What’s the swamp cooler equivalent of an outdoor space heater?
October 17, 2020 1:25 PM   Subscribe

I have a medium-sized porch in Chicago, and I want to be able to use it for as much of the fall and winter (lol) as possible. But it’s a wooden porch, and fire safety is of course a concern, plus real space heaters are largely sold out. And I love DIY versions of things, so...

I don’t need this to work THAT well, even kind of well would be a triumph. Tabletop fire pit is out because of safety I think, and I have zero experience with propane anything beyond watching “King of the Hill.” I’ve seen a lot of posts about flower pot heaters (like this), but I can’t tell if they really make a difference outside, and I can’t tell if it’s really much more fire safe than anything else.

The porch is open on all sides, and while I’m open to hanging up curtains for when I’m out there alone, that defeats the “safer to socialize outdoors” covid issue. Is there something like, idk, a pizza stone or cauldron that I can heat up in the oven for a bit or whatever? Dumb, janky, McGuyvered answers welcome! (Yes, I have read the previous similar questions.)
posted by Charity Garfein to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is this just for you or multiple people?

Is there something like, idk, a pizza stone or cauldron that I can heat up in the oven for a bit or whatever?

There's the classic hot water bottle and all kinds of microwaveable heating pads.

There's also all kinds of USB-powered wearable heated clothing (you can probably use a portable charger for the ones that don't come with their own battery). Note that I've never tried these myself so this isn't a personal recommendation.

You don't have any electrical outlets, right? If you do, then heating blankets can be great.
posted by trig at 1:43 PM on October 17 [3 favorites]

With what sounds like three open sides, you will have pretty much instantaneous heat loss, regardless of the source. If you aim for convection heat (heating the air, then the air heats you), you'll get nowhere because it will dissipate through the screens before it gets to you. So what you want is radiant heat, which is what those tall gas-fired terrace heaters deliver. Something like this appears to be available for shipping and would do the job. Or this.

If you want a DiY version of that, the stand or suspended frame is easy enough. For the actual heating portion, you could use one or more electric stove elements like these. But honestly, between the cost and the safety issues, I'd order up one of those manufactured ones.
posted by beagle at 1:43 PM on October 17 [1 favorite]

The classic is the hot water bottle. I got several (in cute sweaters) at the end of the season that I'm looking forward to using for my feet this winter. You could also use (or make, they're very easy to DIY) microwaveable rice bags.

We spend all but the coldest 3-4 weeks of SoCal summer outside, and we use electric blankets. You absolutely have to have good hats, too - our basic is just a beanie, but this year I'm getting a flannel ear-flap cap.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:45 PM on October 17 [2 favorites]

Do you have power out there?

I find a heating pad or an electric blanket can be lovely on a chilly night. If it is cold, folks may find keeping masks on actually more comfortable.

There are also heated seats for stadiums or camping that are rechargeable. It's pretty simple and scalable, as you'd only need to use/turn on the ones for your guests or just yourself. You can use with hot water bottles, as suggested above for hands and lap blankets. Then you're only heating the people, not the air.
posted by typetive at 1:49 PM on October 17 [3 favorites]

My answers here are more of the "things you can sit on, under, or in" variety...

As mentioned above, if you've got an outlet out there, sitting on an electric blanket/heating pad is going to go a long way. If there's one thing I learned from ice fishing, it's that sitting on warm things goes a long, long way.

It also gives you the option of putting it under your butt and over the front of your legs. If it's a having-guests-who-also-need-to-be-kept-warm scenario, a power bar and a bunch of electric blankets/heating pads could handle multiple people, assuming the amperage for the outlet is sufficient.

And, in all seriousness -- snowmobile suits are designed to keep you warm while you're sitting and not moving around much.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:50 PM on October 17 [1 favorite]

What about something like this?
(Note: I'm not endorsing it, as I don't own it.)

I think that the openness means that any option that is not literally on your body is going to be less effective, though.
posted by sm1tten at 1:51 PM on October 17

There's also all kinds of USB-powered wearable heated clothing (you can probably use a portable charger for the ones that don't come with their own battery).

There's also a whole universe of heated motorcycle clothing and gear. Like with many other things, there's a whole rabbit hole of reviews you can go down with it.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:10 PM on October 17

Yes, I have power out there, and this would be for me and one or maybe two other people. (These answers are all helpful already! I def have warm clothes, though; I'm set on that front.)
posted by Charity Garfein at 2:12 PM on October 17

If you go the electric blanket route, draping another blanket over it will contain the heat much better.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:35 PM on October 17 [1 favorite]

Sadly, this isn't a McGuyver solution, or even something you can DIY, but we just purchased this oscillating space heater for precisely the same reason (and we also live in the Chicago area). We just tested it today with another couple on our screened porch and while it didn't keep us toasty warm it made it tolerable to be outside. (The temperature was in the low 50s at the time, with a lot of wind.) When I'm out there alone, of course, I can put it much closer to me and the toastiness factor should be even better.
posted by DrGail at 2:48 PM on October 17

I would buy a few vintage glass heating trays and position then strategically on your porch. You could even hang them underneath your chair seats if you felt like it, or suspend them vertically from the underside of your table for individualized radiant heat. I bet you could even put your feet on them, but I'd want at least a thick pair of socks.

I think wattages are typically ~200-300, they come in various sizes, they have thermostats most of the time, they're cheap (you'll pay more for the shipping if you buy on eBay), and they're pretty safe. I also think they look good, but it will be a challenge to make them look like they belong out on your porch hanging from things. Maybe you could take the little rubber feet off and hang them back to back — or even take off the bottom of one and wire the glass heating element of another into its frame so that it's Janus-like with a heating element facing out on both sides. I've taken a number apart, and it would be pretty easy to do, and the thermostat is rated for more than twice the wattage you'd need, as I recall.

Given their abundance on eBay, I'd guess there are lots of them in thrift stores, for less than the eBay prices.
posted by jamjam at 3:21 PM on October 17

A similar question was asked recently, may be useful. Here's my response.
posted by theora55 at 3:29 PM on October 17 [2 favorites]

Heated clothing is pretty great.

Honestly, I've been looking forward to wearing masks during the winter. Last winter, in Chicago, I started covering my mouth and nose when outside to keep my nose warm to stay more hydrated, and it worked very well. The KN95 masks I have now should be even better.
posted by amtho at 3:47 PM on October 17

It makes a big difference if the seats are warm - even covering your deck chair with a comforter and having a big flat cushion on the seat, and another big flat cushion against the back can make you comfortable. Add a wool lap blanket and you will feel the cold much less and can put your hands under the blanket to keep them warm.

Finger-less gloves could come in handy.

If you fill a container with extremely hot water you can use it for a foot rest and that will help also. Heated foot rests were traditional back in the days when carriages, sleighs and churches were unheated. They can make as much of a difference as a radiant heater. You could start with the kind of large plastic bottle that vinegar comes in or just use two quart pop bottles.

We sometimes bake potatoes, wrap them in a napkin and then stuff them into our pockets. When they cool down enough we eat them. They are much nicer than hand warmers. They do not last as long but provide much more heat.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:55 PM on October 17 [3 favorites]

We’ve been looking at the same problem. Seems like there are two kinds of outdoor heaters - radiative and convective. The typical propane heater is mostly convective; that is, it works by heating the air around it and then the air moves and heats you. Most electric heaters are radiative - they send out infrared radiation which (simplifying here) does not interface with the surrounding air. You get heated from the infrared heater directly, much like the heat lamps on a buffet line.

Pros of an electric radiative heater - works in open air, won’t be affected by wind, can be very directional. Cons - radiation heats surfaces and may not be as good as a convective heater to warm you if you’re wearing a thick jacket. It only works via line of sight, so it’s area of effect is limited. Also, the electric heaters seems to be underpowered compared to propane.

A convective heater will work pretty well in still air even without shelter, but any wind will negate its effect. A windbreak with a propane heater might do just as well as an infrared heater. No idea on the fire risk of any of these, though, it surely depends on the individual models.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:13 PM on October 17 [1 favorite]

I wonder if a kotatsu would be a useful concept here? A table with the heater underneath, and a lap covering to keep it under the table. (Please be very fire-aware if you DIY!)
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 7:17 PM on October 17 [4 favorites]

We're doing electric blankets.

The things we're noticing are that even with the blanket on high it's still very easy to end up with a cold nose, cold hands, and cold toes. You'll want a good scarf for the first one. Chemical heaters should work for the other two. (We use these ones that are little cloth packets with grains of iron, salt, and a few other things. You shake them up and then put them in your mittens or boots. You can buy a big case of them at a camping/hunting supply store.)

Especially if you're entertaining guests, keep in mind that food and drinks will get cold much faster than you're expecting. I'm thinking about getting a couple of big thermoses to serve drinks/coffee/cocoa in so everyone's isn't just going cold in an open mug. If you don't go that far, an insulated mug is better than an uninsulated one.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:41 PM on October 17 [1 favorite]

I was going to say explore using a kotatsu.
Warm your lower body with an enclosed heat source under a table. Throw several blankets over the table so that they will pool on the ground (these may need to be anchored). Stick your legs inside.
Cotton burns, synthetics melt. Don't let materials come in contact with the enclosed heat source.
Be careful about burns and electrical shocks. Be careful about pets and children playing underneath.

If the table is low, it will be easier to completely enclose the space and the heat source will bring the temperature up faster.
Keep your feet and your bum on insulated surfaces. It may help to have portable insulation that you bring outside as needed for your feet and bum, so that you are not tempted to just sit down and start shivering as they steal your warmth away.

Heat rises, so having a screen around and above you will hold in your body warmth. Also, use something to diffuse the wind coming in from the porch openings.

Long, loose layers are your friends. Wear wool if you can stand it, microfiber/fleece if the itch factor is a problem. Stay away from sweating or adding moisture from your lungs into your clothing layers.
posted by TrishaU at 5:32 AM on October 18 [1 favorite]

I was coming to suggest an Andalucian brasero, but it seems to be nearly identical to the kotatsu that TrishaU suggested.
posted by wile e at 1:34 AM on October 19 [1 favorite]

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