With days getting longer and warmer as summer approaches, we have all the more reason to spend our free time outdoors. However, once the sun sets, it might be less tempting to stick around in your backyard. This is why it makes sense to install an outdoor fire pit this summer. This neat, unique hardscape feature will surely make your outdoor celebrations, family gatherings, and barbecues the talk of the neighborhood! Let’s see how.
Major manufacturers of hardscaping products, such as EP Henry and Techo-Bloc, first introduced packaged outdoor fire pit kits around 2009. Prior to that, fire features were limited to portable options, such as Chimeneas, and complex custom installations. Since the first fire pit kit was introduced, kits have evolved to offer a variety of colors, textures, fire options and even alternate use options such as water features.
Outdoor fire pits can be built from a wide variety of materials (see our article on fire pit basics for an overview). However, kits are definitely the easiest, fastest, and safest approach. Most outdoor fire pit kits consist of concrete manufactured wall material which assembles in to a circular “pit” and a set of accessories which contain the fire protecting the concrete. The accessories include a screen which can be placed over the dwindling fire to prevent sparks from escaping.
The wall material forming the outdoor fire pit comes in a variety of textures. Each manufacturer tends to select a finish and a set of colors that will match their major sitting wall products making it practical to add a fire pit to an existing patio or to build a sitting wall around an existing outdoor fire pit. The accessory kit usually includes either a bowl or a liner. The bowl option also includes a grate on which to build a fire generally suitable for warmth, ambiance, and perhaps toasting a marshmallow or making a s’more. The liner option shifts the fire down to the bottom of the pit making larger cooking projects possible.
The accessory package is usually at least half of the total cost. That is because the metal inserts are specially designed to dissipate the heat and protect the pit wall. The wall / pit may usually be purchased without the insert but in that case the wall must be protected with fire brick and fire mortar or fire clay. Although not expensive options, fire protection installed in this way can be messy and may detract from the appearance of the fire pit.
Fire pit kits are generally a perfect circle, meaning that once tightly in place, nothing is going to move the wall block. Consequently, no gluing is necessary. The insert sits on the top of the pit and can be easily removed. This presents the opportunity to use the “pit” area for other applications when summer heat does not inspire building a fire. Other outdoor fire pit uses include planting, installing a water feature, and creating a cold drink cooler.
Building an outdoor fire pit can create both an attractive and functional addition to your outdoor living environment. Many material options exist. Read our article on fire pit basics for an overview.
Three major natural stone approaches can be considered: Boulders, wall stone, and packaged stone outdoor fire pit kits.
Natural stone provides several advantages:
• Naturally fire-resistant. Natural stone is not combustible and will absorb and dissipate heat naturally. It gets hot, but it will not “pop’”
• Relatively low in material cost. Boulders and wall stone have a wide range of costs but very attractive alternatives exist at the low end of the cost range. A standard pallet of wall stone (3000 pounds) will allow you to build 22 facial square feet of fire pit, e.g., a round fire pit 18” high and 4 ½ – 5 feet across. You would need about 2 tons of boulders to build the same shape. Starting cost for this quantity of stone should be under $300. And there is no additional cost to create fire-resistance.
• Flexibility of design. Natural stone be stacked or laid in whatever shape you desire. Boulders will tend to fit best in a rounded shape. Wall stone can be stacked in angular or rounded designs. Both wall stone and boulders are available in a huge range of colors, textures and individual shapes. The uniqueness of each piece of natural stone provides one of its greatest appeals.
Installation cost presents the biggest variable with natural stone. Whether using a contractor or attempting a DIY project, the larger the natural stone you select, the more difficult it will be to move and manipulate. Special equipment may be necessary to put a large boulder in place. If individual stones need to be shaped to achieve your hardscape design, you or your contractor will need special tools. These factors can overwhelm the cost savings in the raw materials.
Although limited in availability, packaged natural stone outdoor fire pit kits do exist. One interesting option is a kit made from granite counter top scraps cut into wedges to form a circular outdoor fire pit. The price for the kit varies based on how high you want the structure to be but it is an interesting “green” alternative which is extremely easy to build, relatively low cost, and quite unusual in appearance. Most recently, FireBoulder has introduced a fire feature made out of one large boulder. The manufacturer selects suitable boulders, drills out the core to place a gas burner and lava rock, and provides the installation kit for connection to natural gas. Clearly not a DIY install, this new product definitely expands the scope of outdoor fire pit kits.
Once you decide to build a fire pit, where are you going to put it? If you have a patio already, you might want to place it on the patio. Or you could create an addition to the patio just for the fire pit. Or maybe just off the patio, in a near-by but separate area. Or you may have a spot in your yard where it is hard to grow grass that beckons for a touch-up.
If you are considering placing a fire pit within an existing patio, you need to evaluate both your fire pit and your patio materials. Although some fire pit designs will support being placed on top of an existing patio, it is generally not the best approach. If your patio is made from manufactured or natural stone pavers dry set on sand or stone dust, you can remove the patio materials where you want your fire pit and place the fire pit directly on the patio base. If your patio is concrete or a wet set installation, you will not have the option to remove it. In that case, you will be limited in what type of fire pit you super-impose on top of your patio.
If the design of the fire pit places the fire on the ground, the fire pit cannot be built on top of existing patio materials without damaging the patio. If the material in the fire pit is not completely flat on the bottom and / or the surface of the patio is not completely flat, the fire pit cannot be built on top of the patio without being unstable, i.e., wobbling or potentially falling over.
If you want to create a new area, adding an extension to the patio or creating a nearby free-standing fire pit area can be the easiest options. If placing the fire pit on what is currently dirt or grass, the area needs to be dug out, lined with separation fabric, and filled with 4-6 inches of stone. (This will create a base for your fire pit very similar to the base that is placed under a paver or natural stone patio.) This base will create a solid underpinning for the fire pit so it will not move (wobble) or sink while also avoiding the risk of burning dead branches or roots in the ground.
One final thought on location: Avoid areas under trees or too close to your house or other flammable objects on your property. You don’t want your beautiful warm and inviting addition to produce a catastrophe.
If you have ever enjoyed sitting around a campfire, you will love the addition of a fire pit to your outdoor living area. Fall is the perfect time for adding a source of warmth to your outdoor environment. Building a fire pit can range from a simple do-it-yourself hardscaping project to an elaborate custom design.
Issues to consider in selecting an approach to your fire pit include:
- Appearance – texture, shape, color
- Use – ambiance, warmth, toasting marshmallows, cooking
- Ease of installation
- Cost – materials, labor, maintenance
In choosing the appearance you desire for your hardscaping project, you will determine the primary material. This selection will significantly influence the other issues above. Options for fire pit materials are extensive and include:
- Natural stone boulders
- Natural wall stone
- Packaged natural stone kits
- Packaged manufactured kits including fire-resistant inserts
- Concrete forms requiring customization
- Customized from manufactured materials.
The chart below provides basic comparison of key elements of the different approaches.