In spite of the early evening chill, nobody was ready to end the party.
Our small gathering bubbled with excitement as we celebrated our emergence from lockdown with after-work drinks in the backyard. After more than a year of social distancing, there was definitely some pent-up demand for socializing.
As afternoon slid into evening, our host stuffed a few sticks into a freestanding metal cylinder on the corner of her patio, and a few minutes later, a crackling fire practically begged us to stay a few hours longer.
Soon our group had migrated like moths to the flame. The kids were reenergized. Twigs and a bag of marshmallows materialized. Before we knew it, our casual afternoon get-together had stretched well into the night.
It’s amazing what a difference a fire makes. It’s one of the most basic human achievements, yet it still captivates our imagination and enhances the mood better than almost anything else.
And in the Pacific Northwest, where evenings are often crisp even in summer, a home campfire helps to extend the time we can comfortably spend outdoors.
Even before the pandemic, backyard fire pits were one of the most sought-after home improvements, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects. The past year has put new attention on ways to liven up yard parties, and a new fireplace is a natural upgrade.
There are countless options to choose from — as well as safety considerations. Picking the right fireplace will help you get the right experience for your home and your budget. On the decision tree of options, the first is to decide whether you want to use gas or burn wood. Both have their advantages, so often it boils down to location.
If your fire pit will be on a deck, near the house or close to shrubbery or other landscaping, you should opt for gas. Also, if rental guests will be using it, or if your property is in an area prone to forest fires, gas is the safe bet.
Wood burning can be a lovely addition if you have the space to do it safely and you don’t have trouble sourcing wood.
Here’s a detailed look at both options.
Advantages: Better ambiance, more traditional, better for cooking food, nothing to break or malfunction, less likely to run out of fuel in the middle of a party
Disadvantages: Messy, smoke pollution, harder to light, takes more work to keep going, more dangerous, location options are limited
Freestanding fire pits
The pairing of modern engineering with the ancient art of fire building has resulted in some interesting choices for backyard fireplaces in recent years.
Freestanding fire pits made of metal are designed to burn wood efficiently, with minimal hassle and greatly reduced smoke output. These cylinders can be left freestanding for portability, or used amid brick or stone surrounds to make them feel permanent.
Solo Stove is a well-known brand in this category of fire pit. Its models range in sizes from 15 to 27 inches in diameter.
The Breeo Stove has a similar low-smoke design. Its optional Searplate rim adds a metal ledge that creates a convenient place to grill meat and other food. Other grilling accessories can also be added.
Even though these designs claim to be smokeless and spark arrestors are available, there’s no getting around the fact that they still burn wood, and sparks and smoke do still occur.
Built-in fire pits or rings
In many cases, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Humans have been building fire rings as long as they have been building fires.
A fire ring can be as simple as a hole in the ground surrounded by a few rocks. Or it can be a work of art installed by a professional contractor that costs thousands of dollars.
When installing a fire pit, two of the biggest elements to consider are the type of stone and the location of the fire.
A home-built fire ring doesn’t have to break the bank. As a contractor and homeowner, I’ve built them using recycled chunks of concrete and stone that I scavenged on the property. River rock offers a softer, more welcoming look, but almost any type of stone or masonry can be used.
While you can shop for interesting stone at your nearest landscaping store, I prefer to use rock that is found in the local environment, so the fire pit feels like it belongs in the location.
Cost: Under $100–$1,500 and up
Fireplaces with chimneys
For a more deluxe addition that will help create the vibe of an outdoor living room, a fireplace with a chimney is the top dollar option. And the chimney reduces smoke and the risk of sparks, since the fire is more contained.
Even though high-end designs resemble large living room fireplaces, they don’t have to be enormous. Smaller versions are used to create backyard pizza ovens.
Another version is one with a bulbous base and a narrow chimney vent that became popular in the 1980s called a chiminea. Traditionally, these were made of clay but modern versions are often made of steel or cast iron.
Cost: $300–$5,000 and up
Advantages: Cleaner, faster to light, more location options, wide range of sizes and styles
Disadvantages: Not as natural-feeling as wood; cooking on them isn’t usually an option; you can run out of gas; poor connections can cause gas leaks; prone to getting left on by accident; they can blow out in the wind
Gas-burning stoves have become immensely popular in recent years. There are two big reasons: They’re easier to use and cleaner to operate.
The ease of starting up a gas fire is one of the biggest upsides. It can be as simple as flipping a switch. In seconds, the fire is at maximum output, so there is no standing around smoldering logs waiting to get warm.
They are also much cleaner and safer to operate than wood burners. You don’t need to worry about sourcing, splitting, stacking or moving wood. You don’t drop forest litter all over your yard and you don’t have to deal with ash, sparks or smoke.
Once you decide that gas is the best option for your location, there are lots of variables to consider when deciding on the right model.
One of the main considerations is the amount of heat a gas fire delivers. Stoves are ranked by the BTUs they produce. Most gas fire pits range from around 30–60 BTUs, but larger models can crank out 15,000, and up to 100,000 for commercial models.
How hot the stove runs will determine how close you can sit to the fire and how comfortable it will be in a cold part of the yard.
In all cases, gas fireplaces should be located out of the wind or used with a wind blocker. Not only will wind reduce the amount of heat you feel, but strong gusts may blow your fire out.
Here is where the choices can feel overwhelming since there are thousands of variations. Because most gas fireplaces will be a permanent fixture in your yard, it’s important to choose something that blends well with the color and style of your home, as well as the natural materials around you, like stone and wood.
In general, the models fall into four categories.
Portable models: These are typically the cheapest. They are small and easy to lift, meaning you can take them on a camping trip or move them around your yard. These almost always use 20-pound propane tanks. They are good options if you want to try out a fireplace or don’t want to make it a permanent feature in your yard.
The downside is they may lack the aesthetic quality of larger fire pits or be too small to produce good heat, which will make them less desirable for large gatherings.
Cost: Under $300
Freestanding fire pits: These are the most popular option. Here’s where you’ll find the most choices in size, shape and style. They are meant to be fairly permanent since they are heavy and awkward to move. They typically have a cabinet below them to hide the gas tank.
Cost: A few hundred to a few thousand dollars
Fire tables: These are usually seen at restaurants, pubs and wineries, but home models are also available. They can be low and squatty or bar-stool height. They do double duty as a place for dining, with the ambiance of a fire directly on the table, so they are a good option for small spaces.
Since gas fires are very clean-burning, it’s fairly comfortable to eat and drink near them without choking on exhaust. It’s helpful to have the ability to control the flame output so your diners don’t get too hot.
Cost: A few hundred to a few thousand dollars
Fireplace with chimney: This is the most expensive option on the spectrum. As with the wood-burning version, these resemble an indoor fireplace with a chimney and glass doors surrounding the flame. Most often these are installed as a part of a larger remodel or as a major design feature, as opposed to a freestanding experience. The biggest upside to this option is they are easier to operate in windy locations.
Cost: $5,000 and up
Type of gas
Gas fireplaces use two of the most common fuel sources: propane or natural gas.
Most fire pits are powered with propane using portable 20-pound tanks like those used in barbecues. These need to be detached and refilled periodically. Exactly how often is determined by the stove’s output and frequency of use.
That can be a source of irritation. It can be a mood killer when your family gathers around the fire only to have a weak flame fizzle in minutes. Friends who operate vacation rentals complain that they are constantly refilling propane tanks after their guests leave the fires running for long periods. So if choosing gas, be sure to have a few extra tanks on hand and consider installing a shut-off timer.
Many homeowners don’t want to bother with refilling tanks, so they connect their fires to a whole-house propane tank as a way to avoid this headache.
Connecting a fire pit to a natural gas line is also an option. These stoves typically aren’t portable since they are attached to a permanent gas line. Burning natural gas is also less efficient than burning propane.
If you don’t have a gas line or whole-house propane tank already, installing one is likely to be prohibitively expensive, and it’s better to opt for a model that uses a 20-pound propane tank.
If you do connect your fireplace to a gas line, you need the help of a professional licensed plumber or specialist because the fittings must be sealed and tested for leaks before use.
Writer and general contractor Jeff Layton has been a builder and landlord in Seattle for more than 15 years.