In mid-October of 2021, just as the weather was turning colder in the Northeast, New York City ruled that it would not permit restaurants to use the very same outdoor heaters that kept dining open through the previous COVID-19 constrained winter. The city ordered that only electric heaters and natural gas heaters could be used to keep diners comfortable at their sidewalk tables. New York City’s decision wasn’t just a mistake, it was completely backwards; the approved electric and natural gas heaters are neither safer nor cleaner than their reliable propane counterparts.
Changes to the Open Restaurants Program
In an article by Crain’s New York, a spokesperson for former Mayor Bill DeBlasio said, “We want Open Restaurants to be a permanent part of New York City’s landscape, and the most important step we can take is keeping diners and staff safe.” Open Restaurants refers to the program, pushed as a result of COVID, in which restaurants could use public outdoor spaces such as sidewalks to serve customers. While New York City had long prohibited the use of propane heaters for outdoor dining, it permitted them to accommodate the increased demand for al fresco eating.
Then the city made a very strange U-turn. It offered $5,000 grants to small business restaurants to help them transition to electric or natural gas heaters. The city claimed that the shift in policy was for safety alone, not necessarily for environmental purposes. However, propane heaters were used effectively and without incident while they were permitted. No fires have been reported since Fall 2020, when propane heaters became commonplace outside of restaurants.
Electric Heating Safety Concerns
Here’s the truth: electric heaters are not safer than propane. There are special electric heaters for outdoor dining, but in general, they are relatively dangerous fire hazards. The most obvious point is that electric heaters must be plugged in, requiring a wire connection. This wire, draped across the floor or sidewalk, can create a tripping or electrocution hazard or result in an electrical short. The National Fire Protection Association recommends several steps to decrease the hazard from these power cords, but safety remains a concern.
In November of 2020, the New York Times reported that the Consumer Product Safety Commission blamed electric heaters for more than 1,000 home fires each year, and the National Fire Protection Association said 85% of home heating-related fire deaths were the result of electric fires. The New York Times points out the need to keep electric heaters on flat floors, away from water and at least three feet away from any flames. All of these may be difficult in crowded New York City settings.
Natural Gas Infrastructure Concerns
Though the city claims that its support of electric heaters over propane was not environmentally driven, the question is, why not? In November of 2021, for example, 39.5% of electricity generated for the New York region was generated using natural gas. 4.5% of electricity came from burning petroleum, which emits far greater greenhouse gas emissions than either natural gas or propane. Petroleum, for example, can emit 118% as many greenhouse gases as propane, and that does not even account for dissipation between the power generation plant and the electric heater at the restaurant.
Regarding the safety of New Yorkers, the preference for natural gas over propane is odd, at best. Natural gas is safe — as is propane — but the natural gas infrastructure in New York is in need of repair and updates. The New York Times warned in 2014 that New York City’s gas plumbing is aging and “decaying.” While there were no accidents or incidences from the regular use of propane heaters in the last year, there have been major disasters caused by natural gas explosions in the recent history of New York City. Incidents may have been the result of illegal gas hookups, which are a very real and ever-present possibility in a world and city where people occasionally cut corners.
Return Propane to the Program
New York City elected a new mayor, Eric Adams, who took office at the start of 2022. As winter weather approaches, the Adams administration would be wise to reconsider and welcome back the reliable propane heaters that saved the city’s restaurants last year.