Baby It's Cold Outside: A Guide To Outdoor Heating

Posted: October 16, 2020
Category: Home , Retail , Safety/Emergency

Earlier this month, New York City Council speaker Corey Johnson took to social media to say that Gotham’s governing body had “just voted to extend the outdoor dining program through next year and to allow restaurants to use portable electric and propane heaters for outdoor dining in these upcoming colder months. We are also going to make this a permanent program.”

The announcement was welcome news to local restaurant owners who have been among the hardest hit during the coronavirus pandemic. While indoor dining had resumed throughout the city at 20 percent capacity, restaurant guests have shown a reluctance to eat inside during the pandemic. The policy to make sidewalk dining permanent was win-win with struggling restauranteurs and hungry diners alike.

The news was also a dog whistle to restaurant and homeowners alike to “get your system now.” In recent weeks, reports from outlets like NBC, The Washington Post and Business Insider have all noted a spike in outdoor heating system sales with many models on backorder for weeks or even months.

With winter coming and heater inventory evaporating, how do you know which type of heating system is safest and most efficient and economical for you and your guests?


There’s no doubt that propane systems have their benefits. They provide 360 degrees of heat and are extremely portable. They’re also a very versatile option for spaces that get reconfigured often. These are the pluses.

The drawbacks to a propane system are few, but significant. There’s the obvious risk of fire and the silent risk of gas leaks. In fact, Angie’s List notes that carbon monoxide poisoning from natural gas or propane average more than 15 deaths per month, and that’s just from appliances that have fixed gas piping. Factor in the deaths from portable devices and vehicles, like RVs, boats, grills and barbeques, and more than twice that many people are killed.

Moreover, guidelines governing proper use for propane heating systems for restaurants remain in question. While the city and Fire Department are working to ease safety restrictions to accommodate year-round outdoor dining, Eater reports that two weeks into October, with each day getting colder than the next, restaurateurs say they are frustrated with the city for the lack of clarity.



Unlike natural gas or propane heaters that work by using fire, electric heaters (also called infrared or radiant heaters) produce heat by energizing an emitter. Once the emitter is heated, it throws off infrared rays that warm people and furniture.

“Think of an infrared heater like the sun, only without the harmful UV rays,” Eric Kahn, founder of California-based outdoor heating company Alfresco Heating told The Washington Post. “The denser the object, the greater degree to which it will heat up,” WaPo notes. “For instance, a cast-iron table would eventually radiate heat back, just as it would do in direct sunlight.”

Other key advantages of opting for an electrical outdoor heating system are the environmental benefits that they carry. There are eco-friendly heaters that use much less energy and fuel than gas or propane systems and can actually lead to a reduction in your energy bills.

Electrical systems are also best for permanent situations. And with year-round sidewalk dining greenlit by the City Council and restaurant owners investing up to five figures for outdoor sheds wired with decorative lighting and media systems, professionally installed electric heaters are ideal for pre-planned outdoor spaces.



When it comes to outdoor heaters, the old adage “you get what you pay for” rings true. With increased demand diminishing supply for heating systems, you may be tempted to go to Home Depot and do it on-the-cheap. Don’t. Some lightweight inexpensive models are practically disposable with reflectors that may warp after a few uses and certainly won’t hold up through the season. A high-end model should last 10 to 20 years.

One quick rule of thumb for choosing a heater came from Graham Reed, vice president of wholesale heater distributor Sunglow Industries, who told WaPo readers to shake the box before buying. “If it rattles or has a bunch of loose pieces, odds are it’s not well put together,” he said.



When installing multiple heating units on a patio or sidewalk restaurant shed, it’s vital for the safety of your guests not to go cheap. You may think that it’s just a matter of buying a bunch of extension cords. It’s not. It’s important to know how much power your electrical system can handle. You may need to install extra breakers that accommodate more than standard 110v household current. It’s equally important for the comfort and safety of your guests to have the correct unit(s) for your space properly and professionally installed by a licensed and insured electrician.

PK & Altman Electric has been working with satisfied home and restaurant owners throughout the greater New York area on a variety of projects for over fifty years. Our team of skilled electricians are available for all stages of installation from helping you choose the heating system that’s right for you to working with your building management to ensure that any system upgrades are compliant with your proprietary lease. And as a licensed contractor approved by Con Edison, all work done by PK & Altman Electric is guaranteed to meet New York City’s latest safety code standards.

Whether you’re choosing a wall-mounted or overhead system for a patio, small balcony or large outdoor café, PK & Altman’s team of licensed electricians are on-hand to help you turn the heat up on Old Man Winter!


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