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Path to Zero
2.04 - Propane Patio Heaters or Fire Pits? Which is Better for the Environment?
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Tucker Perkins welcomes a leading fire scientist to get some insight on the chemistry of carbon related to patio heaters.

Nelson P. Bryner leads the Fire Research Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Mr. Bryner has published dozens of papers and reports on important subjects like fire protection technologies for both buildings and communities to enhance disaster resilience, as well as firefighter safety.

show notes

Before getting into the big question about propane heaters and fire pits, Tucker and Bryner discuss his fascinating career at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a non-regulatory agency of the United States Department of Commerce. The agency runs laboratory programs that include nanoscale science and technology, engineering, information technology, neutron research, material measurement, and physical measurement.

Bryner’s Fire Research Division focuses on fire safety engineering, firefighting, fire investigation, fire testing, fire data management, and intentional burning.

Propane Patio Heaters vs. Fire Pits

With the pandemic and during cool weather months, there’s been a real interest in patio heaters for backyards, but in a big way, for restaurant patios. The National Restaurant Association did a survey that found nearly 50% of full-service restaurants took actions to extend outdoor dining seasons by using patio heaters. That has a lot of people wondering about the impact on the environment.

According to Bryner, there are pluses and minuses to using either fuel. He says fire pits and propane heaters have similar chemical reactions. Heat is created when molecules in each fuel break apart, combining with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide.

Wood fires don’t receive enough oxygen for the wood to burn completely. With more oxygen, Bryner says propane flames achieve more complete combustion and require less fuel to produce heat.

Bryner says the orange color in wood fire pits is caused by the burning of soot, a mass of carbon particles containing toxic compounds.

While wood is less efficient, Bryner says wood is considered more sustainable because you can plant more trees. He also points out that technology is advancing on renewable propane, made from biofuels.

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