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The covered patio at the Hermitage Country Club was always popular in the summer. Set up off the main dining room and overlooking the 18th tee, the patio uses a superstructure and awning to hang ceiling fans and lights that keep the space comfortable in warm months. But in the fall and spring, chilly weather would limit its use.
To extend the patio season and host more profitable events during those popular golfing months, the Richmond, Virginia–area club turned to a quick and cozy solution: propane-fueled patio heaters.
Outdoor Kitchen Creations owner Paul Pietrowski installed 13 Bromic Platinum 500 radiant infrared patio heaters in the superstructure, with the club’s propane provider running the necessary gas lines. The heaters are installed in several zones that can be activated at the flick of a switch to heat up a chilly table.
Propane heaters were a smart option for the club because they’re more cost-effective to operate than electric and provide a cozier radiant heat. Plus, the club was already a fan of using propane for commercial cooking, heating, and other applications.
“They want to open it up for mid-fall, when still it’s nice enough to be out there but not quite nice enough to not have a sweater or coat on while you’re dining,” Pietrowski says. “And because they’re in the food and beverage business, to end up being shut down for those kind of events hurts financially.” With the heaters in place, the club can remain open for private and professional tour events in all but the coldest months.
Maximizing restaurant square footage
Once a niche outdoor living application for temperate regions such as coastal California, commercial patio heating has taken off nationwide. Bromic, an Australian company, developed its product in 2007 to address anti-smoking regulations that were driving smokers outdoors onto patios, says Karl Tschauner, director of sales for Bromic in North America. The company entered the North American market about 10 years ago. “That trend has gone globally, so patios have taken on an ever-increasing role in the restaurant world.”
For restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality businesses, the heating trend is all about maximizing revenue. Hotels can capture more dollars from their business travelers by keeping them on the property. And restaurants can turn their outdoor spaces into usable square footage for an additional 12–16 weeks of the year.
“Most restaurants I believe operate on a very slim margin,” says Eric Kahn, director of operations for Alfresco Heating, which sells and installs patio heaters in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Let’s say they can add 20 percent more tables. They may increase their gross revenue 20 percent, but it could as much as double their profit potential.” Guests seated on heated sidewalks can be a great advertisement, and with many guests preferring to sit outdoors if it’s comfortable, some restaurants are building as much seating on their patios as they are inside.
Architects and business owners are enhancing these patios with louvered roofs or retractable awnings that can create sunlight or block rain, as well as powered side curtains or manually installed vinyl curtains to stop the wind.
Advantages of built-in patio heaters
Those pergolas and roofs are also a great place to install built-in patio heaters, which offer a number of performance and safety advantages over portable heaters. Fixed-mount systems won’t tip over, present a tripping hazard, or get damaged in a storm. They’re out of the way, leaving more room for tables on the patio floor. They don’t require portable cylinder changes, since they’re plumbed to permanent gas lines. And the infrared radiant heat they produce is much more efficient and wind-resistant than with portable heaters, which emit much of their heat as convection heat that rises away from guests.
While propane or gas units can sometimes cost more upfront, they’re usually much less expensive to operate, especially in areas with high electric rates, so the payback period is quick. Another factor in the decision for commercial applications is the availability of electricity. A 6,000-watt patio heater at 240 volts draws 25 amps. Six units would require 150 amps. “There’s not too many businesses that have 150 amps to spare,” Kahn says. “It might be more practical to get gas to run the six gas heaters.”
That factored into the decision at the Hermitage Country Club, Pietrowski says. The club didn’t have enough amps available for electric heaters, but there’s no limit on how many gas heaters they could run. “They have large tanks there because of the cooking and everything, so it would not be a strain,” he says.
Propane also serves as a go-to option when natural gas is not available, as was the case at Hermitage and for a community pavilion Pietrowski is working on now. While the neighborhood surrounding the pavilion has gas access, bringing it over to the pavilion was too costly. So the community dropped in a propane tank to provide fuel for the heaters and a propane fire pit featured in the outdoor amenity area.
Patio heater innovations
Infrared Dynamics developed the first infrared patio heater in California more than 50 years ago, and the company’s SunPak and SunGlo brands are still popular today. And manufacturers are continuing to bring innovative technologies to market. SunStar recently introduced an overhead patio heater that is wind-resistant up to 40 miles per hour. Bromic prides itself on staying on the cutting edge of style, manufacturing units that don’t look out of place in a high-design hospitality environment.
Controllability has become a major trend in heating and HVAC design, and Loxley, Alabama–based manufacturer Calcana brings that trend to the patio with low-intensity infrared patio heaters that offer modulating controls allowing users to dial the heat up or down, says John Vancak, president of Calcana. “You can actually walk up to our heater and turn the dial up and adjust the heat output exactly as you would your stove or a dimmer switch in your dining room,” he says. “Our units will blast heat out in a hurricane or blizzard, yet provide gentle warmth on a summer evening.”
Calcana’s units also operate without open flames or glowing red parts and have the lowest clearance to combustibles, meaning they’re a good fit for tight spaces. Calcana’s product line includes ventable models that can be used in outdoor living spaces that are enclosed in the offseason. “In order to do this, gas-fired heaters need to be vented so they meet the health, safety, building, and fire protection codes, something our Standard Series can do.”
With the rise in popularity for patio heating comes an opportunity for architects to help their clients with system design and approvals. “The restaurateur wants to know what this thing’s going to cost,” Vancak says. “And because the outdoor patio is now a big component of the restaurant’s revenue, they want to know what it’s going to look like.” For development and building permits, the architect can illustrate what the heating system will be on the patio alongside lighting and landscaping. “The architect and engineer can now help their client all the way through from concept to opening.”
Manufacturers, product dealers, and designers like Outdoor Kitchen Creations and Alfresco Heating can help with technical expertise, such as understanding combustible clearances, how high heaters should be installed, which brands work with low overhangs, and how to direct heat effectively. Starting early in the process can result in more effective heating systems. “When restaurants have come to us with their patios, arbors, awnings, whatever already in place, it’s really limited our ability to heat for them,” Kahn says, “so we find that more and more times that we’re starting to be consulted on an architectural level.”