COVID-19 ISO Insights

Winter Risks: Pandemic Fuels Increase in Outdoor Space Heater Use

October 19, 2020

By: Christopher Sirota, CPCU

Many cities have restricted restaurants to outdoor dining because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To keep customers cozy during the evenings and cooler weather, some places have reportedly been using outdoor heating lamps. Some individuals are also seeking to stay cozy with outdoor heaters for their homes.

As a result, reports Slate, online searches for heat lamps at a popular furniture website increased by 70% compared to last year, and outdoor space heater vendors are seeing interest from consumers as well; since traveling away from home is temporarily limited due to the pandemic, consumers likely are spending more time in their backyards and have greater use for these products.

Slate.com describes the two types of outdoor space heaters typically used in hospitality settings and some considerations during the pandemic as follows:

Configuring heaters for a certain space can be tricky given social distance and fire safety guidelines. Though it’s certainly safer than indoor gatherings, crowding multiple tables around a single unit increases the risk of coronavirus transmission. Some restaurants are finding that they have to mix and match different kinds of heaters to maximize warmth while ensuring distance. Stand-alone patio heaters—the ones that look like street lamps—tend to be cheaper, foreign-made models that use propane tanks; you can easily find them at [major home improvement retailers]. Higher-tier heaters, which can emit heat over a larger radius, often require installation into a wall or ceiling, and have natural gas piped in.

Fire Concerns?

The Ontario Government has released safety guidelines for restaurants to help mitigate both fire risk and the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning when using outdoor space heaters. Of note, the safety guidelines explain that propane fuel tanks should be stored outdoors, heaters should not block exits nor be used within a tent, combustible hazards like umbrellas and tablecloths that are often located near heaters should be removed, and heaters should not be positioned on uneven sidewalks, on grass, or at the edge of an elevated platform.

Climate Concerns?

A related Axios article adds that the increase in use of outdoor space heaters may also slightly increase greenhouse gases (GHGs). The article first notes that the National Restaurant Association conducted a survey which found that about 50% of responding full-service restaurants plan to use outdoor space heaters to prolong outdoor dining during the pandemic as the season gets colder. Also, as examples of increased demand, per the article, a propane seller in New York City has reported that sales have increased by 200% (to about 250,000 tanks per month); a large retailer's sales of heaters are also up by 1,500%.

Regarding potential impact on the climate, Axios explains that, although propane is considered to be one of the cleaner fossil fuels, a propane-fueled space heater still contributes carbon emissions, similar to natural gas. Though the emissions are reportedly minimal, Axios sought to estimate the possible carbon contribution, and roughly determined that, if 50% of the approximately one million restaurants across the U.S. began to use outdoor space heaters, "such heaters could create 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, which is 0.02% of today’s emissions."

Relatedly, the New York Times has reported that these environmental concerns relating to use of outdoor heating tools, in part, are why France has announced that heaters used by cafes and restaurants on outdoor terraces will eventually be banned.