Outdoor Heaters Seem Like a Huge Waste. Are They Really?

Patio heaters at a restaurant in Berkeley, California on November 19, 2020. (Jim Wilson / The New York Times)
It's getting cold out there. And whether you're throwing an outdoor Thanksgiving celebration or just trying not to freeze while working from home, you might be curious about the best ways to warm up this winter, but not on the planet.
Let's look at the outdoor options first. Many people have purchased fire pits and patio heaters so they can hang out with loved ones while following COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Rob Bailis, a senior scientist in the US branch of the Stockholm Environment Institute, a nonprofit research organization, has studied the effects of cooking and heating with wood and other fuels around the world. In addition to the harmful effects of smoke on air quality and public health, he said fire pits can affect the climate in two ways.
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The first result comes from the production of firewood. As trees absorb and store carbon dioxide to warm the planet, cutting down forests that are growing faster than they can grow can contribute to climate change. And when we burn these trees, that CO2 goes back into the atmosphere.
In the US, however, this is not a major problem, Bailis said. We generally gain forest instead of losing it. It reduces its impact by using salvaged firewood, which you may be able to purchase from landscaping or tree care companies.
The second way fireplaces can contribute to climate change is by burning the wood to produce aerosols and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and soot.
According to Bailis, you can reduce these emissions by making sure the wood is seasoned, meaning that it has to dry for at least six months after being cut, and by cutting the wood into smaller pieces to burn it more efficiently. (The same tips apply to indoor fireplaces, for which Bailis also recommends adding an insert.)
If you don't feel like channeling your inner scout - or can't or don't want to have a fire due to air quality issues - consider a patio heater instead.
If you get your electricity from renewable sources, an electric patio heater is probably the greenest choice, said Christine Wiedinmyer, assistant director of science at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. However, if your electricity is generated from fossil fuels, propane heating is likely a better solution.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a propane tank emits 0.024 tons of carbon dioxide. This is equivalent to driving almost 100 km or charging your smartphone 3,061 times. Driving through four tanks - which could give you up to 40 hours of heat depending on the heater - it would be like driving 238 miles.
Although these emissions could be problematic if you had multiple patio heaters on all winter, like in restaurants, Bailis said he wouldn't be very concerned about them on an individual level.
"If you are concerned about the climate, even when you are in control, that is not the greatest source of influence," he said. "The car you drive will make a bigger difference over the life of the car than if you burn wood or propane in the backyard for a night or two a week during the winter."
In fact, after doing some calculations on the back of the envelope, Bailis estimated that if your wood consumption didn't cause a net loss of trees, a fire pit would result in roughly the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as propane heating in most of the U.S.
"From a warming point of view, it is a wash," he said. When your energy doesn't come from renewable sources. In this case, an electric patio heater is best. You must base your decision on cost, local air quality, and personal preference.
But what if you go inside Is it better to keep the thermostat low and cozy up to a space heater than to layer and pile the ceilings? Or crank up the central heating?
That, in turn, depends on where you get your energy from, said Jin Wen, an energy efficiency expert and professor at Drexel University.
In general, if you have electric baseboards, lowering the thermostat and using a space heater to work in is more efficient. However, if you have a highly efficient heat pump, you should rely on it and skip space heating entirely.
If you have a gas oven, that's more of a crapshoot. You should consider the efficiency of your stove (check the rating), the size of your house, and the power source of your space heater.
Say you have an old and inefficient furnace and electricity that is wind and solar powered. In this case, space heating can lead to fewer personal emissions. However, if your home is small, the difference probably won't be that big.
The type of space heating also plays a role: who recommended those who give off heat via those who push hot air through a fan.
Since humans evolved alongside sources of radiant heat (think fire, sun), she says that we prefer to receive warmth. So if you use a space heater you may be able to maintain a similar level of comfort at a lower setting, thus reducing your electricity consumption.
Wen said space heaters could also have unexpected psychological effects. Her research suggests that "perceived control" over temperature, such as by having a nearby space heater, can increase your "thermal acceptability" or the range of temperatures in which you are comfortable.
In other words, when used in a place where you don't control the heat, such as a bathroom. B. in a shared office or house with a central thermostat. Just knowing you can turn on a space heater, you may be more tolerant of cooler temperatures.
That said, be careful. Though safer than in decades, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that space heaters are involved in approximately 1,700 fires and 80 deaths each year. To reduce these risks, the group suggests keeping space heaters 3 feet away from flammable objects, plugging them directly to walls, and turning them off before bed.
If you're still not sure what to do, don't lose too much sleep, said Jennifer Amann, program director for buildings at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a nonprofit research organization.
Much like Bailis' thoughts on the fire pit versus patio heater debate, Amann said that other changes, like buying LED lights, adding insulation, and changing the air filter regularly, could make a bigger difference over time than running or changing the air filter Not operating space heating.
Wen also emphasized how important it is to implement energy efficiency measures, regardless of which heating method you choose. Since homes lose 25% to 30% of their heat through windows, it might be imperative to take measures such as weather strips, plastic wrap, and hanging blinds or curtains.
"Otherwise," she said, "you are only efficiently generating heat that goes out the window."
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company

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