Considering a Backyard Fire Pit? Here’s What You Should Know

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Fire Pit

No longer will a wood deck with a barbecue do for many homeowners wanting to enjoy their back yards. These days, accessorizing means amenities like ponds, flower beds, vegetable gardens, outdoor kitchens, and, increasingly, fire pits that crackle and glow.

One reason for fire pits’ appeal? According to Sacramento, Calif., landscape designer Michael Glassman, a fire pit can extend back yard use through fall and winter. In fact, fire pits have become so popular that some builders construct them as part of the package for their higher-priced homes, says Florida real estate agent Karen Wentz.

Things to consider when adding a fire pit

Of course, a fire pit can be had without spending top dollar. Because styles, sizes, and materials abound, your choices should be based on your space at hand, budget and, of course, local ordinances. (Some municipalities ban open burning of any kind.)

Here’s what else to consider before planning a fire pit and dreaming of cool, moonlight nights with some s’mores:

How much to spend.  Costs can be as low as $100 if you plan for a small fire pit, buy your own stones and dig the hole yourself; or if you purchase a simple unit at a big box store. But they certainly can also go up to several thousand dollars, especially when seating is added. Still, they’re less costly than an outdoor fireplace (another growing trend), which can run upwards of $10,000, depending on construction method, height, width, and materials, says Chicago garden designer Terrence TerHaar.

Permanent vs. portable. A good way to begin planning is to think in terms of permanence, suggests UtahPortable fire pit landscape designer Laurie Van Zandt: Do you want a fire pit that is built in — a focal point in the yard — or something that’s lightweight and potentially portable, so you can take it where you want your gathering?

For a built-in design, you generally want to match materials in the garden or house, Van Zandt says. You can do a DIY job and assemble materials yourself; go with a pre-made kit from a big box store that comes with everything you need; or go fully custom, with a landscape professional or contractor doing the design and building it.

The options for portable fire pits are equally varied. There are fire bowls that come in a variety of materials — copper or stainless steel bowls are usually lighter, but heavier cast iron bowls also do a nice job of radiating heat. Fire tables are similar to bowls, but are often made at coffee table height. There are also chimney-style options (freestanding pieces with a chimney-style vent) that come in a range of materials.

Regardless of which way you go, you need to ensure that you’re using proper stones and materials (something that shouldn’t splinter when the fire heats up, explains Van Zandt). Make it proportional to the size of your yard, and be sure you have room for seating and circulation.

Wood or gas. While there are alternate fuel types like gel fuels, wood or gas seem to be the most common choices. Those who favor a true outdoor smell usually prefer burning real logs, but that requires keeping flames going (and not letting them escape), says Van Zandt, who recommends a screen in that case. It also requires a steady supply of firewood.

An alternative is to use gas or propane for an instant fire—maybe even powered with a remote switch–though it’s not as hot as a wood fire and you don’t get the same crackle and smoke, explains Van Zandt. Some dual-fuel fire bowls and tables let you do both; and you can design a built-in fire pit to do the same if you have the inclination and budget.

What to set it on. It’s best to set a set a portable fire pit atop a natural surface such as concrete, stone, gravel, brick, slate, or a fire-resistant composite, the experts say. Putting it on a wood deck can be dangerous if embers fly. A permanent fire pit is typically built on a base of gravel somewhere in the back yard.

Where to set up your fire pit. Many communities require a minimum of a 10-foot distance from your house and neighbors’ yards. Some don’t require a permit if the fire pit fits within set size requirements; others require a site inspection from local fire officials to make sure your proposed location is safe (away from fences, structures, overhanging branches, etc). And, some communities have outright bans on open fires. Check with local officials before you do anything.

How to create the right ambiance. To get maximum night enjoyment, consider installing outdoor lighting near the pit. Make it subtle to avoid destroying the camp-fire mood, advises Van Zandt. Energy-efficient LEDs can be plugged into a nearby outlet without making it necessary for you to hire an electrician, she says. And consider seating: Maybe metal chairs in a classic Adirondack style, or a low stone wall that’s at least 18 inches high, 12 inches wide, and 2 feet from the pit for safety.

Safety tips to keep in mind

A fire of any kind-small or roaring big-demands serious attention to safety. ReadyWV offers the following fire pit safety advice:

  • Check wind direction before you light a fire
  • Don’t use flammable fluids (gasoline, lighter fluid, etc) to light or relight fires
  • Don’t wear flammable clothing (like nylon) or any loose-fit clothing
  • Avoid using soft woods like pine or cedar, because they can “pop” and throw sparks.
  • Know how to safely dispose of ashes

In some part of the country–areas prone to wildfires, for instance–disclosing your fire pit may be a requirement of your homeowners insurance policy. It may also be a good idea to check in with an insurance agent to understand any potential impact a fire pit may have on your coverage.

 


 

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[Images: Laurie Van Zandt]

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