Your Guide to Outdoor Fireplaces
Outdoor fireplaces are a backyard staple for many homeowners. Not only are they functional, providing a source of heat and light while allowing you to make the most out of your outdoor living space, but they can also increase the appeal of your home while creating an atmosphere that reflects your individuality. Plus, who doesn’t want a spot in their own backyard to make s’mores whenever you want?
That said, installing an outdoor fireplace isn’t as straightforward as lighting a match. What type to choose, what fuel source to use, and where you place it are all questions requiring careful consideration.
Not to mention, local bylaws and codes must be strictly adhered to, which present challenges of their own. But a quick Google search of your area or even provincial regulations will let you know if there’s a burn ban in place or structural requirement you’ll need to meet before breaking out the kindling. When it comes to lighting a fire, some municipalities require a simple burn permit which can be registered with a phone call.
If everything’s a go, there’s no better time than now to ignite the outdoor space of your dreams. Read on to find which solution works best for you.
The four types of outdoor fireplaces
All fireplaces fall into three categories: wood-burning, gas-burning (natural gas, propane, or kerosene), or electric—and within those categories are four main types:
- Fire pits (rings, bowls, and built-in patio pits);
- fireplaces and heaters;
- chimeneas; and
- patio torches.
Just like selecting an indoor fireplace, it all comes down to function, features, and performance—each with its own application, advantages, and disadvantages.
To choose the right type for your space, ask yourself what’s most important to you and the space you’re working with? Do you value fashion over function? Do you want a fireplace that will give off plenty of heat, or will serve as the multi-purpose lawn decoration? Is finding an environmentally responsible alternative more important than the general ambiance? Maybe you want the best of both worlds! Explore the pros and cons of each type below:
Fire pits: rings, bowls, and patio pits
If you close your eyes and picture a fire pit, what pops into your head? It’s likely a traditional fire ring of rocks circling a shallow pit. Some modern pits can be quite lavish with mortared limestone surrounds, proper drainage systems, and even include fire glass.
Fire rings and their pits are quite permanent and would require some landscaping to relocate. Bowls, on the other hand, come in different shapes, sizes, and materials and are placed on the ground or a stand for easy transportation.
Patio fire pits can be integrated into your patio, such as fire tables that give the outdoor dining experience a bit of ambiance, with the fire pit as the table’s centrepiece.
- An easy DIY project: fire rings are inexpensive, easy to build, and are a great project to complete over the weekend with the family.
- Easy to move: depending on the model, fire bowls are an efficient and portable option.
- A premium fire pit: built-in patio fire pits are unrivalled when it comes to quality, aesthetics, and customization.
- They send a bad smoke signal: fire bowls and rings fueled by wood produce wood smoke, a known pollutant.
- There are safety concerns: fire rings have an open flame with uncontained sparks that present potential dangers.
- Costly renovations can be involved: built-in patio fire pits require pricey renovations and custom craftsmanship.
Outdoor fireplaces can include various designs and features such as cottage-style chimneys, bronze inlaying, and detailed stonework. If you want to give wood-burning a rest, gas-burning and electric-powered models are also available.
- It’s the real experience: outdoor fireplaces bring the heat with the sound and smell of burning wood.
- Provides you with an economical choice: less expensive than custom fire rings and built-in patio pits.
- Watch out for safety risks and pollutants: wood smoke from a fireplace creates pollution, while flames and sparks increase risk.
- Naturally inauthentic: outdoor fireplaces fueled by natural gas or electricity lack an authentic, wood-burning fire.
- Placement is limited to outlets: natural gas and electric fireplaces or heaters are less portable than those fueled by wood or propane.
Patio heaters are traditionally fueled by gas or electricity, and their lightweight construction offers more portability than a classic outdoor fireplace. Propane standing floor lamps are common styles, and patio heaters come in a variety of sizes to suit your desired space..
- You’re given superior temperature control: patio heaters allow you to control the heat similar to a thermostat.
- They’re environmentally friendly: since they aren’t fueled by wood, heaters are a greener alternative and safer to operate.
- Provides you with an economical choice: less expensive than custom fire rings and built-in patio pits.
- Patio heaters have a small warmth radius and can be toppled by a gust of wind.
- You aren’t able to cook with them: cooking with a patio heater is virtually impossible and is not recommended.
Chimeneas are centuries old and combine function with fashion. Decorative wood-burning chimineas are shaped like a wide-bottom vase with integrated chimneys, and they’re historically made from fired clay.
- They’re easy to ignite: a chimenea is conducive to lighting a fire as its shape funnels oxygen to feed the flames.
- You control the smoke: the built-in chimney stack directs smoke up and away from the chimenea and out of your eyes.
- They offer you optimal heat output: like fireplaces and fire pits, chimeneas generate a lot of warmth by burning wood.
- You must be picky about placement: chimeneas are freestanding and require a level surface to increase safety.
- They require lots of upkeep: the body of a chimenea is an enclosed bowl that fills with ash quickly, and the chimney needs routine cleaning if used often.
- There’s little drainage: water fills the belly of a chimenea if it’s left uncovered when not being used.
Patio torches, aka Tiki torches, are an economical way to light up your outdoor space while creating an inviting, tropical atmosphere. Originating from ancient Polynesia, torches are popular with homeowners wanting a relaxed island vibe in their own backyard.
- They’re rustic or modern: patio torches made from bamboo offer a traditional look, while copper provides a more contemporary aesthetic.
- Offers you a clean-burning alternative: being fueled by kerosene or natural gas, torches are environmentally friendly.
- You won’t be bothered by the bugs: some tiki torches include natural oils such as citronella to deter mosquitos and other unfriendly insects.
- They don’t provide much heat: patio torches don’t produce much warmth, which limits their effectiveness on cool nights.
- There’s an open flame: the single, open flame is susceptible to being blown out by the wind and proves difficult to keep lit on rainy evenings.
- They’re easy to tip: torches fall over easily in the wind and are a safety concern around children.
When to dig a pit and where to place a heater
The outdoor space you’re working with will help you decide which fireplace you can install. If you want to bring the heat to your deck or porch, a patio heater or gas-burning fireplace is a great go-to option. If it’s a semi-enclosed space, the limited heat-radius won’t be as noticeable.
If you want to crank up the heat in wide, open spaces, look to wood-burning fireplaces, pits, and chimeneas. Give them plenty of room to breathe, however. These options should be kept 10 to 20-feet away from walls and combustibles, plants and trees. They’re not recommended for enclosed decks or gazebos.
To play up the ambiance of your space or to decorate for special occasions patio torches are a great option, weather permitting. They’re perfect for lining walkways or outlining the perimeter of your deck, but they can also be used beneath an awning or slatted patio roof. For safety, be aware of the flame and make sure there’s plenty of airflow.
How you fuel your outdoor fireplace also determines which type you choose. Those that need an electrical outlet or natural gas line are not easily moved, while propane-fueled and wood-burning options provide more flexibility.
Now that you’ve narrowed done your fireplace, why not add a little flavour to your outdoor space? Here’s what you need to know about choosing the perfect grill!
Fireplace safety, bylaws, and codes
Smokey Bear charged us with the responsibility of preventing forest fires and holds true for your outdoor fireplace, too.
Here are a few safety considerations to bear in mind:
- Don’t leave a burning fire unattended: stay within sight of your fireplace and completely extinguish it before heading inside.
- Be prepared for an emergency: it’s wise to have buckets of water, sand, a fire extinguisher, or a hose nearby in case disaster strikes.
- Pay attention to the weather: high winds can knock over lamp-style patio heaters and tiki torches, while periods of drought will turn sparks into fires (always check with your local fire department or municipality to see if there is a burn ban in place for this reason.)
- Choose hardwoods versus softwoods: seasoned hardwood burns more consistently to limit sparks from popping unpredictably.
- Use tinder, not gasoline: lighting a fire with gas is extremely dangerous and is always to be avoided.
- Keep it ventilated: gas-burning fireplaces and heaters emit carbon monoxide, which is deadly in small, enclosed areas.
- Bigger isn’t better: the larger the fire, the less predictable it becomes making it harder to control.
Ultimately, your local bylaws and zoning codes have the final say in what type of outdoor fireplace you choose. Each province or territory has a different process, so be sure to check your local government’s website or your local fire department for regulations and recommendations.
For instance, firepits and wood-burning fireplaces are more acceptable in rural neighbourhoods, but if you live in the city, you’re likely limited to gas-burning models in covered bowls. If you live in a condo or townhouse, there’s a good chance outdoor fireplaces are prohibited altogether—check with your building management. If the warm smell of wood smoke is something you crave or an elegant patio with a built-in fireplace is what you’re looking for in a new home, make sure you talk with your REALTOR® about the dos and don’ts in your new neighbourhood.