No longer will a wood deck with a grill do for many homeowners wanting to enjoy their backyards. These days, accessorizing means amenities like ponds, flower beds, vegetable gardens, outdoor kitchens and, increasingly, fire pits that crackle and glow.
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, moonlit nights with toasted marshmallows:
Costs can be as low as $200 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 hardware store. But costs certainly can also go up to several thousand dollars, especially when seating is added, says Angie’s List.
As you begin planning, you may want to think in terms of permanence, suggests Laurie Van Zandt, a landscape designer in Utah. 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 that are in the garden or house, Van Zandt says. You can do a DIY job and assemble materials yourself; go with a premade kit from a hardware store that comes with everything you need; or go fully custom, with a landscape professional or contractor designing and building it.
Portable fire pits offer a lot of different options. 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 style you choose, you need to make sure 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.
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, says Van Zandt, who recommends a screen in that case. It also requires a steady supply of firewood.
Some fire pits 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.
It’s best to set a portable fire pit atop a natural surface such as concrete, stone, gravel, brick or slate or on a fire-resistant composite, says HGTV. 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 backyard.
Many communities require a minimum of a 10-foot distance from your house and neighbors’ yards, according to the Seattle Fire Department. 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 help make sure your proposed location is safe (away from fences, structures, overhanging branches, etc). And, some communities have outright bans on open fires like in Denver. Check with local officials before you purchase or start planning a fire pit.
To enhance your 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. You may also want to 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, says Van Zandt.
It’s also important that you know how to safely dispose of the ashes when you’re done with the fire for the night.
In some parts 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.
Originally published October 1, 2013.