Gone are the days when outdoor entertaining was limited to the warmer months. Fire pits have almost become a necessity for every home today. They heat the cool nights and make for a great marshmallow roast off, not to mention how therapeutic it is to simply sit and watch the flames flicker. Just how hot yours will get depends on the type of fire pit you have and the type of fuel you’re using.
Fire pits come in a wide range of styles, materials, and sizes. From your lightweight metal bowl that can be set up anywhere to fixed masonry features perfect for gathering around on a patio, choosing the right product for you depends on how often you will use it, where you are going to place it, your budget, and local code. Whatever did we do before fire pits became a thing?
Some owners swear by a crackling wood fire and are willing to deal with the smoke and ash that come with it. Others may find the ease of flipping a switch for instant, and more controllable, flames – a greater draw. Most fire pit styles look at home on a corner of the lawn, but when incorporated into a patio, those made from tumbled concrete pavers or mortared masonry may blend better with existing stonework.
The structure of your fire pit and the materials used in its construction make a difference to the temperatures they can reach. Oxygen, fuel, and heat are the three things needed to build a fire. When you add those three ingredients, it creates a chemical reaction resulting in the production of heat. For example, wood needs about 16 percent oxygen to burn. Air contains 21 percent oxygen, so a well-built wood fire will definitely produce some ultra-hot temperatures. A bonfire can reach temperatures as hot as 2012 degrees Fahrenheit (1100 degrees Celsius). That is hot enough to easily reach the melting point for aluminum.
Choosing Your Fuel Type
Just as there are different types of pits, there are different types of fuel suitable for their use. Heat output from fire pits is measured in units called BTUs – British Thermal Unit. It is used around the world for categorizing many products such as air conditioners, barbecue grills, water heaters, and fire pits.
Typical fuel options for fire pits include wood, wood chips, smokeless coal, charcoal, and gases, including propane and fireplace ethanol. Let’s see if we can find the right choice for your heating needs.
A gas fire pit using bioethanol is generally more decorative, and not really designed for outdoor use. They tend to be smaller, so the amount of fuel, the size of the flame, and the amount of heat generated are less than other types. You can expect these fire pits to have a heat output of between 1000 and 4000 BTUs. That’s a reasonable amount of heat to create a cozy atmosphere in an enclosed entertainment room, but they would struggle to make you feel warm if used outdoors, especially on really chilly evenings.
Easier to light than wood burning fire pits, the heat of those using propane can be controlled, and there is little to no mess to clean up afterward. Manufacturers of propane fuelled products usually advertise their heat rating to compete in the marketplace. At the lower end of the scale, there are propane pits that produce just 10,000 BTUs. They tend to be more decorative, where the emphasis is as much on the style of the product as it is on the heat it can generate. Moving up the scale, you’ll find a range of propane fire pits capable of much higher temperatures. The highest output for a domestic gas-fuelled product will be around 70,000 BTUs.
A gas fire pit, unlike propane, needs to be stationary because the gas is fed via a gas line attached to your house. Natural gas is about one-sixth of the cost of propane in some areas, and it is convenient in that you will not run out of gas. Propane is more efficient, producing about 2500BTUs, while the same volume of natural gas provides just 1000BTUs.
It is challenging to pinpoint a temperature for wood fires. There are just so many variables that can affect the heat produced from burning wood. So, it is unlikely manufacturers will specify the heat their product will produce. The figure would be meaningless. You can use existing data relating to the temperature wood fires reach to estimate what heat a wood pit might produce.
The fact is that any fire bowl with wood as its primary fuel will reach higher temperatures than gas burners. There are two types of heat at play when wood burns. The first is the flames, which are produced as the wood burns, and there is the radiant heat from the glowing loop and embers. The temperature that wood reaches when it is burning can be over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, and heat output can easily reach over 100,000 BTUs. This will be influenced by the size of the fire bowl in which the wood is burning. The bigger this is, the bigger the flames will be and the higher the heat.
The amount of air that can flow around the fire will also influence the heat levels. The higher the airflow, the greater the heat output. So the placement of your firepit outdoor structure is an important contributor to how much heat you will generate. A centrally situated hot spot will produce more warmth than one sitting off to the side or tucked away in a corner.
How Much Will A Fire Pit Cost?
You can get a 28-inch steel wood-fire bowl for as little as $30. Most propane burning fire pits start at around $400 for a 46-inch fire pit. Custom masonry is about $2,400 for a fire pit of a similar size.
Using Your Outdoor Pit Fire Safely
Installing a fire pit is a great way to make use of your backyard during those cold winter months, but you need to make sure that you and everyone else are safe by following a few simple rules.
- Position a minimum of 10 feet away from any structure or flammable vegetation, such as grass or trees.
- Place 10 feet away from your neighbor’s yard.
- Do not put it under a covered porch, pergola, or low-hanging tree.
- Do not place it on a wooden deck or directly on the grass.
- Always check the wind direction before lighting.
- Do not light if too windy.
- Do not use lighter fluid to light. Use a commercial fire starter with kindling.
- Do not use any flammable fluids to light or re-light.
- Never leave unattended, even for a minute. Put the fire out with water before leaving.
- Never leave children or pets unattended near a hot pit.
- Ensure everyone maintains a safe distance from flames.
- Consider creating a covered fire pit by investing in a wire mesh cover to keep embers inside and prevent children and pets from falling in.
- Limit the amount of fuel you put in the fire. Use just what is necessary to keep it burning gently.
- Do not put garbage or paper products into the fire. They easily spark and throw off embers or burning remnants.
- Don’t wear flammable or loose-fit clothing while near the pit.
- Don’t burn softwood like pine or cedar. They can pop and throw sparks.
- Keep a container of water and a hose nearby in case of emergencies.
Whenever you’re finished using your fire pit, the fire should be extinguished completely before the pit is left unattended. Here is how you can safely put out the flames:
- Keep a shovel nearby to extinguish any escaped flame and put the fire out.
- Extinguish with water. Drown it and stir with a shovel to make sure it is fully extinguished.
- Safely dispose of ashes. Keep a metal bucket solely for storing ash. Ashes can remain hot enough to cause a fire for 2 or 3 days.
- Don’t discard hot ashes in a compost pile, paper or plastic bag, cardboard box or anything combustible.
Your outdoor fire pit can be a cozy centerpiece for a relaxed evening with your family and friends. Just remember that it is a hot centerpiece that can quickly get out of hand if not handled correctly. All that’s left is to get outside and enjoy the warmth.