Heated debate | The Coast Halifax

Heated debate

Tim Bousquet pulls the plug on patio heaters

Hey you! Yes you, you wine-sipping, art-plotting, outdoor-cafe patronizing, cosmopolitan urbanite! You're killing the planet. Cut it out, dammit.

Yea, sure, we all want to live in an oh-so-sophisticated town, with cool little restaurants and sidewalk cafes, just like Paris in the summer.

But you know something? Halifax isn't Paris and Argyle Street isn't the Left Bank, and the blank face of the Chronicle Herald building isn't the Seine. And Halifax is never as warm as Paris in the summer.

So, with the exception of maybe two weeks in late August, hanging out at an Argyle Street sidewalk cafe is just kind of pathetic. It's provincial wannabe-ism of the worst sort. Kind of sad, really.

Already, most nights of the year, those sidewalk cafes don't work unless there's a blasting patio heater between every table.

You know these things: They're about three or four metres high and are fed with a gas line. There's a little conical hat atop them that theoretically points the heat down. If you get too close you're too hot, but if you're too far away you're freezing, so you try to position your chair equidistantly between two or three of them, at just the right temp. It's really quite an absurd experience and defeats the whole point of outdoor cafes, which is to beat the heat of the summer by sitting outside.

Presently, sidewalk cafes are allowed to operate through October. But HRM by Design, the group of city planners who are working to make Halifax a more liveable and walkable city, wants the city government to allow sidewalk cafes to operate year-round.

As chief planner with HRM by Design Andy Fillmore tells me, the proposal is meant to solve a number of problems along Argyle Street—the high cost to merchants of erecting and deconstructing the outdoor seating areas every year, drainage problems and some truly horrific auto-pedestrian conflicts. You won't find me disagreeing with any of that. Sure, make the Argyle Street sidewalks wider. Hell, close Argyle Street to cars completely. Where do I sign that petition?

But I'm not about to sign onto any proposal to extend the outdoor cafe season—not unless there is a corresponding ban on the use of patio heaters.

Let me explain. I've used this space to blast the province for its go-slow approach to upgrading energy efficiency and building code standards, but to the provincial government's credit, next year new construction standards—including tight insulation requirements—will become law.

However, if the HRM by Design plan moves forward, the city government will in effect be actively encouraging the construction of dozens of completely uninsulated, unregulated (energy-wise) sidewalk cafes, warmed by hundreds of incredibly wasteful patio heaters. (Figure a dozen patio heaters at each cafe and once Argyle Street gets the year-round extension, every other part of town will insist on the same.)

How wasteful? Figures from Britain indicate that gas- or propane-fired patio heaters are about 10 times less efficient than heating the same area indoors. I suspect the figure is even worse in windy Halifax. And electric heaters only dodge the issue: Instead of being emitted on Argyle Street, the greenhouse gases from electric heaters would be emitted across the harbour at the Tufts Cove power plant.

Patio heaters are so bad environmentally that the Energy Saving Trust, a British environmental group, has urged a consumer

boycott of pubs and cafes that use them. "Patio heaters are an obviously wasteful appliance in that their job is essentially to heat the open air," reads a Trust press release issued last week. "And they waste shocking amounts of energy doing something that could just as easily be achieved by a rather simpler, completely free and totally carbon-neutral alternative: putting a jumper on!"

The Trust goes on to suggest that people "consider using only pubs and bars that don't use patio heaters."

When I talked to him, Fillmore seemed a little blind-sided by such criticism. "Our intention is to make it a safer, more pedestrian-friendly street," he said. "But now that you mention it, it's reasonable to assume are going to use those heaters more."

Fillmore doesn't know if the city can legally regulate patio heaters—he honestly thinks their use might be protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I guess it's too bad a world free of climate change isn't protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If Halifax can't ban patio heaters, the proposal to extend the outdoor cafe season should be shot down before it becomes policy. And you sophisticated urbanites (and/or provincial wannabes) who think year-round sidewalk cafes are just a grand idea should get off your Euro-hip kick for a moment and consider what is perhaps the most important environmental value: a sense of place.

Let's face it, we live in a place with truly crappy winters. Instead of denying reality let's learn how to dine in the comfortable and wisely insulated indoors.

Your move, Euro-trash. Email [email protected]