces for groups. In contrast, most patio heaters provide between 5000 to 50,000 BTUs. This concentrated heat works for single to few individuals in tighter proximity around the unit.

Fire pits output a wider span of BTUs ranging from:

  • Table Top Models: Up to 35,000 BTUs
  • Wood-burning: Up to 85,000 BTUs
  • Gas/Propane: From 50,000 - 150,000+ BTUs

For patio heaters, you’ll commonly find:

  • Tabletop: 5,000 - 15,000 BTUs
  • Medium: 20,000 - 30,000 BTUs
  • Commercial grade: 35,000 - 50,000 BTUs

Ambiance Created

One of the distinct appeals of fire pits comes from the sensory experience the dancing flames provide. There is a nostalgic, primal comfort that comes from gathering around the fire in the evening. Patio heaters focus more singularly on delivering warmth as needed to make the space comfortable, without the same visual ambiance.

Safety Considerations

Open flames intrinsically demand awareness and precautions when adding a fire pit to your outdoor living space. Most areas legally require spark arrestors, screens, lids, or rings. Keeping children and pets at a safe distance is also important with the ember risk. However, patio heaters avoid this issue and are generally safer to use around kids and pets.

Cost Differences

Fire pits have a lower initial purchasing cost, with basic models starting under $200 and high-end custom installations ranging over $5k. Operating expenses can add up quickly though depending on the preferred fuel source. Patio heaters start around $150 for small tabletop propane models but the heavier-duty permanent-style units run $500+. The ongoing propane tank refill costs may be more predictable.

See a clear comparison of the major specifications between fire pits and patio heaters in the table below:

Spec Fire Pit Patio Heater
Mobility Not portable, permanent install Portable, lockable wheels
Placement Non-combustible surface needed Any patio/deck
Fuel source Wood, coal, gas, gel Propane, electric
Heat output 35,000 - 150,000 BTUs 5,000 - 50,000 BTUs
Coverage area Groups (larger spaces) Individuals (small spaces)
Group of young people toasting marshmallows over a fire pit

Pros and Cons of Fire Pits vs Patio Heaters

Weighing the positive and negative factors associated with both patio heaters and fire pits helps crystallize which is ultimately better suited for your specific backyard.

Fire Pit Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Inviting, nostalgic ambiance
  • Broad heating coverage
  • Lower initial purchasing costs for basic models
  • Creative customization potential as a permanent backyard feature
  • Range of fuel options from wood to propane

Cons

  • High heat dangers require safety precautions
  • Permanent placement limits flexibility
  • Cleaning and ash removal are necessary
  • Smoky residues and strong smells
  • Not suitable for wood decks or under overhangs

Patio Heater Pros & Cons

Pros

  • More affordable commercial-grade options
  • Adjustable heat directionality
  • Contained heat doesn’t dissipate quickly in the wind
  • Uniform warming coverage in small spaces
  • Quick mobility with locking wheels
  • Typically portable for flexible placement

Cons

  • Ongoing propane tank costs/refills
  • Limited heat reach and intensity
  • Accessibility challenges with ceiling-mounted installations
  • Higher energy costs for electric models
Patio heater in a garden seating area.

    Key Questions to Ask Yourself to Choose Ideal Outdoor Heating Option

    Deciding whether a patio heater or fire pit makes the most sense ultimately comes down to an honest priorities assessment. Key questions to ask:

    • What primary purpose will it serve and for how much of the year?
    • What kind of atmosphere do you prefer: the nostalgia of a fire or the efficient utility of a heater?
    • How much space needs heating and who will typically gather there?
    • What fuel is readily available to you and fits your lifestyle?
    • How portable does it need to be and what regulations apply for permanent structures?
    • Does your budget allow more upfront or ongoing costs?

    If you want an enduring backyard living space focal point that draws people together, a customized fire pit is tough to beat. When the goal is boosting flexibility to use changing outdoor venues as temperatures permit, patio heaters better match practicality and budget for most.

    As you weigh these considerations, reviewing an in-depth fire pit buying guide can provide helpful direction in identifying the ideal heat source aligned with your backyard vision. Factors like design, size, materials, and available accessories all impact satisfaction.

    Outdoor fire pit in a garden with wicker furniture

    Patio Heater vs Fire Pit - Which is the Best Overall?

    Ultimately, fire pits and patio heaters both have their merits depending on your specific needs and priorities. However, when weighing the inviting atmosphere and broad heating coverage of fire pits against the flexibility and safety of patio heaters, fire pits emerge as the best overall outdoor fire option. Thoughtful placement and proper precautions mitigate any downsides for most homeowners seeking to extend outdoor living space use.

    FAQs

    What should I consider when choosing between a propane fire pit and an electric patio heater for my outdoor space?

    Several factors should be considered: the type of fuel you prefer (propane firepit or electric patio heater), the initial cost, and the heat settings. An outdoor propane firepit may provide a warmer and more authentic fire experience but requires managing propane gas and ignition, while electric patio heaters are typically easy to use and can be set at different heat settings. 

    Are propane patio heaters a safer choice than firepits?

    Patio heaters tend to come with safety features that may not be available with most firepits. For example, many types of patio heaters have an automatic shut-off feature if the heater is tipped over. However, it's essential to always follow the proper safety guidelines when using any type of outdoor heater.

    What is the difference between a hanging patio heater and a standing electric patio heater?

    The key difference is how these heaters use their energy to generate heat. A hanging patio heater, as the name suggests, hangs from the ceiling and provides heat from above, while a standing electric patio heater distributes heat from its structure, usually in a circular manner. Your choice depends on your patio space and layout.

    Which one is right for me if I'm looking to extend my outdoor time, a patio heater or a fire pit?

    Both patio heaters and fire pits are excellent choices for extending your outdoor time. If you enjoy gathering around a fire pit, roasting marshmallows, and having a fire table surface for drinks or food, a fire pit may be the right choice. If you prefer a smoke-less environment, more heat control, and want to avoid the care that a fire pit requires, a patio heater might be best for you. Let’s take a look at what suits your yard the best.

    What are the main types of patio heaters?

    Patio heaters come in various styles, with propane, electric, and natural gas being the common types. There are also different designs to fit various settings, such as standing, tabletop, and hanging patio heaters. Each type has its own set of benefits and features to enhance your outdoor gatherings.

    How does a patio heater work?

    Patio heaters work by producing radiant heat. Propane heaters use a propane gas tank to fuel the heating element which emits heat, while electric patio heaters use either infrared or halogen bulbs to generate heat. The heat is then spread out through the top of the heater, warming up the surrounding area.

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    About The Author

    Andy Wu - Resident Expert

    Andy Wu - Resident Expert

    Andy Wu is the resident backyard products expert and hails from Atlanta, Georgia. His passion for crafting outdoor retreats began in 2003.

    As a fellow homeowner, he founded Backyard Oasis to provide top-quality furnishings and equipment, collaborating with leading manufacturers.

    His main focus is on sheds and generators!

    In his spare time he like to hike the tallest mountains in the world and travel with his family.

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