Everything You Wanted to Know About Outdoor Fire Features
Don’t burn through a ton of time poring over all of the options available to homeowners looking to add a little sizzle to their outdoor living space. From an elaborate outdoor fireplace to a humble fire pit, there’s a fire feature that will meet your needs.
First, consider the space you have to work with. You don’t want to build a fire under any roofing and flames should be kept at least 10 feet from any nearby branches, structures or other objects.
Next, think about how you want to use your space. Different styles, materials and fuel types lend themselves to different applications.
What distinguishes an outdoor fireplace from an indoor fireplace? Exposure to the elements! An outdoor fireplace must be able to stand up to rain, snow and extreme temperature variations, even if it’s located under a covered patio.
Outdoor fireplaces can be a permanent, built-in structure or a portable feature. There are very few options available for out-of-the-box permanent fireplace solutions, so you may need to hire a professional contractor or willing to undertake a relatively involved DIY installation project. Portable fireplaces, however, do not require installation and are available for purchase at a number of local or online retailers. Portable outdoor fireplaces are similar to fire pits and fire bowls, but are generally enclosed, focusing the heat in a specific direction.
Even if you didn’t know what they were called, you’ve likely seen a chiminea before. Spanish for “chimney,” these front-loaded fire features usually have a bulbous body and a vertical smoke vent. The covered design keeps rain from extinguishing the fire while also directing and intensifying the heat that escapes through the front opening. The vent on top of the chiminea directs smoke upwards and away from those seated nearby. The enclosed design also makes the chiminea one of the safest styles if you plan to use your fire feature around children or pets. For extra precautions, you can also use a spark arrestor or screen in the the chimney to avoid having debris exit the basin.
They are available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Try to find a design and size that fits your needs; a small opening works better with an intimate, smaller group setting, where a larger model with a wider opening would work better with big groups.
Chimineas are not designed for cold weather. If you you live in an area with hard winters, be sure to store the chiminea in a safe location. They are also less than ideal for cooking, so you may need to look at a different styles if you intend to use your fire feature as part of an outdoor kitchen space.
Fire Pit Tables
It’s a fire feature and a conversation piece! A fire pit table puts your fire feature at the heart of your outdoor space, allowing guests to eat or drink around a comfortable fire. Fire pit tables combine form and function, usable as both a dining or lounge table and also able to provide a heat source or cooking location.
The center of the table contains a fire, usually gas powered or electric, but some wood burning options exist. There’s a flexible range of styles, sizes and shapes, from coffee tables to huge dining tables. Smaller tables have the advantage of being more portable.
From the classic, no-frills campfire to an elaborate stone construction, the fire pit is easily the most popular fire feature around. Whether you build it yourself or buy a prefabricated model, options abound for you to customize the fire pit to meet your needs. Fire pits make excellent heat sources, grilling locations and social gathering spots. In-ground pits or portable designs are available.
A fire column is a newer outdoor fire feature that falls between a fire pit and a fire bowl. Usually gas-fed, fire columns are a vertical structure with space atop a fire. These rectangular features have the benefit of being slimmer and more compact than a bowl, allowing you to place them in a smaller space. While the interior construction is almost always metal, the exterior can be decorated in stone, wood or other materials to match the rest of your outdoor decor. They are ideal for heating, but not so great in the cooking department.
Fire bowls offer all the functionality of a fire pit with added portability. These large metallic bowls are suspended low to the ground by an iron frame. One of the cheapest options, you can find them at most home improvement stores. Bigger bowls allow you to add a grill to the top and can be great for outdoor, campfire cooking. Wood is an ideal fuel source, but other options can be used.
The design of a fire bowl allows the fire to be enjoyed from all sides and is good for groups. For a larger or more elevated fire feature, you might consider a fire table, instead.
While some fire features are restricted to a certain fuel type, others allow you to choose from a number of different fuels.
Conventional wood-burning fireplaces and stoves are a time-tested solution.
Pros: The crackling and popping of burning logs creates a hard-to-beat, natural ambiance. Depending on your location, fuel may be plentiful, or at least cheaper than propane or natural gas.
Cons: Wood-burning fireplaces require a lot of time, effort and money to use and maintain. In addition to regular cleanings to avoid creosote build-up, these fireplaces are not particularly energy efficient and subject to more potential fire hazards than other fuels in the form of stray embers and rolling logs
A fireplace in name only, electric fire features don’t actually produce a flame. They are sometimes offered with glowing lights and sound effects to simulate the appearance of real flames. Make sure you have access to an outlet!
Pros: Since they don’t burn any fuel, you don’t have to worry about any waste materials from electric fire units. They’re also very easy to maintain and can generally be installed without professional assistance. Some electric fireplaces are purely decorative, or you can find a model that generates heat.
Cons: Your electricity bill might take a hit with heavy use. Electric fireplaces also require a nearby outlet and won’t be very helpful in the event of an outage. If you’re looking for a real flame, consider another fuel source.
A gas fireplace uses natural gas or propane. You may need to run a gas line to the firebox, and some models require an electrical connection.
Pros: Gas fireplaces are efficient and make a great heating source, especially for long, continuous uses as cost-per-hour for fuel is cheaper than solid, combustible fuels. Some models even include a remote control, making operation easier and more casual.
Cons: Running gas lines, electrical connections and designing a venting solution may require time, money and professional assistance. Maintenance concerns involve regularly inspecting the gas lines and chimneys. The gas fumes might turn some people off. The availability and pricing of the fuel varies by location. Gas can burn very hot and additional safety precautions should be taken into consideration .
The same fuel that keeps your catering dishes hot can also work in a fireplace. One of the cleanest-burning fuels, alcohol doesn’t require a chimney or vent, though natural ventilation is still required. The popular options for alcohol include isopropyl and ethanol, which are available in liquid and gel forms.
Pros: Alcohol fireplaces are very versatile both indoors and out since they do not require venting. They are easy to maintain, do not produce waste and can be made from sustainable biomass, making them an attractive, eco-friendly option. Gel cartridges produce a satisfying crackling sound to imitate wood-burning fires. Spent cartridges are recyclable.
Cons: Cost-per-hour of use is comparable to solid fuels, but more expensive to burn per hour compared to natural gas. Alcohol burns at a lower temperature than other fuels and may not be suitable for heating.
Finally, think about what kind of materials will be used in your fire feature. Whether you’re looking to match the aesthetic of the rest of your outdoor decor or trying to find a material that matches your budget, there are an abundance of options for you to consider:
Copper: An expensive option that will require upkeep, copper is nonetheless an attractive, durable metal that will age beautifully. Copper is a good conductor of heat and resists corrosion. Price: $$$
Stainless Steel: Many outdoor appliances and features are available in stainless steel, so those looking to match the look will be pleased to know that the same durability and corrosion resistance can be used with their fire feature. The weather and stain-resistant metal has a high melting point and is easy to clean, though its weight might make portable features prohibitively heavy. Price: $$
Ceramic: If you’re looking to keep the heat from your fire from radiating too much, ceramic is a low-maintenance option that will withstand the elements. It is more fragile than other materials, so be wary of high traffic areas, children or pets. Price: $
Cast Iron: The heavyweight champion of conductivity and durability, cast iron resists corrosion better than steel and offers a distinguished, historical look. Not to be used in instances where portability is valued. Price: $$
Aluminum: One of the most lightweight options available, aluminum requires little maintenance, won’t rust and probably won’t break the bank. Price: $
Stone: An ancient, affordable and effective solution, stone can be used in variety of fire features. A simple ring of stones gets you a working fire pit, while a more involved masonry project can produce a long-lasting outdoor fireplace. Price: $
We hope that these options spark the inspiration that will allow you to create a unique outdoor fire feature that suits your needs and budget!
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