4 Things to Consider Before You Buy
Make sure you know the building codes for your area. In some parts of the country, there are rules about outdoor wood-burning fireplaces and fire pits.
Pay attention to where you place your outdoor fireplace. There may be regulations on chimney height if the fireplace is within a certain distance to the home.
Rating for Outdoor Use
Not all fireplaces are identical. Before installation, make sure your fireplace is rated for outdoor use. Do not try to set up an indoor fireplace for exterior use. They may look similar, but they are made from different materials and components. We will cover that in more detail a little later.
Be Honest with Your Surroundings
If your outdoor space is not suited for a backyard fireplace, do not force one where it doesn't belong. It will bring you headaches in the long term. In some cases, an outdoor fireplace may not be possible. If so, think about getting a patio heater, fire pit, or fire table. All are suitable options and come in a wide variety of beautiful styles.
What Other Fire Options Do You Have?
Earlier we suggested against forcing an outdoor wood burning fireplace into your space if it's not possible. In this section, we're going to take a look at some different options that may work for your outdoor space. Instead of an outdoor fireplace, you could add warmth to your area with patio heaters, fire pits, or fire rings.
Patio heaters give off heat but not light. They come in electric and propane varieties, and you can find them in tabletop, residential, and commercial versions. A freestanding patio heater is an excellent spot for party guests to gather around on a chilly night. You can convert a freestanding propane patio heater into a natural gas heater, but the process takes away the portability of the system.
Fire Rings, Fire Bowls, and Fire Pits
When looking at fire pits and fire rings, it's useful to know the difference. Fire pits and fire rings are used to contain an open fire. Fire rings are a great mobile option to start a wood-burning fire on camping trips or in backyards. Fire pits and fire bowls offer a more permanent solution.
Fire Rings: You can find fire rings in a variety of designs and styles. Fire pits also come in more than one shape and fuel type. With a fire pit, you can find everything from a brick-made, round design to a low rectangle stainless steel table. They can work with wood, natural gas, and propane.
Fire Bowls: These wood-burning products are made from cast iron, copper, carbon steel, or glass fiber reinforced concrete. They are manufactured by companies like Ohio Flame, Goldens Cast Iron, Uniflame, and SoJoe. They usually have tapered bowls, but some are also square or rectangular. Many come standard with a spark screen, and most feature a drainage hole in the bottom to prevent rainwater build up. You can paint these with high-temperature paint, but most come unpainted with the intention that they patina naturally.
Fire Pits: Wood-burning fire pits are relatively simple to use. Add your wood fuel, then light it. However, you'll find a wood-burning pit has more maintenance to deal with than a gas fire pit. Because you are burning wood, there is ash to clean up and wood to maintain.
With a gas fire pit, you can choose between natural gas or propane for fuel. Natural gas will save you money in the long run, but your fire pit must connect to a natural gas line. Propane fire pits offer more mobility as propane tanks are easy to move around. You'll also find a variety of different media you can place into a gas fire pit, like fire glass. And, because there's no ash to clean up, there is little day-to-day maintenance.
Table or deck-height gas fire pits can range from small and simple to larger systems with customizable finishes like stone or tile. There are also fully assembled table systems that are meant to be the focal point of the outdoor area. The larger gas fire pits have a built-in enclosure to store a propane tank. Other pits have optional, detached enclosures to store and conceal the tank. You'll find many of the systems use propane as the only fuel source, but some do allow for natural gas conversion.
Burners and Accessories
You don't have to buy a full, complete fire pit or fireplace kit. If you are seeking more artistic freedom, there is a broad range of components that will allow you to design your own outdoor fire appliance with your preferred burner.
Gas burners come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and configurations. That means if you want a match-lit burner, a push-button ignition, or an electronic setup, you can find one. Many round systems come with a burner pan that supports glass media, log sets, or lava rocks. You'll also get an installation manual that specifies the placement of control valves and air inlets.
Outdoor Fireplace Kits
These are modular, free-standing units built out of cultured stone sections held in place by gravity or interlocked grooves. Cultured stone is lighter than natural stone, so outdoor fireplace kits are easy to assemble.
These systems come with a chimney structure and offer containment doors to keep sparks and embers inside. An outdoor fireplace kit must be at least 10 feet from the roof line of a home to comply with the 10-3-2 chimney rules.
Prefabricated Fireplace Options
When looking at outdoor fireplaces, you'll find many options to sift through. It can be a bit overwhelming if you don't know which fuel types are available or which design options you like. In this section, we'll cover all the specifics to give you the knowledge you need when searching for your outdoor fire appliance.
Gas-Burning Fireplaces: An outdoor gas fireplace burns natural or propane gas only. A gas burner is an integral part of a gas fireplace. Unlike some wood-burning hearths that can accept gas logs, gas fireplace burners are not backward compatible. Put simply, do not put wood in your gas burning outdoor fireplace.
Outdoor gas fireplaces are becoming a common sight. Like their wood-burning counterparts, they let you stay out and enjoy your yard well past sunset. But, unlike wood-burning fireplaces, there is no smoke. This makes them a more environmentally friendly appliance. Just remember, propane and natural gas run cleaner but can't match the heat of a wood-burning outdoor hearth.
Outdoor Gas Log Sets: Much like outdoor fireplaces, outdoor gas log sets are similar to their indoor versions. The difference is in the materials. The burner pans of an outdoor gas log set are 304-grade stainless steel or better. This allows for years of reliable use outdoors. They function the same as indoor pan burners.
The gas valves use a push-button ignition rather than a standing pilot light, which prevents pilot light outages. You'll also find many outdoor gas log sets are vented or vent-free. Exterior installations offer plenty of air circulation. As for the gas logs themselves, they are precisely the same as their indoor counterparts. The rugged construction of gas log sets makes them resistant to damage from the elements.
Outdoor Wood-Burning Fireplaces: These wood-burning hearths are tested for outdoor use. You will find that the design of the fireplace and chimney are the same as an indoor model. The only difference is the materials.
The fireplace chassis and screens are stainless steel rather than galvanized steel used on indoor models. Many manufacturers use 304-grade stainless steel that will last for decades. But remember, many areas have regulations on the installation of outdoor fireplaces.
Be sure to check the rules in your area before purchasing. Keep in mind that if it's a large heat output you are looking for, then a wood-burning fireplace is for you.
Ethanol Fireplaces: Ethanol units are simple and do not need power or venting. These fireplaces do not even need a line hookup or chopped wood. The ethanol fuel tray sits at the base of the fireplace and is lit and refilled easily.
What are Your Options for Fuel?
Fuel consists of the material your fireplace will be burning. The primary fuels for outdoor fireplaces are wood, propane gas, natural gas, and ethanol.
Wood-burning fireplaces are the most traditional. But, they require the most care. Before installing, you'll want to check with any code enforcement agencies in your area because smoke can be considered a nuisance.
With a propane-fueled outdoor fireplace, you'll find it burns clean with a tank that is easy to uninstall and refuel. There's also no need for a dedicated gas line like natural gas. Constant refilling can be a headache, though, and could be costly depending on how often you use the fireplace.
Propane is also heavier than air, which can cause dangerous pools of gas to form. It is essential to maintain a propane appliance to ensure the safety of your outdoor living space.
Natural gas is the most common gas fuel source used in American homes. So, if you currently own a gas appliance, you likely have a gas line running to your home. This means opting for a natural gas outdoor fireplace will not be a huge headache.
Natural gas also runs cleaner than propane although not as hot. Also, it does not pool on the ground because natural gas is lighter than air making it safer than propane.
This fuel type is derived from corn, sugarcane, and other plant materials which is why it's also called bio-fuel. Ethanol fuel burns cleanly and is considered a very efficient fuel source.
Ethanol fuel, like propane, must be purchased, and it can be costly as well. The burn time on an ethanol fire pit is usually shorter than wood, too. Despite these drawbacks, ethanol-fueled products tend to be smaller and more portable. If you don't have a lot of space or if you're always planning that next camping trip, an ethanol-fueled appliance may be for you.
Choose a Style for Your Fireplace
The appearance of your outdoor fireplace will go a long way in cementing the charm of your living area. You can go traditional or opt for a more modern look with linear configurations.
Traditional Outdoor Fireplaces
Traditional outdoor fireplaces look like their conventional indoor counterparts. You'll find a taller firebox and brick-lined interior. Many traditional outdoor fireplaces use wood fuel. They offer a sturdy aesthetic that is an excellent fit for most homes.
Linear Outdoor Fireplaces
Linear outdoor fireplaces offer a more modern look. They are long, skinny, rectangular hearths. Sometimes they come with steel or porcelain interiors with LED accent lighting.
Where a traditional fireplace will wow guests with its rustic, throwback charm, a linear will drop jaws because of its sleek, sophisticated design. The term "linear" comes from the ribbon of flame created by the wide, shallow burner.
Choose a Configuration for Your Patio Heater
In previous sections we provided a general overview of various outdoor hearth appliances; now, we will go into detail on a few of those products.
Patio heaters use zone heating for outdoor gathering areas. They can be free-standing, table-standing, or wall-mounted. They come in gas and electric varieties.
Wall mounted — These patio heaters use a metal housing that contains an infrared heater. Due to their design, it's okay to mount these heaters close to combustibles. Infrared heaters heat the objects they envelop, not the air around them, which makes them great for breezy conditions. These heaters are less efficient than gas models because they use more energy to heat the same square footage.
Pole mounted — These patio heaters trade in the fixed wall mount for a free-standing pole. The heater is more portable and ideal for open patios where furniture rearrangement is the norm. The heating ability for this appliance is measured by square footage.
Freestanding — These gas heaters use a gas torch burner instead of an electric element. The torch burner sits inside a diffusing matrix that prevents damage from rain and directs heat downward. A free-standing gas heater usually has an electronic ignition system with a large base to house a 20-pound propane cylinder. You can convert some models to natural gas, but doing so cuts down on portability because of the connection to a natural gas line.
The heat output for these gas heaters work by convection and is usually adjustable but not great during breezy weather. They are typically stainless steel. The heating ability expands to a certain radius around the heater, based on calm conditions.
Tabletop — A tabletop heater is a smaller version of its free-standing cousin. The technology is the same, but they are designed to heat a smaller radius. That radius is usually about a table's worth of space. These use propane as a fuel source, 1-pound cylinders in most cases, and work best in calm conditions.
Lifespan and Maintenance
How long your product lasts is all about how well you take care of it and the climate in which you live. Modular masonry and cast stone outdoor fireplaces can last decades if in a warm dry climate.
Stainless steel fireboxes, burners, and fire pit components will last around 10 to 15 years if uncovered and exposed to the elements. If covered, however, expect a lifespan of 20-30 years. Be aware that if you live in humid and coastal climates, you will see your firebox or burner degrade more quickly, cutting its lifespan down a few years.
The electronic elements in a patio heater will fail within 5 to 10 years. Gas patio heaters will need burner repair or replacement within 8 to 10 years. These items are not as long-lived as the other outdoor heating appliances because of their lower cost and exposure to moisture.
Keeping your outdoor fireplace nice and clean will extend its life as well. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- For a wood-burning fireplace, sweep up the ash regularly.
- Leaves and other debris can build up over time, so clear the area before use.
- Deep clean once a year using soap and a sturdy brush.
- Maintain nearby bushes and trees. This is as much for safety as for aesthetics.
- Get your fireplace checked annually by a professional.
How your outdoor fireplace or fireplace accessory ships depends on the size and weight of the item. Many small fireplaces, like some ethanol units and other gas models, will ship via parcel.
Most models, however, because of physical size and weight, will ship LTL freight and will be loaded onto a pallet. Once it arrives, inspect the appliance thoroughly before accepting the delivery. If there is something wrong, contact the manufacturer as soon as possible. Warranty times and limitations differ from product to product.