When I looked into choosing a patio heater for our small-to-average (15’x15′) uncovered patio, I wound up in the freestanding propane category pretty quick.

From what I can tell, a lot of people do. Here’s a quick read on why it was basically the only option that made much sense for our open-air patio—and how I ended up zeroing in on one model in particular.

Let’s start with the 3 basic types of patio heaters:

Infrared Radiant patio heatersInfrared-radiant electric models heat reasonably well and are cheaper to operate than propane … but they didn’t seem right for the wide-open patio. These are almost always the elongated box-type (pictured here), so we’d have to mount one (or more) on the exterior wall.

We thought would have looked weird and been too far away from the patio’s center where ‘the action’ is. Plus, we would have had to pay an electrician to install it/them. There are a few infrared freestanding models, but … my wife and I found them too strange-looking and a bit out of our price range.

Infrareds seem most appropriate when the patio is covered or semi-covered. That way they can be mounted above you and beam the heat/infrared waves down on you. You often see these on restaurant patios; they’re economically smarter for long-term use vs changing propane tanks. The good ones are closer to $400-500, but that was more than I wanted to pay—by a lot.

Besides being cheaper to operate, infrared heaters do have another basic advantage over typical ambient-heat (convection) patio heaters. In breezy conditions, they’re better because they’re heating you (and the objects around you), not the air that’s being moved around by the wind.

Tabletop propane patio heaters are kinda neat, and if I had a few extra hundred dollars to throw around for supplemental heating … I might buy one. I thought sitting around a heater at a table might be a little weird, and they’re not as small as you’d think (see pic)

But, for me, tabletops have a more basic problem: they just don’t heat nearly the area that typical freestanding patio heaters do. It’s not close, really. Huddling around the table to keep warm didn’t sound so fun.

So, we wanted a big one, a freestanding one that would heat at least a 10’x10′ area. And that we could move around the patio if we wanted to. That pretty much leaves natural gas versions and propane models.

I nixed natural gas immediately because a) I don’t have an outside gas outlet and didn’t want to pay for installing one, and b) we didn’t like the idea of a hose running across the patio. Too easy to trip over and generally be in the way.

They are very efficient, though, and put out lots of heat. I could have gone for AZ’s version if I were going that route because it looked like a good buy.

Freestanding Propane Patio HeaterFreestanding propane patio heaters: basically the only kind that seemed to fit out needs. You can easily spend $500-1000 or more for a 40,000+ BTU model, but the good news is that you can get a really decent one for far less: like under $200.

Granted, their quality on the details is not as high as on higher-end models, but the key is that they perform remarkably similarly when it comes to heating. I don’t have $600 for a patio heater, but if I did, could I expect it to last 3-4 times longer than $100-$200 models? Research and reviews told me no.

Lots of manufacturers

So which of the more affordable models was the right one? AZ, Sun-Glo, Fire Sense, Garden Sun, Thermo Tiki, Belleze and XtremepowerUS are some of the bigger players in propane patio heaters, each with their own pros and cons.

After reading and watching everything I could find about freestanding/floor-standing models, I made a list of all the features to be considered. Here they are, more or less in their order of importance:

Features I considered:

Heat output: gotta be 40,000+ BTUs, which should comfortably heat a 10’x’10’ area in cool conditions—not when it’s freezing-a** cold outside.

Starts easy: Practically all models use the piezo-electric ignition for easy pushbutton starting—but they vary widely in how easily they light, according to reviews. I wanted one that ranked high in this aspect. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Hard to tip over—but has a safety switch just in case. Unexpected gusts of wind happen, especially in the fall around here. Don’t want this thing crashing down because it’s not likely to fare well. Safety tilt-switch was mandatory, non-negotiable. The harder to tip, the better.

Easy to move around. Gotta have wheels, period. For repositioning it slightly to adjust for wind direction, and for rolling it away to the garage.

Not too hard to put together. I’m pretty handy but it sounds like some of these are almost impossible to get right the first time. No thanks on those, especially the ones with unintelligible assembly manuals.

Style/looks: It’s nice if they look cool …

Last, but probably most important, value. Gotta get good heating and good times for my bucks. Don’t want to scrimp and regret it, but don’t want to overpay, either.

The most blaze for the buck

With those factors in mind, and a budget between $100-$200, I eventually singled out the Fire Sense model shown below. Here’s why: heat output, 46000 BTU, is quite a bit above average. Ease of starting appeared to be above average. Tipping over—average. Easy to move. Looks fine, some others are more stylish. Instructions and assembly: well above average. Took me about an hour.

All in all, it looked like the model that would give us the most blaze for the buck. And I’m happy to report it’s worked out well. It’s easy to light and warms up a nice big area. I often don’t even have to turn it up past “low,” which saves on the propane. It seems plenty stable, especially when the tank is full. But I’m still a little worried about tipping when it’s super-windy, so I put a couple of small sandbags at the base just in case. Classy, I know.

There are quite a few models that are very competitive on price and performance in the $100-$200 range. Each has their own little plus and minus: coolest-looking, but hard to light, for example. Hardest to tip but weak heat. Great value but impossible directions. Works nice but rusts fast. You have to weigh those details to make sure you get the patio heater that’s right for you.

I do highly recommend the Fire Sense, but here’s a link to some of the most popular freestanding models under $200 on Amazon in case you want to compare specs and reviews.

Happy heating—hope this helps!