Why firepits are this summer’s hottest backyard accessory


This article originally appeared in the Early Summer 2015 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Our attraction to flame is almost in our DNA,” says Tomi Wittwer, the owner of Comox Fireplace and Patio in Courtenay, B.C. “It brings people together in a way nothing else does.” The campfire that humans have known and loved for a million years still evokes the wilderness, but it is starting to be domesticated. Manufactured firepits come in many shapes and sizes—ranging from simple bowls to elaborate tables—and can be fuelled by wood, propane or natural gas, or alcohol.   

“People are discovering just how safe, convenient, clean, and attractive firepits can be,” says Ross Johnson, the sales and marketing manager at the Outdoor GreatRoom in Eagan, Minn., a manufacturer of alfresco accessories. Firepits add a large dose of safety, some functionality, and a splash of style too, without losing the fire’s special magic.

Safety first

“Campfires have always created concerns and numerous fire calls,” says Mike Peake, a fire prevention officer in Bracebridge, in the heart of Ontario cottage country. “Manufactured firepits are the better choice. They move the flames up off the ground, so there’s less chance of a ground fire or the fire spreading.”

With no ashes to hide coals, propane firepits make it easier and faster to extinguish the flames at the end of the night. Propane and alcohol firepits don’t send up sparks, can be turned off in an instant, and cool off quickly. They can be placed virtually anywhere, since the heat source is away from the ground.

Wood-fuelled pits often come with a mesh cover to contain the ashes and sparks. Chimineas have a chimney to funnel smoke up and away, and some have a wraparound screen. Both chimneys and screens reduce the chances of sparks landing on nearby branches (not to mention skin, clothing, or furniture). And the bowl limits the fire’s size, says Peake, making the flames easier to control and reducing the chance of accidents.

It’s still a good idea to fireproof the area around the firepit (see “Site Right,” this page), cutting back branches and long grass, for instance. However, unlike a campfire, with its scorched earth and blackened rock remnants, a firepit can be moved without leaving a trace.

Don’t forget to place a grate over the fire to prevent sparks from jumping. Keep a bucket of water or a hose nearby and never leave the fire unattended.

Fun and functional

Here’s the key: lifting the fire off the ground puts the heat right where we want it, warming our bodies instead of just toasting toes, says John T. Unger, a metal artist in Hudson, N.Y., whose handcrafted reclaimed-steel firepits range from $800 to $3,000 U.S.

Johnson adds that tabletop models, also called fire tables, are the fastest-growing segment of the firepit market. These look like outdoor coffee tables, with space for drinks and plates around an inlaid pit, and are often fuelled by wood alternatives, such as propane, nat-ural gas, or alcohol.

Pick your fuel

“Before you buy anything, ask two questions,” says Wittwer. “What do you want to burn, and how much do you want to spend?” Wood wins when it comes to ambience, the romance of building a fire, the unique sounds and smells, and affordability: wood firepits tend to be cheaper to buy and, if you’re cutting your own wood, cheaper to fuel. But using propane in cylinders (or natural gas, if you have it on tap) offers the same instant convenience as a gas barbecue. And the alcohol gel and liquid ethanol used in alcohol firepits offer a clean-burning, artistic, and simple option, where the fuel burns slow and controlled, with little heat but a nice flame.

Wood At most cottages, wood is in endless supply and costs nothing except the energy to cut and carry it. Compare that to the price of buying propane in tanks that seem to need filling when least convenient. Embers cook the tastiest food, while marshmallow and burger drippings can clog propane burners, a reason why cooking over propane firepits is not recommended. (Gas barbecues usually have shields that deflect drippings away from the burner elements.)

“Most of my clients want the nostalgia of wood smoke,” says Mark Pettes, the owner of MDP Landscape Consultants, based in Aurora, Ont., who designs fire–pit areas and other outdoor spaces for resorts and cottages. “The whole process of building the fire, lighting the fire, and then enjoying it with family and friends becomes a really important activity.”

With fewer parts and accessories, wood firepits are often the most affordable variety, ranging from less than $100 at big-box stores to $4,000 and more at specialty retailers. The difference in price comes down to the quality of the metal and the handcrafted details. Pick a model made of sturdy materials. Heat is hard on most metals; thin steel bowls will rust and pit quickly, while those made of metal that’s more than five millimetres thick will last much longer. Copper bowls, such as the Crosley Furniture Ridgeway Copper Bowl Firepit, are an alternative to steel.

Propane Besides convenience, propane firepits offer some freedom from fire bans (as do natural gas and alcohol). “Rules vary among fire districts—always check local regulations—but often a propane flame less than 15 cm high is okay, even when a fire ban is on,” says Marg Drysdale, a fire information officer at the Wildfire Management Branch in Parksville, B.C. In contrast, “When the bans are on, no wood or woody debris can be burned, even in firepits, largely because of sparks.”

Some propane firepits are match lit, but many turn on at the push of a button. They can be shut off instantly, a safety and time-saving bonus. With no smell and little smoke, there’s no “I hate white rabbits” or dancing around the fire to give stinging eyes a break.

Johnson at the Outdoor GreatRoom recommends looking for a 50,000 to 100,000 btu burner that can produce a 25 cm flame. Some units have flame adjustment so they can be turned up or down like a barbecue. “You rarely need it set to high,” he says. According to Michele Kadwell-Chalmers, the owner of The Original Flame in Peterborough, Ont., on a still night, a 60,000 btu unit will warm you up to a metre and a half away. At full output, a 20 lb propane tank will last six to 10 hours. Propane and natural gas usually burn blue, but most units come with a shutter valve that starves the fire of oxygen, creating a less efficient but more natural yellow or orange flame.

Beyond burner size, David Petersen, a sales rep at Ottawa’s Fireplace Center, suggests looking carefully at the construction. Quality stainless steel burners or ceramic ones—which are even better but more expensive—are key to handling the high heat. Look for firepits that have been certified by a body such as cUL, csa, astm, or ansi. These voluntary standards ensure that the whole unit has been tested to work safely in the intended setting and conditions. Another consideration: how easy it is to service and replace the burners. “You don’t want to find out later that you have to order the parts from overseas,” Petersen says.

Prices for propane units vary widely—from $200 to $25,000 or more—depending on quality of design, size, features, and construction. The Outdoor GreatRoom’s propane firepits start at $400 for a safety-certified burner kit that comes with a bowl and can be owner-installed. The $4,700 Pointe Gas Firepit Table is L-shaped with a black marble shelf wrapping around the flame. The unit comes with a barbecue-style propane attachment system, so set-up is simple. Modern and sleek, “it works really well with the modular outdoor furniture that is so popular right now,” says Johnson.

While some propane firepits come with fake logs, Johnson says there’s a move away from them. Logs add more colour and interest to the flame, but they also create soot. Cleaner-burning options are glass beads, stone, and lava rocks covering the burners. Their low profile easily accommodates a cover, and the flame appears to rise out of the ground.

Other nice-to-have features on propane units include a storage area to hide the tank, a glass shield to block wind, and a remote control.

Alcohol Unlike wood- and propane-fuelled models, alcohol firepits are more about looks than heat. Whether you choose one that uses alcohol gel in canisters or liquid ethanol that’s poured into a reservoir, the fuel burns off slowly, cleanly, and without odour. A typical 370 g can of gel (which costs about $6) will fuel a fire for about two hours, but it only puts out 2,500 to 3,000 BTUs. Liquid ethanol fires give between 4,000 and 8,000 BTUs (so more heat), and while burn time depends on the unit’s fuel capacity and the setting used, generally speaking one litre lasts between one and a half and five hours. While they don’t radiate much heat, most alcohol firepits can’t be refilled while lit or warm. So if you want your campfire to last for more than a couple of hours, you’ll have to plan an intermission to let the pit cool before refilling.

Weather the weather

Whatever style you choose, Kadwell-Chalmers says, “you want the rainwater to be able to drain out.” A hole in the bottom is essential for this, and a lid or cover helps shield the firepit from the elements when it’s not in use, adding to its lifespan. Store portable units in a shed during the winter to reduce wear. Johnson suggests looking for exterior-grade construction if you plan to leave the firepit out all winter, as you want it to be able to withstand freezing and thawing.

Or maybe that’s when you’ll use it the most. Johnson figures a firepit can add weeks to your outdoor hangout time in spring and fall. If it’s as easy as pressing a button, there’s almost no excuse not to feed our primal love of flames dancing against a black canvas.