Understanding fire pits


Gathering around a warm fire has brought people together since the beginning of mankind. Whether it’s a campfire in the woods or a fireplace in your living room, fire adds warmth and comfort while attracting people to gather. It’s only natural to want some sort of real fire as the centerpiece of your outdoor living space.

Safety dictates that your fire should be contained in some sort of enclosure, so that it won’t spread out of control. Simply piling up logs and kindling and lighting them could be dangerous. That’s why fires in campsites and backyards are usually surrounded by rocks, bricks, or some other non-flammable material. This enclosure can be temporary or permanent. It can be simple and basic, or as elaborate as your budget will allow.

When planning a firepit for your outdoor living space, the first choice you’re faced with is whether it should burn natural wood, or be fueled by propane or natural gas. This is a key decision, because gas-burning firepits are structurally different from those designed to burn wood. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

Most of us like the sound, smell and warm glow of burning logs, so that’s instinctively our first choice. It’s fairly simple to build a wood-burning firepit. The main safety issue is whether the material surrounding the fire can withstand the extreme heat of a blazing wood fire. Most concrete, brick or natural stone will break down when subjected to repeated heating and cooling cycles. It’s also not unusual for stones or blocks to explode under high heat. Well-made fireplaces are lined with special “fire brick”, which is safe and durable under extreme high temperatures.

Another consideration is the task of fueling and cleaning your firepit each time you use it. You’ll need to stock firewood and kindling, and keep them dry. Firewood can be dirty and messy, and firewood stacks invite insects and rodents. Cinders and ash need to be removed and disposed of, preferably before they get soaked by rain. This waste material is mostly carbon dust and chunks, which stain everything they touch.

Another consideration with burning wood is the smoke. Wood-burning firepits need to be located downwind from your main seating area. Breathing wood smoke particulates isn’t healthy, and you probably don’t want your clothes to smell like wood smoke afterwards. Pay attention to the prevailing wind direction when you plan your layout, so that the breeze will carry the smoke away from where you like to sit (at least on most days).

We’ve installed many built-in firepits over the years, most of them embedded into paver patios. One thing we’ve observed is that firepits designed to burn wood are rarely used. There’s simply too much work involved, for our busy customers. This is why we’ve persuaded many homeowners to let us install patio firepits with propane gas burners, and we’ve done this dozens of times. These units don’t offer crackling sound effects or wood smoke fragrance, but they make it easy to relax around a hot fire at a moment’s notice, without any preparation or cleanup.

If you’re planning a patio project, consider including a built-in firepit. You’ll find that having a good-sized flame as the centerpiece of your outdoor living space extends your enjoyment into the cooler months of the year. The prospect of relaxing by a warm fire will pull you outdoors into the fresh air, and enliven your outdoor entertaining. The more convenient your firepit is to burn, the more often you’ll enjoy it.

Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.

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