Here’s how to keep your patio, balcony, or backyard comfortable—without creating a fire hazard.

By Lisa Milbrand
October 01, 2020
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If you’re socializing this fall and winter, outdoors is the way to do it. (Friluftsliving, anyone?) But as the weather gets colder, it’s likely that you’ll have to turn to space heaters, fire pits, and other outdoor heaters to make sitting outside comfortable for longer get-togethers.

Outdoor heating products can be safe, as long as you follow the rules. That includes keeping your patio heater or fire pit away from buildings, bushes, trees, and other objects they could set on fire, and ensuring that kids and pets keep their distance. Try these safety tips to make your evening around the campfire (or the patio heater) safe.

Fire pit safety

Who doesn’t love making s’mores around a crackling fire? Fire pits are fun, but you’ll need to be careful about how you use your pit or chiminea—here’s how.

1

This is the biggie—fire pits can throw sparks and flame, which could put everything surrounding it at risk. Put brick, metal, or stone beneath it, set up chairs at least three feet away from the pit, and keep at least 10 feet between your pit and houses. If your fire pit comes with a screen, use it to give you an extra layer of fire safety.

2

Strong gusts could send sparks flying, so skip the pit when it’s windy. If you live in a part of the country that’s prone to wildfires, avoid using a fire pit when the conditions are ripe for starting a wildfire.   

3

Propane or natural gas fire pits are easiest to turn on and off and result in fewer sparks. If you’re burning wood, avoid using pine, cedar, or other soft woods that cause sparks, or leftover lumber from your building projects, which may have been treated with harmful chemicals.

4

Using lighting fluid or gasoline may make the fire harder to control. Instead, look up safe ways to start your fire using kindling like paper.

5

Any time you have an open flame, you’ll want to make it easy to put it out fast. Make sure your garden hose, fire extinguisher, fire blanket, or even a bucket of water is right beside you.

6

If you’re the person tending the fire, keep your hair tied back and wear tight-fitting clothing to ensure that a loose sleeve or lock of hair doesn’t catch fire.

7

Never let the fire go without someone watching it—even if it seems to be dying out. Make sure to pour water or shovel dirt over the last embers, and turn over logs to make sure that no fire remains.

Patio heater safety

Patio heaters have become the must-have accessory for 2020, thanks to the pandemic. Whether you opt for a small tabletop option or a restaurant-style overhead propane heater, you’ll be able to take a little of the chill off—just follow these tips to stay safe.

1

Choose heating products that have been tested and approved by UL and CSA, and look for ones that feature tip-over switches and automatic shutoffs to help reduce the risk of a fire.

2

That means the heater’s components are built to withstand the temperature changes (and inevitable rain) that come when they’re outside.

3

It’s best to place a patio heater on level ground—ideally a patio or deck. Putting it on grass or dirt could make for an unstable surface that could result in it falling over.

4

Most patio heaters either run on propane gas or electricity. Propane ones tend to provide stronger heat but are more expensive to run and require refilling propane tanks regularly. Electrical ones are easier to run but may not provide the power you need.

5

The owner’s manual will give you all the information you need about where to place your heater in relation to your house, plants, and other potential fire hazards—generally, about two feet of distance is recommended.

6

If you’re planning on having a few groups over, consider investing in a couple of heaters so you don’t have to huddle close together around the heater for warmth.

7

Most outdoor heaters (especially the propane ones) are not meant to be used indoors or under covered conditions. Using a propane heater inside could put you at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, so keep it outside.

Alternative outdoor heating options

Fire pits, chimineas, and patio heaters may be hard to come by as the weather gets colder—stock of many of the most popular options has been limited. But there are other safe options you could consider to keep everybody toasty.

Generally, these have been sold to help keep sports fans or hunters warm when they’re outdoors, but there’s nothing stopping you from using them to make a backyard get-together more comfortable.

Electric blankets or shawls can be used for single guests (or a couple with a larger blanket)—look for ones that can use USB power, so you can use a USB cell phone charger for wireless warmth.

If you just need to keep a person or two warm, look for battery-powered jackets.

Consider springing for reusable ones that can be boiled and “recharged” or are battery powered so you’ll always have them at the ready to share with guests.