As the weather gets colder, it’s driving more social gatherings indoors and leading to an increasing number of COVID-19 cases. Depending on where you live, the long days of summer and its warm weather are either long gone or rapidly disappearing. In our case, we’re used to moving the party inside as the sun went down and things got chilly. Now that that’s no longer a good option, we started trying to make our outdoor space more conducive to the cold and dark. Fortunately, we found plenty of tech solutions to help us continue to entertain outside. We’ll take you through some of those that we’ve found most useful.
Lighting: String Lights Are a Bargain
The end of daylight savings time ushered in a realization that our normal dinner hour was now nearly dark. For a simple solution we hauled out some camping lanterns, but it turns out you can install a restaurant-quality lighting solution for around $100.
We bought an inexpensive set of outdoor string lights, the Brightech Ambience Pro 48-foot string ($44.99 at Amazon), with nice-looking 2-watt LEDs masquerading as small bulbs. We also purchased a set of shades to help keep them from shining too much light around the neighborhood and to protect them from the rain. We used cable ties to attach them to some nylon cord we ran between the posts we use for our sunshade. For a commercial installation, steel cable is recommended, but that’s a lot more work and harder to adjust. A few extra dollars bought us an inline dimmer switch to use with them.
Heating Your Space: IR is Ideal for Outdoors
Other than the rain, cold is the most likely thing to drive people inside. Fortunately, there are dozens of options for outdoor-friendly heaters (although many are in short supply right now). The most common are simple propane heaters. They are probably the most effective and efficient solution, but in our experience, they can be a pain to maintain. If we go a few months without using ours, it seems like a spider makes its web in it, the igniter stops working, or something else fails.
So this year, we decided to move to electric heaters. It has been great to turn them on simply by flipping a switch. Electric heaters use multiple technologies; the most common two for this outdoor application are ones with heating elements and a fan and the other one with infrared lamps. The first warms the air and is best if there isn’t too much of a breeze or too large an area. The second, infrared, projects heat directly onto people and surfaces. This makes them more effective if there is a lot of air movement and typically gives them greater range. However, like any form of radiation, IR still falls off with distance, so you’ll want to keep them relatively close. They also don’t heat the air much, so they aren’t really for heating entire rooms — not a problem if you’re outdoors!
We started off by simply taking a nice indoor heater, the Taotronics Dual PTC ($76.99 at Amazon) outside. It provides 1,500 watts of heat controlled by a thermostat like most indoor heaters, but unlike the cheaper models, it can oscillate and cover a broader area, and it also includes a remote. As long as we kept it or a similar heater really close by, it’d help keep a person or a couple warm. To support two or three couples socially distanced, we decided to add some pricier, outdoor-ready infrared heaters.
The first infrared model we bought was a 1,500-watt waterproof portable unit (a Heat Storm HS-1500-TT Infrared ($106 at Amazon when we bought it, but now $264!), as we weren’t sure where we needed the heat. It worked well for one couple, even at a distance, but wasn’t enough by itself for a socially-distanced group of two or three couples. This time, we bought a similar unit from Patioboss that mounted on the wall. ($125 at Amazon, although it surged to $250 at one point earlier this month!)
One issue with piling on electric heaters is having enough electricity available. Even a 20 amp circuit isn’t technically rated to support 3,000 watts, so we needed to run the second heater off an extension cord into the house. Fortunately, we have a sub-panel nearby, so it was easy to add a dedicated circuit. The result is that we can now use both of them without any awkward cords.
Of course, there is always someone who gets cold, even with heaters and outdoor clothes. So we went one step further and added a pair of heated throw blankets to our arsenal: the iTeknic Electric Blanket Throws ($58.99 at Amazon). They’ve been a huge hit as lap blankets, especially for whichever member of a couple is seated farther from the IR heaters.
Entertainment: Vankyo Portable Projector
Traditionally, many of our social get-togethers involve watching a movie or sporting event together with a few close friends. Indoors, we have a nice 4K projector and screen, so we’re spoiled. We looked at outdoor TVs, but they are incredibly expensive compared with regular versions, and we’re not expecting to use one too much after this year.
Vankyo offered to let us review their new GO300 battery-powered portable projector for our article ($299 at Amazon, or on sale for $249 on the company’s site). It’s surprisingly flexible, with a lot of features you’d find on a smart TV. It has both HDMI and wireless outputs, and the speakers are good enough for group Zoom calls. For movies or sports, I’d still recommend using another speaker connected using an audio cable or Bluetooth. Since it runs Android, you can download and run Netflix, Youtube, and other apps directly on it. We could probably even have paired a keyboard and used Zoom on it directly, but we didn’t try it. Instead, for family Zoom dinners, we used the HDMI out from my laptop.
On the downside, the GO300 is only 150 lumens, so you have to let it get quite dark outside to see the picture on a decent-size screen. Plus, while it can accept 1080p input, its native resolution is only 854 x 480, so you won’t suddenly have an outdoor equivalent of your home theater. Battery life is enough for a movie, or you can just plug it in. The remote is competent, and menu options are about what you’d expect from a budget projector. So if you don’t need a small size and battery operation, you’re probably better off with one of the company’s other models, or getting an inexpensive home projector and just dealing with moving it around. Our sister publication PCMag picked out some of the best home projector values. No matter what device you wind up with, you’re likely to want better sound for movies and maybe sports. PCMag has just done a roundup of some of the best wireless and Bluetooth speakers, as well.
Some friends have built additional roofing over their patios, but we don’t get much rain (unfortunately), so we haven’t experimented with that. Even if you push things a bit and move indoors, you’ll want to maximize ventilation, so heaters and blankets might still be of value. Please chip in with any other tech or tactics you’ve found useful in your own situation in the comments below.
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