Flame-lit patio heaters are becoming more popular for the winter months when we strive for more time outdoors without getting too cold. However, I’ve noticed that the flames don’t always stay lit, and the heaters seem to just go out for no reason. Why are patio heaters so finicky, anyway?
Patio heaters can keep going out because the pilot doesn’t stay lit. This can be for several reasons, including too much distance from the thermocouple, blockage or carbon buildup on the pilot, or unideal placement of the heater itself.
This article will discuss the various reasons for heater malfunctions, with the pilot, thermocouple, and other possible issues. I will also give some troubleshooting suggestions and simple fixes for an unlit heater.
Why Patio Heaters Go Out (and How to Fix Them)
Pilot and Gas Issues
The most common issues with gaslit patio heaters usually have to do with the pilot: the starter flame which ignites the heater itself. If the pilot is lit and steady, the heater is ready to be used. However, this means that any issues with the pilot lighting process will effectively break down the heater. If the pilot goes out at all during use, the heater will automatically turn off.
Thermoelectric, gaslit patio heaters rely on the pilot to keep the flame going, even in the coldest of weather conditions. In turn, the pilot gets power from the gas (usually propane) tank underneath the heater. The gas is the source of energy, but it needs the pilot to provide the actual flame.
Is the Pilot Too Far From the Thermocouple?
If the pilot is too far from the thermocouple, the gas compartment won’t stay open, and the fire will go out. The thermocouple doesn’t sense the gas from the pilot, and therefore can’t regulate the amount of gas from the tank. This causes the tank valve to stay shut and the pilot to remain too low to ignite the heater.
What to do:
The thermocouple to pilot distance can easily be adjusted. Making sure the pilot is off, you can use pliers to squeeze the thermocouple a little closer to it. This will help the thermocouple to know when to release the gas through to the pilot.
Is the Pilot Dirty or Corroded?
The pilot is the most used part of a patio heater and has a constant flow of gasoline over it. It’s easy for the pilot to get coated in oil, dirt, or have some blockage because of this. If this happens, the pilot can’t ignite, and the heater won’t light up.
Sometimes, exposure to weather can cause the pilot to rust and corrode over time. This is a more serious issue but can be prevented with a patio heater cover. Each brand of patio heater has a different case, but I’ve found that this LDPF Heater Cover is an economical choice and can be used on several umbrella patio heaters.
What to do:
Make sure the pilot is off, and wipe it down with a damp cloth. You can gently also wipe down the gas valves to be sure that they are free of excess oil or dirt. Once you turn the pilot back on, you will be able to see a difference in the pilot light. If you see excessive rust after you wipe it down, the pilot might need to be replaced.
Is the Gas Valve Too Tight or Too Loose?
Properly connecting the gas tank to the pilot is absolutely essential for the heater to work. If the valve that runs between them is too loose or too tight, the amount of gas being released will be too much or too little, and either way will shut down the pilot light.
What to do:
Check the gas valve to make sure that it is tight. You can also adjust the height of the pilot and the gas pressure by loosening or tightening the valve.
The thermocouple is another vital part of the patio heater: it responds to the change in temperature by creating a current of electricity. Most thermocouples sit right outside the gas tank, regulating the amount of gas being released into the heater. This keeps the flame at a safe level while the heater is on.
The most common issue with the thermocouple is being too far from the pilot (which I addressed above underneath “pilot issues”). However, there are some other easily fixable thermocouple problems that could be affecting your patio heater.
Is There Buildup on the Thermocouple?
Carbon can build up on the thermocouple in a similar way to gas on the pilot. The constant run of gas over the thermocouple causes this buildup, and it can cause the sensor to not pick up on the pilot light.
What to do:
Similar to the pilot buildup, clean the thermocouple with a cloth. Ensure the wires stay in place during the cleanup – it’s easy to pull them out accidentally. Once the wires and parts are clean, the thermocouple will be able to sense the pilot light again, and the heater is back in business.
Is the Thermocouple Worn Out?
When the thermocouple wears out, it will stop sensing the pilot. This will shut down the heater again, and you won’t be able to keep warm. A thermocouple generally wears out after a few years and is easy to replace. If your heater is new, don’t worry about this – it shouldn’t be a problem for a while!
What to do:
If it comes to this, you will need to replace the thermocouple. I found the Meter StarPatio Heater Kit to be cheap and effective for several heaters (although depending on your brand of patio heater, you might need to find a different brand that is compatible).
Here is a quick and easy thermocouple removal and replacement video:
There are other issues with patio heaters that are not related to the pilot light or the thermocouple. Some of these might need a more in-depth troubleshooting or to bring it to a specialist. However, sometimes the issue is simpler than that.
Is the Heater in a Good Environment?
Sometimes, despite all of your troubleshooting, the heater’s flame still keeps going out. If this is the case, it might be worth looking at the placement of the heater on your patio. Is it in the path of the wind? Is it in the open or under a patio roof?
What to do:
Ensure that your heater isn’t in a draft – next to a wall or near a corner are great places to keep it out of the wind! Keep the heater under a pavilion or high roof to keep it out of the rain, and store it in a shed or garage with the cover on.
Is the Propane Tank Empty?
This seems like an obvious problem, but it does happen! It’s easy not to notice the level of gas in the heater’s tank. As it begins to run out of gas, the pilot will sputter and burn at a lower height than usual.
What to do:
Buy more propane, and keep warm!
Whether your patio heater won’t light or keeps going out, there is probably an easy solution. The gas tank, pilot, and thermocouple work together in a simple but effective way to provide outdoor heat. Troubleshooting can be fast, so you can get back to enjoying the warmth of your heater even faster!