Outdoor Living in the Cold

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The explosion in demand for comfortable outdoor gathering space is driving a surge in heater sales.The explosion in demand for comfortable outdoor gathering space is driving a surge in heater sales.

Since the pandemic began, homeowners have been pouring out cash to make their backyards an exciting place to be. With COVID restrictions, that space became more crucial and valuable than ever. But no matter how robust the renovation or dire the need for refuge, cold temperatures close that outdoor living space just like COVID closes nightclubs and stadiums β€” unless there's a source of outdoor heat.

As last summer cooled into fall, this obvious truth was not lost on homeowners in need of a COVID-compliant social gathering space or just an escape from the house. Some found the solution in backyard campfires: True Value reported a 300% increase in wood-burning fire pit sales. Others looked for something less smoky, and easier to start and stoke. For Dimplex, an electric heating company headquartered in Ontario, the influx began early. The story of outdoor heaters reads much like the story of every other backyard product β€” wild demand followed by a struggle to keep it supplied.

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"In the beginning, we had to analyze how [COVID-19] could impact us, so we quickly put together a lot of plans for what-ifs," says Jim Bottrell, vice president of business development. "What we didn't realize was that business was going to take off the way it did. We had a large influx of new business that we didn't expect, and we were able to ramp some things up. But just like a lot of other suppliers, we had supply constraints.

"With this demand, we've seen everybody, but the vast majority of people purchasing our products are homeowners. It all goes back to the way COVID made people invest in their homes and create space for a bit of a staycation."

A Package Deal

Outdoor heaters facilitate the use of a plethora of backyard products, from grills to furniture β€” basically making them usable on cool evenings in fall and sunny afternoons in winter. Bottrell says he has seen many units installed in conjunction with outdoor kitchen projects and fire features, creating an opportunity for dealers and retailers to bundle up products.

"It's all about adding it in to create a full package," he says. "People want a solution that gives them everything they're looking for, and they want it all together. They don't want to have to think about where to get this or where to get that.

"With an outdoor kitchen, you get a bit of radiant heat from the barbecue, but if it's windy out, you lose that warmth. So it's nice to have the heaters in and around the areas where people are cooking, sitting or eating. It creates some more of that ambient heat that lets you stay outside. It helps take that chill off, and you can be more relaxed."

When it comes to setup, nearly anything goes. According to Bottrell, there's no certain type of space that works best for incorporating outdoor heating.

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"It really depends on what you're trying to achieve in your space," Bottrell says. "Because, for example, if it's a semi-enclosed space, you can't run propane. And it is much easier to run wiring than it is to run gas lines. It just comes down to what product works best for the customer."

That said, there is an ideal power supply situation. Though some of Dimplex's infrared models can be wired at either 120V or 240V, 240V is the much more efficient option. At 240V, the heaters are putting out their maximum wattage.

Installing an outdoor heater is a relatively easy process, but the electrical wiring isn't something homeowners should be doing on their own. Bottrell recommends hiring a licensed electrician to run a line from the panel to wherever the outdoor heating unit is installed.

Infrared outdoor heaters are popular because they heat the people, not the space, providing comfort and savings.Infrared outdoor heaters are popular because they heat the people, not the space, providing comfort and savings.


Hot Commodity

When it comes to product models, Bottrell can pinpoint a definite hot spot in the market. "Infrared is a growing category and has been for several years," he says. "Infrared technology doesn't so much heat the space, it heats the objects. The nice thing about this is if you have a windy area, you actually seal in the heat that would blow away. It's a more comfortable way to heat space."

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Infrared also offers tremendous versatility: As an indoor/outdoor product, it is safe and rated for use inside. "For instance, if you wanted to warm up some space in your garage," Bottrell says, "an infrared heater works better. With a traditional fan heater, you heat up the air and blow it around, but as soon as you open the door, the heat will blow away and disappear. Infrared can heat the people in the space versus the space itself, which is really convenient and definitely quicker as far as feeling the heat."

The Silver Lining

The past year has posed a challenge to keep up with demand, but Bottrell is excited by the opportunities for heaters going forward as part of the backyard movement. Next year, the company will launch a gas line featuring free-standing outdoor heaters as well as mounted natural gas heaters.

"We are focused on being a fuel-agnostic company. We have something for every consumer, whether they're looking for gas, electric or water vapor systems. We want to do the same thing when it comes to outdoor heat.

"The record sales for hot tubs and pools have blown me away. It's good to see a lot of positive come out of something really negative," he says. "Despite all this uncertainty, there's been a lot of good news for backyard products."

This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of AQUA Magazine β€” the top resource for retailers, builders and service pros in the pool and spa industry. Subscriptions to the print magazine are free to all industry professionals. Click here to subscribe.

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