Fire pits can keep you warm outside underneath the Texas stars. Whether entertaining or just enjoying the beautiful outdoors with family, a fire pit ensures that you don’t have to rush inside when the weather turns cool.
But where do you even start if you want to get a firepit in your backyard? And what do you need to know about staying safe around them?
We asked Katie Flaxman, director and cofounder at Studio 31 Landscape Architecture and Garden Design, for advice.
“Fire features tend to promote community and connection and are a source of light and heat as the nights and weather draw in,” says Flaxman. “Fire features in gardens are useful in allowing people to engage with their gardens for a greater proportion of the year, thus engaging with nature also.”
As with other types of designs, Flaxman recommends asking yourself several questions to ensure you’re getting the product that meets your needs. “Engaging with a designer is the easiest way to get this right because choosing a fire feature is the same as adding a piece of furniture to your home.” The style of the fire pit or table should fit the design of your space. However, Flaxman pointed out a few other questions you should be prepared to answer.
“Do you want it for aesthetics, warmth, light, socialising, entertaining, escaping?” Flaxman asks. Deciding why you want it will help you determine the type of fire pit that will work best for you.
“Is it there for a once-a-year party? In the summer only? Camping out under the stars?” Flaxman says some homeowners never plan on using their firepit – they just want one for aesthetic purposes. “In this case, a fire pit with unlit logs inside makes for an interesting sculptural feature,” she says. By answering this question, Flaxman says you can probably decide how much you want to spend on a fire feature and what type would best fit your needs.
Many fire tables have functional features. “For example, they may have touch panels and produce an immediate flame; however, they are large and should be considered a permanent addition to the garden.” And there’s a reason these fire tables are permanent fixtures. “They’re quite heavy and will either by supplied by a permanent natural gas pipe or heavy LPG gas bottles,” Flaxman explains. “Often these are installed as part of a permanent seating arrangement or structure like a sunken firepit.”
On the other hand, if you would rather have a fixture that can be moved, Flaxman recommends a fire pit or pot-bellied stove. “These are solid fuelled and tend to be smaller, lighter and more mobile.”
This is another question that can help narrow your choices. “Solid fuelled fires require the sourcing and storage of fuel as well as making up fires by hand and often a period of time before fires produce sufficient heat,” Flaxman says. However, significantly less effort is required for fire tables and gas fuelled fires – and they produce heat immediately. “The down side is that they often don’t have the character or rustic charm of a wood fuelled fire.”
Gas fire tables are considered safer since they don’t produce embers. “However, they still produce an open flame, so their placement away from sources of ignition, including low hanging branches, should be considered carefully,” Flaxman says. They use gas, so installation will be performed by a fire safe gas engineer – and it’s vitally important to regularly maintain the supply. “Their weight also means you also need to be cautious that the surface beneath the fire table is strong enough to support its weight.”
There are no gas supply issues with solid fuel fire pits – and they don’t weigh as much. However, Flaxman advises against using them on grass or planted areas. “Surfaces like gravel, stone and porcelain are recommended to reduce the risk of scorching or ignition from flying embers,” she says.
Of course, children should never be unsupervised around open flames, and after fires are switched off or extinguished, Flaxman says the fire source should be monitored for a while. “Fire pits with lids are useful in this respect – but again, it is important to note that surfaces close to the fire can remain hot for a period of time following extinguish of the fire and children should still be supervised until these have cooled.”
When considering sustainability, there are several things to keep in mind. “It is important to consider the materials the fire table is constructed from, as well as the fuel itself.” While natural gas and LPG are non-renewable resources, Flaxman says they burn cleaner than wood fuel.
“There is an increasing trend towards gas fires fuelled with bioethanol; however, these tend not to burn as hot and for this reason, they are often not able to compete with the warming aspect of more traditionally fuelled outdoor fires,” she explains.
“Solid fuelled fire pits are increasingly being fuelled by alternative means including soy, recycled sawdust and even coffee beans, many of which substantially reduce emissions by up to 80%, so solid fuelled fires can be an option if owners consider the sources of their fuel responsibly.”
Terri Williams is a freelance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, the Houston Chronicle, and U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.