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Demand for patio heaters soars ahead of Covid-19’s first US winter

An outdoor heater at Union Station in Washington, DC
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Good luck getting one of these before New Year’s.
  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Membership editor


It’s a good moment to be selling outdoor heat lamps in the US. Yes, there’s always a bit of seasonal fluctuation as the weather cools. But it’s never been like this.

“We have been in this business for over 55 years…and we have never seen demand like we have seen in the last 90 days,” says Pete Arnold, the president and CEO of AEI Corporation. Demand has been “at least double” what it usually is for this time of year, he says.

Outdoor heaters, which warm outdoor spaces using electricity, propane, or gas, are in such high demand because the pandemic has people avoiding indoor space. Homeowners are using them to extend the time they’re able to socialize with friends at a distance in their backyards; restaurants need them to warm diners as government restrictions limit indoor capacity. In New York City, the mayor just extended a program allowing restaurants to take over parts of the street to increase the space for outdoor diners year-round.

Alfresco Heating, which is based on California, saw a 135% increase in sales in New York between May and September over the year prior, says Eric Kahn, owner and director of operations. “The reality is that we’ve never had any month with as much sales as we’ve had in any of the last five months,” he says. From May to the end of September, the company’s sales were up more than 90% over the same months the year prior.

The industry, however, wasn’t ready for this kind of demand; Arnold says a spike came when smoking bans were enacted, but that it was smaller. “I don’t think anyone that I’ve talked to really anticipated the spike in demand there has been. It’s caused some problems on a national scale,” Kahn says.

As US restaurants prepare for the cold winter months, it’s taking longer to fulfill orders for some of the most popular products, such as the umbrella domed propane-powered heaters. Arnold says those “are probably going to be very scarce, if available at all, at least until after the first of the year.” Other models, from portable propane-powered models to permanent overhead installations, are sold out, too.

Unlike earlier in the pandemic, when supply chain issues were caused by factory shutdowns in China, supply hasn’t been able to meet demand because manufacturers simply didn’t anticipate it. “I would say conservatively that 90% of all of those heaters come from overseas. Those factories determine their production schedules six months in advance, and none of them saw this coming,” Arnold says.

Now, demand is so high that most factories are backordered, says Kahn. Lead times are especially long for overhead gas patio heaters and overhead electric heaters.

No one’s quite sure how long this demand, like the pandemic itself, will last. “Looking six months in advance, we see that now through the first quarter of 2021, that the demand will be very high. But our crystal ball only goes until about next April, and we don’t know beyond that. We are gearing up to have double the production, double the inventory, between now and the end of next March,” Arnold says.

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