Cottage Q&A: Outdoor heaters and the environment

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Do outdoor heaters hurt the environment?
—Joe Dixie, via email

Well, they don’t help the environment.

A little over a decade ago, when outdoor heaters became especially popular in the U.K., they faced a flurry of criticism for their high CO2 emissions, their energy wastage, and their general kind-of-stupidness. Eco-groups such as Energy Saving Trust called for a ban. According to a report by EST, the average patio heater emitted around 50 kg of carbon dioxide per year, and, in six months, used about the same amount of energy as a gas stove. “Why don’t people just wear a jumper?” said Philip Sellwood, then the chief executive of EST, in an interview with the Telegraph in 2007.

Flash forward to the present: here in Canada, no one we asked—at the Office of Energy Efficiency; provincial government agencies; environmental consulting firms; even an expert in green engineering at UBC who has actually researched the environmental impact of patio heaters—had updated data to share. Of course, no one gave these units a hearty fist bump, either. “I would question if there is any good way to heat the outdoors,” says Karen Halley of Greenup, an environmental organization based in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes area.

If we’re talking carbon footprint, the impact of propane vs. natural gas vs. electric is going to depend somewhat on where you’re located, says Alex Waters, an environmental consultant with a background in energy-efficient housing and renewable energy. Ontario, Quebec, and B.C. “have a largely clean grid,” he says. (Most of the grid’s energy comes from clean sources, not from burning coal or gas.) So in those areas, “propane and natural gas heaters would be worse than electric heaters.”

Will running any outdoor heater at the cottage blow your personal pollution budget? Let’s be real here: “Driving up to the cottage in the first place will have a bigger impact,” says Waters. Still, you might prefer to save your carbon footprint allowance for something else, and, as Philip Sellwood suggested, “wear a jumper.”

Got a question for Cottage Life’s Cottage Q&A? Send it to answers@cottagelife.com.

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