Outdoor patio heaters defy Vancouver’s Greenest City dreams: Many tons of carbon emitted each year. Change needed. Leaders needed!

Outdoor heater, Cactus Club English Bay, 2015bWhy are we heating up the great outdoors? Patio space heaters are used in outdoor seating areas by restaurants, hotels, coffee shops and retailers in Vancouver and other places in British Columbia. Developers are installing them on rooftop gardens of new condo towers. Their use is expanding.

A number of countries in Europe are in discussions to ban the practice of using gas patio heaters, as the European Parliament adopted an action plan for energy efficiency.

Besides climate-destroying greenhouse gas emissions, the consumption of fossil fuels adds to demand for the raw materials, which in turn has its own environmental damage (e.g., from fracking).

Gas-powered patio space heaters can be especially wasteful, as some of these units produce 2.6 kg of carbon dioxide per hour. The slideshow below shows patio heaters in Vancouver, Prague, London and Budapest:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For millennia, humans have gathered around fires for cooking, warmth and company. In cities today, we have outdoor patio heaters powered by gas or electricity. Some are warm and cozy. Some have visible flames and some do not. In fact, some have no other function than decorative, to create an ambiance. Many restaurants and hotels use them to attract business — letting large flames burn even on warm days and during daylight hours. Heaters and decorative flames are often left burning even when no one is around.

But they all consume energy. In many cases they are a visible example of wastefulness. A challenge to our values. A symbol of contradictions. And a challenge to our society’s commitment to deal with climate change.

In most cases, outdoor space heaters are a luxury item, unnecessary in practical terms. Some jurisdictions around the world have had public and political debates, and introduced policies to control them. The City of Vancouver has the Greenest City Action Plan, a heavily-advertised goal of being the greenest city in the world by 2020. Many of the hotels and restaurants that use these space heaters proclaim their LEED-standard architectural designs. Many advertise their healthy local, sustainable food policies.

So these heaters shine a light on some deep contradictions.

CityHallWatch is encouraging the public to get involved in this discussion and start some advocacy. Perhaps some citizens’ groups could get involved. Now. This season. What are the ultimate deliverables (heat, light, ambiance, etc.) these space heaters offer? Can they be obtained  in other ways or with significant reductions in energy waste and carbon emissions? Can leaders in the community, government and industry show innovative solutions? Policy? Technology? Good practices? Staff training? Can academics study the issue and pose alternatives? Can entrepreneurs get into the action? Millions are spent a year on these heaters, so there is a huge potential market for smarter solutions.

Waterfront Station Patio HeaterIn March 2015 we checked in with Sadhu Johnston, Deputy City Manager, in charge of the city’s sustainability and Greenest City portfolio. We asked this: “Is the City of Vancouver is doing something to control outdoor gas heaters at commercial and retail sites and restaurants?”

His reply on March 19 was this: “We have been reviewing these units, we have not yet regulated them. Our work is ongoing as we develop our longer term climate change plans and may include them in future building code updates.” We wrote back, “Since the winter is ending and days getting longer, perhaps shop owners can be encouraged to put them away for the coming months, and consider alternatives before next autumn.” His reply was this: “I don’t think we’ll be coming out with anything on it this winter/spring.” And he had no timeline for any action.

Let’s translate that into English: “The environmental impacts of outdoor space heaters are currently a low priority item for the City of Vancouver.” So this means that it’s up to the public to initiate action.

Below are some resources and observations from our initial research. We will add to this post as time goes by, to provide a tool kit for anyone who wants to take action. Can some visionary businesses show leadership and solutions? Can someone offer a prize or award for leadership? It’s up to the public to start the ball rolling. Can we see a change in practices before the summer of 2015? And deeper changes by the autumn?

  • Who has any statistics on the numbers of gas heaters in Vancouver? Metro Vancouver. British Columbia? (See below for an 2007 estimate that in the U.K. at that time, there were larger commercial heaters in 60,000 pubs, 25,000 restaurants and thousands more hotels, clubs, cafes and bars.) Add up all the consumption, and what does it come to? What are the trends? How do emissions from these heaters compare to other greenhouse gas emission sources? And how much benefit could be achieved by reducing them?
  • Searching around the web, we believe there are over 5,000 restaurants in Vancouver, and over 12,000 in British Columbia.
  • Space heaters are also used at hotels, and at homes
  • Besides the multi-million dollar industry in commercial/retail space heaters, retailers include large operations such as Canadian Tire and Home Depot.

We encourage citizens to enter into a (polite) discussion with the owners and managers of hotels and restaurants they patronize. Fill out the comment cards. Send them e-mails. Encourage them to find better technologies and adopt policies to reduce the use of wasteful space heaters and decorative flames. And immediately, they could institute policies to ensure that waste is reduced, such as ensuring that the heaters are NOT used when no customers are present. That requires better staff awareness and training.

Anyone who is concerned about the negative impacts of the fossil fuel industry is looking at the supply side of things. Equally valuable is to look at the demand side. That’s what the issue of outdoor space heaters is all about. How can we cut demand for fossil fuels? Especially wasteful consumption?

Who will be the champions to tackle this issue?

Below are some articles and links with lots of useful information.

Paris finds a Sustainable Alternative to the Gas Patio Heater (12-Dec-2013)

… The latest idea, though, is much more ambitious in terms of potentially reducing carbon emissions. Nowadays, smokers around the world in areas where smoking has been banned inside cafes, bars and restaurants, meet on the streets beneath gas-fired patio burners, especially in the winter.

Spewing carbon dioxide and wasted heat into the atmosphere these devices are the scourge of environmentalists but very popular amongst the owners of catering establishments anxious to attract clientelle. Each heater produces 2.6 kg of CO2 per hour.

Andrew Warren, Director of the British Association for the Conservation of Energy, hates them: “There is no more visible symbol of the unacceptable despoilation of the environment than patio heaters. A ban on their sale would send a strong signal that people have to change their attitudes if we are to meet the challenges posed by climate change.”

Dr Des Turner, a previous member of Parliament in England, failed in an attempt to introduce a Bill in the UK to have the heaters banned in 2009. “The use of patio heaters accounts for about 1m tonnes of CO2 emissions a year, which immediately cancels out, for instance, the savings made by government changes to vehicle taxations,” he said at the time.

Many municipalities now regulate, or are trying to, the use of these gas heaters, although not in the UK. Since December last year the French cities Paris, Lyon, Lille and Perpignan have tried to ban the use of gas patio heaters amidst great controversy. But in Paris this decision was overturned in a victory for cafe terrace owners. The problem is traditional: people like to gather on the streets in the evening, even when it’s cold.

… So if someone could come up with a cheap, sustainable alternative, it would have many champions. This was the challenge set by Faure to innovators anywhere in the world.


Patio heaters targeted over CO2 emissions, by Paul Eccleston (25-Jul-2007)

It is estimated that larger commercial heaters are now in almost 60,000 pubs, 25,000 restaurants and thousands more hotels, clubs, cafes and bars.

Their popularity has soared in the wake of the smoking ban which has led to many organisations installing them for customers driven to smoke outdoors. Now the EST – one of the UK’s leading organisations set up to combat climate change – is stepping up its campaign to persuade DIY stores to stop selling them because of the environmental damage they inflict.

There is also a growing consensus among politicians that action has to be taken against the heaters which were called “an obscenity” by energy minister Malcolm Wickes. Dr Des Turner, the Labour MP for Brighton, failed in an attempt to introduce a Bill to have the heaters banned. “The use of patio heaters accounts for about 1m tonnes of CO2 emissions a year, which immediately cancels out, for instance, the savings made by government changes to vehicle taxations,” he said.

Andrew Warren, Director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, said: ” There is no more visible symbol of the unacceptable despoilation of the environment than patio heaters. A ban on their sale would send a strong signal that people have to change their attitudes if we are to meet the challenges posed by climate change.” And Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper said: “It is hard to imagine a device that inflicts more gratuitous damage on the environment.”

Patio facts:
The Energy Savings Trust estimates:
A propane patio heater with a heat output of 12.5kW will produce around 34.9kg of CO2 before the fuel runs out (after approximately 13 hours). This is equivalent to the energy required to produce approximately 5,200 cups of tea (or 400 cups for every hour of operation).
2.3 million domestic patio heaters would emit the same amount of CO2 in a year as driving from Lands End to John O’ Groats 200,000 times.

The average patio heater uses the same amount of energy as a gas hob uses in six months and emits around 50 kg of CO2 per year. But while a hob is an essential item used every day in most kitchens patio heaters are typically only used for two months of the year, mostly in July and August.

A modelling exercise by MTP on the energy use of the 630,000 UK domestic patio heaters calculated that they could produce a total of 140,000 tones of carbon dioxide per annum. This is roughly equivalent to the CO2 emissions from all the homes in Bath.

Unlike cars, patio heaters are not fitted with filters to reduce the gases they produce. A standard 13kg canister of gas will warm an area outside of up to 25 sq m for 12 hours, whereas the same canister used in a gas fire could heat the same area indoors for 10 times longer.


Patio heaterpatio heater

2 thoughts on “Outdoor patio heaters defy Vancouver’s Greenest City dreams: Many tons of carbon emitted each year. Change needed. Leaders needed!

  1. I’m glad to hear that there are other people wondering about this trend, which has had me in a state of bemusement since the heaters first started appearing. But as someone who agitated hard for indoor clean air in the 1980s, I have been cognizant of the trade-off that you mention – this is how restaurants can keep serving both smokers and non-smokers. There are other flip-sides, green and not-so-green: people with dogs, and people who prefer to keep an eye on their parked bikes are also happier on patios than indoors (leading to some conflict on patios with smokers, I might add; kind of ironic since the ejection of smokers from restaurants and bars more or less stimulated the patio explosion in the first place).

    Hey, how green would it be if you could solve TWO environmental problems with one invention? Let’s take the idea that these devices are the evolution of gathering around the fire. So how about, say, generating heat with on-site waste incinerators? Or, composting generates heat too, sometimes an amazing amount. If you could just control the odour issue in either case, a low-tech solution might well be within reach 🙂

    Or what about channeling all that energy produced in spin or treadmill facilities? Kind of a poetic connection between consuming calories on a toasty patio, and burning them off later!

    However crazy those thoughts are, I appreciate your research, and look forward to further news of more practical ideas.

  2. The COV’s selective application of the Greenest City Action Plan doesn’t end with patio heaters. Fossil fuel powered food trucks roar all over the City spewing emissions not only from point A to B but most prepare and shill their pricey fare burning gas of some sort and/or fossil-fuel powered generators. Outside of Mountain Equipment Co-op on Great Northern Way the COV has partnered with MEC to establish an extensive no-parking zone reserved for multiple food-trucks for their employees yet 1 block East there are no parking restrictions outside the Clark/VCC skytrain/ #84 bus even for Persons with Disabilities. Unless the food trucks in Vancouver are tied into the electrical grid they should not be burning more fuels, MEC could have enabled this but chose otherwise with the blessing of Vancouver City Hall.
    How reserved parking for food-trucks trumps Handicapped parking for the Elderly and Disabled to Access transit is boggling but not surprising, the fact is the COV collects a fee for food-trucks and unless the COV can charge Persons with Disabilities thru parking meters it has little interest in supplying on-street Handicapped parking spots.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s