Fire pits are fun for bonfires or s’mores, but to achieve the finished look that contemporary patios and outdoor rooms require, there’s no substitute for an outdoor fireplace. The comfort of a heated, well-furnished patio and a place to entertain are just the beginning of the pleasures to be found in a beautifully housed flame. Here’s how to find the best match for your outdoor lifestyle.
Which Outdoor Fireplace is Right for You?
Within the past decade or so, advances in all-weather materials have opened up a new world of outdoor design sophistication. This has led to a rise in outdoor living rooms and kitchens — versatile spaces with cohesive, beautifully styled furnishings, lots of activity potential, and an emphasis on the earthy indoor comforts of heat and light. It’s a lifestyle change for which a fireplace is perfectly suited. Read on to see which backyard fireplace type best suits your needs…
If you’re aiming for an elegant indoor look in your patio or yard, an outdoor fireplace kit is your best option. These are high-end designs around which you can assemble an entire room or patio furniture ensemble. A complete kit (aka finished kit) features everything you need to build a grand centerpiece, such as a hearth, fireplace body, pre-cut block, chimney, firebox, and gas log. Assembly will typically require two people and anywhere from two to four hours.
Unfinished kits are less common, but worth considering if your space features unique colors or material textures. The unfinished surface can be customized to match your patio decor by adding exterior finishes such as mortar and brick, stucco, stone, tile, granite, etc.
Inserts are a versatile alternative to kits, particularly if you’d like to incorporate an indoor-style fireplace into an existing outdoor area. Most inserts are gas-fueled and don’t require venting, and can thus be installed within a wall, masonry cavity, or wood-framed structure to create an outdoor patio fireplace.
These gas fireplaces can be a fun design element for your outdoor living space. Colored flames or the addition of fire glass and rock are beautiful ways to make your fireplace an even more eye-catching element.
Portable outdoor fireplaces and chimineas have a lot of advantages that make them the best outdoor fireplace choice for many people. The most obvious one is that word “portable.” Though flammable surfaces are an obvious no-no for fires, a portable unit can be moved around to different backyard areas, or stored in an out-of-the- way spot if your yard’s too small for permanent placement.
Another big advantage is that portable is more affordable. The smaller dimensions of portable designs are especially advantageous for petite patios, as the dimensions of higher-cost kits can be very large — as big as ten feet wide and seven feet tall. A smaller chiminea or portable 360° fireplace will efficiently warm your patio space while adding the decorative appeal of cast iron, copper, or stainless steel. Screened frames and chimineas require only the most basic assembly, and some designs will also include a grilling grate that can be used for BBQ or wood-fired pizza.
Pros & Cons of Outdoor Fireplace Fuel Types
Outside fireplaces come in four basic fuel types: natural gas, propane, wood, and gel. Each has advantages and disadvantages that are best suited to a particular outdoor lifestyle or budget.
Natural gas is the lowest-cost fuel option overall, though a natural gas-burning outdoor fireplace will require the additional installation of a gas line. Natural gas burns cleaner than propane, but not as hot. One cubic foot of NG contains just over 1,000 BTU (the measure of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by 1°F).
Propane contains more carbon than NG and about 2,500 BTU per cubic foot, and thus burns hotter but less cleanly. Propane is a good compromise for most homes: comparatively inexpensive, clean burning, with a tank that’s easy to install and refuel. However, LP will cost more than NG, and a tank, unlike a gas line, will require periodic refilling.
There’s no denying the traditional appeal of a wood-burning fire: the scent, the crackling logs, the taste of wood-fired foods. The downside of wood is that it’s a costly fuel that doesn’t burn as cleanly. Unlike NG- or LP-burning models, a wood-burning outdoor fireplace will require regular cleanup and disposal of ashes.
Many of these models are designed for either indoor or outdoor use and use a liquid bio-ethanol fuel, which gives off no smoke, soot, or ash. Their ventless design means there is no chimney, gas, or electric hook-up needed. Often smaller and lightweight, gel fireplaces are easily portable and can be used virtually anywhere.
Do You Need to Vent an Outdoor Fireplace?
With an outdoor fire, there are usually no walls or ceilings to trap smoke and other emissions. However, it’s still important that your fireplace be properly positioned and vented (if necessary) to avoid discomfort or harm.
There are two primary venting methods available: direct vent and ventless/vent free. A vented system is able to draw in oxygen and release gases via an opening to outdoor air. Ventless systems have a high efficiency rating, eliminating harmful byproducts. Most vent-free designs feature an oxygen-depletion sensor that turns the gas off before carbon monoxide levels become unsafe. However, ventless units are not allowed in some states due to potential concerns about their safety. If you’re unsure about the safety of a ventless setup, we recommend having it installed by a professional.
Most gas-burning outdoor fireplaces are freestanding models with a chimney or flue that vents smoke and byproducts. Contemporary ventless designs can offer outstanding combustion, with 99% fuel burning efficiency. But in all cases, particularly if you’re installing a fireplace or insert in a more enclosed area, or if you’ve purchased an indoor/outdoor model, make sure to follow all manufacturer’s instructions in your owner’s manual with regard to ventilation and clearances.
Outdoor Fireplace Shopping & Safety Tips
- Always keep a fire extinguisher outdoors within easy reach of your fireplace.
- Do not use your portable fireplace on a lawn or wooden deck, and do not move it when a fire has already been lit.
- Check the manufacturer’s warranty as you shop. Some brands offer anywhere from one year to a limited lifetime warranty.
- Before installation, make sure that your project complies with all local zoning commission and home owners association regulations, and that you have acquired any necessary construction permits.
- Extend the life of your unit by using a chiminea or fireplace cover when not in use.