Installing a Solaira Alpha Outdoor Electric Heater
We love eating outside at our big table in the back yard, but here in Venice it quite often gets a bit chilly in the evening, even during the summer. So we started to look into some kind of outdoor heating solution. Here’s what we ended up with:
The first thing we considered was the standard free standing gas heater – but it seemed rather too bulky, and would not really cover the whole table (which is eight feet long). We’d have to get two, and they would take up too much room – not to mention the hassle of lighting them, rolling them around, and having to replace the gas cylinders.
A while ago we saw a wall-mounted electric heater in a restaurant, so we decided to look into one of those. There are quite a few available, but I quickly settled on Solaira, as that was the one we’d seen in the restaurant, and they had quite good online reviews.
I decided to get one from their Alpha range, again because that’s what we’d seen. It’s a commercial heater, meaning it’s going to be a lot more reliable, and will stand up to repeated use for a long time without maintenance. Unfortunately it’s also more expensive than a “residential” model, but considering the amount of time we spend outdoors, and the fact that it should last for years, we felt it was worth it.
How many Watts?
The more watts, the more heat. The amount of watts you want is determined by the area you want to cover, and how much heat you need (i.e. how cold it gets). Solaira provides a handy chart to help you calculate this.
The heat zone for me would be with B being the distance from the wall to the other side of the table, and C being the length of the table, plus a bit. so it seemed C = 13′ and B = 10′ would cover it.
That gave me the option of the 3KW or 4KW models. You are also limited by where you can mount it, with there being a minimum height. The 3KW version had a minimum height of 8’3″, and the 4KW was 9’8″, and that would put it up above our shade sail, so 3KW it was. We ordered the Solaira SALPHAH2-3240S ($559), and also the Solaira SCTR120-240 controller ($226). Parts for mounting and wiring will add another $50-$100, plus labor for the electrician. So that’s around $850-$900 plus labor. By comparison two free-standing gas patio heaters would set us back anywhere from $400 to over $1,000, depending on how close to “commercial” quality you want.
How many Volts?
The “240″ part of the part number means that it uses 240 volts. This means you need to add a new 240 Volt hard-wired circuit. If you want something that you can just plug in (120V), then you are limited to 1.5KW (1,500 Watts) or less. You can get more heat by buying multiple 120V heaters, but then you’re running the risk of overloading the circuit (two 1,500 watt heaters would be 25 amps, more than most outlet circuits can handle), so you would need extra wiring anyway.
How easy it is to add a new 240V circuit depends on how close the mounting point is to the breaker box. We were lucky, as there is a secondary breaker box in the garage, just a few feet away from where we planned to mount the heater, and it had plenty of spare capacity. But you’ll want to check with your electrician before you order a heater, regardless of if you go for 120V or 240V.
Physically, mounting the heater is a breeze. You just bolt it to the wall at the right height. It comes with two heavy duty brackets, but no other hardware. The holes are ¼”, slightly tight with the paint. I used a ¼” x 4″ lag screw where it lined up with the stud, and ¼” x 2.5″ bolts with some oversized fender washers to hold it against the plywood. The heater only weighs 12 pounds, and the way I mounted it could probably hold 500 pounds, but a couple of bucks for some peace of mind is always a good idea.
Wiring needs to be done by a qualified electrician, and conform to the local electrical code and requirements for permits. We needed to have a new 15A or 20A 240V breaker installed in the breaker box (which needed a new earth bar to bring it up to code), then wiring needed to be run to the controller, and then to the heater. Since the local requirements and circumstances vary so greatly, I’ll leave this to you and your electrician to figure out.
One issue that did crop up is the that controller itself is very fiddly to wire when using 12/2+G Romex (don’t even think about using 10/2). You are better off with 14/2 and a 15A breaker. There’s a waterproof seal on the controller, and the screws are inserted from the rear, so you can’t wire it in the mounted position. Try starting your wiring from the controller, rather than the other way around. Or have a setup where you can take up the slack (using individual wires in conduit and a box, code permitting). If you just have an electrician run 12/2 to the approximate location, you might be in trouble. Get the electrician to do all the wiring, and use 14/2 if possible.
It works! It provides heat over a wide area. It also provides quite a lot of light – a steady fire-like orange glow. The controller works perfectly. The initial impressions are a bit mixed, and we’ll have to update after we use it more. The first night was quite chilly, the heater was on full, and while it did make me quite warm, Holly still felt a bit cold (mind you, she was in shorts with bare feet). The next day was less breezy, and having it on at 50% was fine (the controller works just fine).
It takes a little getting used to, as it is infra-red heat, it does not heat up the air around you, it just heats you – like standing in the blazing sun on a chilly day. So you need to expose more of your body to the heater to get the full effect.
We were a little concerned that the shade sail might melt, or the eaves of the garage roof might get too hot. But the heat is very directional, and the heater itself does not get super hot. Even on full power for an hour the shade sail did not even get slightly warm, nor did anything else around the heater.
It’s a bit early to say how well it’s worked out, and we probably could have benefited from a larger heater. However we used the largest one we could based on the manufacturer’s mounting specifications (3000W). One thing is for sure, 1500W would not have been enough to cover the whole table from the wall. I’ve seen 1200W heaters say they will heat an 8′x8′ space – I seriously doubt it. If you are not sure, go for a bigger heater with a controller so you can turn it down.