The Ultimate Outdoor Fireplace Guidebook
At Outdoor Art Pros, we offer a variety of products to enhance your outdoor living space. One of our main expertise is in outdoor fireplaces. We offer several types of styles and burning methods. Many of these can even be bought with matching or complimentary outdoor furniture. This guidebook is sure to answer many of your questions and help you choose the perfect outdoor fireplace.
Table of Contents
What Is an Outdoor Fireplace?
Most fireplaces originated as pits which were constructed outside of the dwelling, even as far back as when humans lived in caves, or just inside for warmth. These old fireplaces lacked significant ventilation or ways for the users to control the flames, but archaeological remains can be found on all five inhabited continents. Being able to make and manage to control fire is actually a significant archaeological marker in the development of ancient groups of homo sapiens, the original forebears of humans.
Eventually, these fire pits became raised hearths which offered a little more protection from the flames spreading throughout a building. Unfortunately, the issue of ventilation still existed. Smoke is harmful to inhale, and older humans were constantly breathing it in while trying to cook and stay warm. Venting was done through holes in the ceiling or high windows, and some buildings from the Middle Ages include smoke canopies to stop the smoke from spreading into the room. Louvers were also used around large vents to stop rain or snow from getting into the building. A louver looks almost exactly like a shutter that consists of thin wooden slats that can be opened and closed.
Figure 1 – A Louver
In some outdoor fireplaces, similar technologies continue to exist. Modern uses of canopies and louvers continue to be used to control where the smoke exits the fireplace to prevent it from blowing towards the people sitting near the fire. However, these older technologies have fallen to the wayside as installers prefer to use a more recent invention: the chimney.
Chimneys originated in northern Europe around the 11th or 12th centuries CE, which makes sense since the region would have been one of the coldest areas where ancient peoples lived. These chimneys were crudely constructed, expensive, and poorly ventilated. It wasn’t until housing became more standardized and modernized around the 18th century that inventors and architects began to develop safer fireplace designs that could be used indoors and outdoors. The three most important developments in fireplace technology, and the ones still used today, are the improved grate design, the convection chamber, and the tall and shallow firebox. All help move smoke away from people while pushing the heat forward where it is needed.
Figure 2 – Chimneys in Standardized Housing
So, why is this history of indoor fireplaces significant to the outdoors? The answer is simple. Most of the development and inventions which went towards making the indoor fireplaces safer and easier to use are now mimicked in outdoor models. Without these developments, people would be unable to sit outside and enjoy the luxury of a fire that has devices designed to keep smoke away while pushing the heat towards them.
Many inventions like higher grates and new methods of generating heat also mean that individuals have numerous cosmetic and practical options from which to choose. For example, a homeowner can now install an electric outdoor fireplace that is simple and unadorned or lined with terracotta because the development of reliable vents and new forms of generating power make it safe, easy, and affordable to do so. Not everyone wants to enjoy the aesthetic of a fire pit or campfire, which often ends in people coughing from smoke or dodging errant sparks and flames.
The idea to construct an entire fireplace outdoors is actually a very modern invention, as seen by the brief history above. While people had exterior fire pits or ovens, building a contemporary-style fireplace didn’t really start until the 20th century. This transition signifies and important shift in the function of a fireplace. Before, they were necessary for heating homes and cooking food. Now, a fireplace is decorative or made for enjoyment.
Before the 20th century, outdoor fireplaces were frequently considered luxuries or even downright silly, but they have become more affordable in the 21st century. Unlike simple fire pits, an outdoor fireplace makes a great focal center and is often part of a porch or pavilion. Many are built with group entertainment in mind and there is often a lot of seating space nearby. Now, there are over five different fuel options that people can choose from, each with their pros, cons, and price points that individuals need to consider.
Wood and Chimineawood burning outdoor fireplaces and Chimineas to be listed under the same section because they often go hand in hand with one another. Wood works both as a fuel and as a construction materials for certain segments of a fireplace. As someone could imagine, it’s not a good idea to build the entire fireplace out of wood because it is highly flammable and likely to burst into flames when dry. A Chiminea isn’t a material but is a style of outdoor fireplace which often uses wood as its source of fuel. Both are extremely old fireplace technologies which continue to be popular because of their availability, durability, and natural, rustic appearance. The majority of outdoor fireplaces are wood-burning like the Chiminea.
Wood is not always a building material for outdoor fireplaces but is a common fuel. Wood is cheap and plentiful in many locations around the United States, especially in the northeast and Midwest. During certain seasons, it’s possible to purchase firewood at the side of the road. People who own a wood-burning fireplace can also gather their own materials, but experts recommend that firewood be allowed to dry out for at least six months to a year to make sure moisture hasn’t built up.
Finally, there are a few basic rules individuals should follow when using a wood-burning exterior fireplace. There are certain woods which work better than others at catching and maintaining a flame, including hickory, oak, hard maple, and ash. These are considered hard woods, which are barks and wood from dicot trees. A dicot tree is any deciduous tree which flowers to reproduce and has broad leaves. The wood does not collect as much moisture and dries out more easily than other types, making it ideal for this style of outdoor fireplace. Surprisingly, it is not harder than softwood.
When it comes to fueling a wood-based outdoor fireplace, some models might recommend different woods over others. Users should read all of the warnings and instructions that come with a premade fireplace or perform some research of their own. An outdoor fireplace with this style of fueling is typically either front-loading or shaped more like a bowl or pit where wood can be added through the top.
Figure 3 – A Front-Loading Wood-Burning Stove
Wood is also available as paneling for an interior or exterior fireplace. With these designs, the actual fireplace itself, especially the parts exposed to heat and flames, are made from another, more durable material. People can find fireplaces constructed of stone, bricks, or even plastic and synthetics covered with wooden slats, tiles, or entire panels. The most common style with a wooden exterior is the traditional, rectangular chimney fireplace with a front-loading section, a grate, and other accoutrements. This is because this style is one of the only ones with a clearly defined interior and exterior.
When wood is used to cover fireplaces for decorative purposes, it needs to be treated. First, because there is still a chance it might be exposed to flames and second, because it is outside. Outdoor fireplaces have many environmental hazards they need to deal with, including wind, rain, and extreme temperatures. Wood is organic and will break down over time, so manufacturers usually treat and seal it with chemicals and varnish. These additives ensure it maintains its luster and beautiful appearance over time.
Some examples of the woods available for outdoor fireplace paneling include maple, oak, mahogany, teak, and even birch. The stains applied to the wood can also change its color, so people can find both light and dark options from premade fireplaces.
Chimineas are extremely popular for individuals who want an outdoor fireplace which is also portable. The name developed from the Spanish word for chimney, which is chimenea. One of the most significant and distinguishing characteristics of this style of fireplace is its bulbous, round body which users load from the front. The most common fuels used inside one are wooden logs – as seen below – or a form of charcoal.
The original design for the Chiminea first appeared over 400 years ago around Spain and can also be found in regions of Latin and South America, including Mexico. Chimineas used to be like an indoor, portable oven and fireplace which could be kept near a window for better ventilation. Once new and safer methods of cooking and home heat became available, the Chiminea gradually moved outside for entertainment purposes.
The full design of the Chiminea keeps smoke away the people using it, but it’s still possible for the smoke to blow back towards those gathered around the fireplace. In particular, the long pipe vents smoke out of the top away from individuals while the small entrance to the rotund body keeps the amount of escaped material to a minimum. It can also be difficult to clean since ashes and soot build up on the inside and an individual needs to stick their hands inside the body to fully wipe the Chiminea down.
Figure 4 – Chiminea
The Chiminea continues to be a popular and inexpensive option for people seeking an outdoor fireplace which can be moved from one location to another.
Ethanol and PropaneEthanol Outdoor Fireplaces and Propane Outdoor Fireplaces are very different from one another but fall under the category of “medium price range.” These fuel types are cheap and plentiful but require more sophisticated designs than traditional wood. Both fuels are also easy to acquire, especially since many of the regions of the United States are attempting to move away from traditional fossil fuels or require propane to run devices like grills.
People who hear of an ethanol fireplace might be confused. Usually when people refer to ethanol as a fuel, they think of the distilled liquid taken from crops like corn which is used in cars. This liquid is the same kind used in some outdoor fireplaces because it functions as a “clean” fuel. Ethanol fires do not produce as much carbon monoxide or oxides of nitrogen as others, so it is safer to be around than traditional smoke and fire fumes. The trick with an outdoor ethanol fireplace is for the owner to make sure they buy the right kind of ethanol to start a fire. There are dozens of different types, including ethanol which is drinking alcohol and the kind used in labs for experiments. An example of this lab ethanol is shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5 – A Bottle of Ethanol
The main pro of an outdoor ethanol fireplace is that it is safer for humans and the environment. The byproducts of an ethanol fire mainly consist of water and carbon dioxide in miniscule amounts. The fire is also so clean that no ash or soot is left behind, meaning the owner has little to know cleaning to do once they are done with the fireplace.
Some other benefits of ethanol fireplaces relate to the product’s flexibility. Unlike many other styles, it takes almost no effort to light an outdoor ethanol fireplace. All an individual has to do is pour the fuel into the appropriate burner and turn the fireplace on. Ignition occurs in minutes or even seconds, meaning the outdoor ethanol fireplace is great for spur of the moment hangouts and entertainment. Outdoor models are also mobile and can be moved from one place to another since they don’t need to be connected to electricity or have a chimney. This gives people more options if they don’t know where in the yard they want the fireplace.
However, there are some important cons to this style. Ethanol fireplaces generate much less heat than other models, mainly because of the primary construction and design. Many of these outdoor fireplaces lack a fan or blower, which has the job of projecting heat away from the flames and towards the room or whoever is sitting in front of the grate. This is safer for the users but means individuals seeking an outdoor fireplace to warm an area for entertainment purposes might be disappointed.
Another crucial feature of ethanol fireplaces is safety. While these are just as safe as other models when used correctly it’s much easier for a novice to mess something up with an ethanol model. Many fireplaces come with a burner system built on top of cups which hold liquid. If some of the ethanol spills underneath this system, it will gather heat and eventually ignite in a place where it shouldn’t, causing damage and posing a significant risk to the people nearby. When purchasing an ethanol fireplace, individuals should carefully research the model they choose and NEVER add additional ethanol once the fireplace has already been lit. This scenario is akin to throwing gasoline on a fire and is extremely dangerous.
A great point on the side of getting an ethanol fireplace is that you can get a small tabletop one and it is inexpensive, customization, makes a huge statement even if they are little, and require zero upkeep. So if you are looking for a fireplace to help you decorate your outdoor space on a budget ethanol is the way to go.
When handled properly though, an ethanol fireplace can be a great addition to any porch or backyard.
Propane fireplaces have been popular in the United States for a long time because they are easier to use than traditional wood models and are also more environmentally friendly. Instead of starting a fire with kindling, the user just needs to make sure there is enough fuel in the fireplace, turn on the gas, and then push a button for it to start. The flame can typically be adjusted with a dial. Propane is also 92% efficient, which means more of it is used for heat and light than wood, which is only 60% efficient as a fuel source.
So, what is propane? Propane is one of the byproducts of natural gas processing. It was discovered in 1857 and is a gas at its natural temperature but can be turned into a liquid for transportation. Propane used to be seen often in homes as the main source of heat and flames for appliances like stovetops, and more rural homes still use it. It is not a clean form of energy, but is one that is frequently found because of many countries’ reliance on natural gas. Almost 90% of the propane used in the United States is produced domestically, while the remaining 10% needs to be imported.
Figure – A Natural Gas Processing Plant
There are many reasons why someone might choose a propane outdoor fireplace. First and foremost, propane is a significantly cleaner fuel source than wood, although it can still be harmful because of the way it is obtained. These fireplaces are also clean and don’t produce soot or ash. Another major benefit is that they heat almost immediately. Anyone who owns a gas stovetop knows that the flames and associated heat kick on immediately once started, and the same is true for a propane fireplace. There is no waiting for the fire to heat up and keep people warm.
One of the main drawbacks of a typical propane fireplace is the necessity of running a gas line from a sizable tank to the fireplace itself. Most construction workers and professionals recommend a reasonable large propane storage unit so the owner doesn’t constantly need to refill it. For many outdoor fireplaces, a small propane tank can work, or there might even be an attached unit which can be filled. However, some will still require the full installation of a gas line, which can be expensive and prevents the fireplace from moving.
Another issue is that propane isn’t really considered an environmentally friendly fuel because of how it is gathered, and it can grow expensive quickly. Propane tanks are costly to refill, so the fireplace owner might not want to run it often. For convenience, though, the propane fireplace receives high marks, especially since it is easily vented outside. Users need to be careful not to breathe in too much of the gas, as it can affect humans and cause medical and health problems. When used outside, though, this problem almost ceases to exist.
Natural and Electric
A natural gas fireplace refers to one which uses something called natural gas. Natural gas is a fossil fuel located around the world. It is a hydrocarbon gas mixture which consists of many different materials like methane, carbon dioxide, helium, and nitrogen. It is a finite resource since it takes millions of years to create. What happens is decaying animal and plant matter slowly moves underneath the earth’s surface and becomes exposed to intense heat and pressure, which releases stored energy as gas.
Many people enjoy using natural gas fireplaces outdoors because they produce heat with relatively little fuel. This style additionally doesn’t create smoke or as many toxic elements while being easy to clean since there aren’t any ashes or soot. Most natural gas fireplaces are one of two types: vented or vent-less. Almost all outdoor models are vent-less since they don’t need a way to safely draw in oxygen and release byproducts. Since there is no room outside, there is no danger of lowering the oxygen levels to a potentially hazardous low. So, in an outdoor vent-less fireplace, the natural gas would suck oxygen in through the front opening and then simply release byproducts. Some of these byproducts include water and carbon monoxide, which can safely release into the atmosphere.
So, what are the pros and cons of natural gas? Well, natural gas is much cheaper than propane while still producing little mess for the owner to clean up. This style of fireplace also comes in many shapes and sizes, allowing owner customization that might not be found for other fuel types. One of the downsides, though, is natural gas is not the most heat efficient. It produces a fraction of the heat seen in propane, and is the rough equivalent of a wooden outdoor firepit. Another problem is that natural gas is not the best for the environment because of how it is produced – companies often engage in practices like fracking and drilling to collect the material.
Finally, a natural gas option could be mobile but might also be immobile. Some require the full establishment and installation of a gas line which connects to a larger tank in the home, while others might use a canister. Both can be costly to set up. However, since many homes in urban areas already run on natural gas, this step could be avoided by having the fireplace connected to a preexisting line.
Electric fireplaces are an unusual invention. These devices aren’t really fireplaces since they don’t generate or maintain a fire. Instead, they are a machine which runs on electricity and provides heat. Something interesting about this picture for the electric fireplace is that the perceptive observer can see that the logs are synthetic. This is a common feature in electric fireplaces since many people still enjoy the aesthetic of a natural fire even if they don’t like the danger, smoke, or smell. The logs are not real, do not burn, and do not need to be replaced.
Figure – An Electric Fireplace
There are numerous pros and cons with this style. One of the biggest benefits is that there are no potentially harmful byproducts to worry about. An individual who owns this kind of fireplace does not need to worry about smoke, carbon dioxide, or the release of any other gases. They can also start up their fireplace by flipping a switch and don’t need to have a separate gas line installed or stock up on propane or natural gas. A great feature on most electric models is being able to control the exact temperature by using an attached thermostat. Finally, most electric models are portable and can be moved inside or outside as the user sees fit.
One of the downsides of electric fireplaces are that they can be difficult to install outdoors. Most models have a cover to protect them from the elements like wind and rain, since it can be hazardous to get the wires wet. This additional protections adds extra costs to the overall price of the fireplace. Electricity also tends to be more expensive than wood or gas, so people can expect to have higher bills. Finally, the flames in these fireplaces aren’t the most realistic, so someone who owns one might be disappointed if they wanted a natural-looking fire.
Electric fireplaces, including outdoor models, come in almost every shape and size and can use the majority of materials. They tend to be small and save people space while still looking great, so they are a wonderful option for people who want something small on the porch.
The Process of Installation
There is a broad range of prices related to outdoor fireplace installation because of the different materials, styles, and systems available. On average, the full installation of an outdoor fireplace, including DIY and professional jobs, can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $20,000. However, these costs are form something built from the ground up. People who choose to purchase a pre-fabricated option can spend far less, usually between $1,000 and $5,000 for the fireplace itself and the installation.
So, what can an individual expect to spend for each of the popular fireplace types? Wood-burning and Chimineas tend to be the least expensive because they are also the simplest. After all, you don’t need any technology or gas lines to light wood on fire. Fire pits are exceptionally inexpensive, usually only costing between $200 and $500 depending on size and complexity. A Chiminea is similarly affordable, with most people only spending between $200 and $600. The only factors which really affect Chimineas are size and style, since they are a straightforward construct.
Ethanol fireplaces tend to be portable but relatively inexpensiveA small model capable of resting on a porch or patio table can be as much as $500 to $600, and the price increases from there. With this style, people tend to be willing to pay more because of the sheer convenience and cleanliness of an ethanol burning model, although they don’t have to in order to receive a beautiful outdoor fireplace.Propane fireplaces are larger and tend to be as low as $800. At first glance, they seem more expensive than ethanol, but ethanol actually costs much more per square inch, meaning a larger ethanol fireplace the size of a small propane one will be more expensive.
Finally, there are natural gas and electric. Natural gas fireplaces tend to be expensive, with the cheapest models still costing $800. Fancier or larger variations can reach up to $1,500, with some even costing $2,000. Despite the initial price, though, natural gas can save individuals money on fuel since the gas costs pennies compared to firewood. Electric is similar to natural gas since these models tend to be inexpensive to run but might require more investment in the beginning. Most people can expect to pay between $1,000 and $3,000. Electric fireplaces additionally have fewer safety hazards that could be a problem later on.
Before picking any outdoor fireplace, an individual needs to know the environment they live. Someone who lives somewhere hot and humid might have different needs than someone who lives in an area that is cold and dry. While companies design many outdoor fireplaces with the weather in mind, some styles might still come up short when faced with environmental hazards.
Materials like stone and metal work best in cold or stormy climates because they are especially durable and can withstand the wind and rain. Stone, in particular, is difficult to ruin although it can be expensive. Likewise, plastic and thin synthetics should stick to warmer, milder climates where they won’t potentially be blown away. Any fireplace with wooden paneling will need to be sealed but will keep its appearance better in a hot, dry climate. Glass can survive the heat and cold, but might face problems in the wind and storms, so it is a material best reserved for fireplaces that can be brought inside.
For fireplaces, size matters. An outdoor model should have a larger firebox so that wood of all sizes can fit and the heat is pushed towards the gathered people. Someone who needs a small fireplace should consider a clean, efficient fuel like ethanol or electricity. These two types can be the smallest while also wasting few resources, making them ideal for someone who wants a porch or patio accessory. Wood-burning and propane fireplaces can be much larger, and thus are ideal for bigger structures.
One consideration that doesn’t affect the fuel, but will affect the building material is style. Many people want their outdoor firepits to match their home and not look out of place. Someone living in an older, more traditional house might therefore like traditional materials like clay, brick, or stone. Newer homes tend to look better with more recent fireplace materials, such as glass, plastic, and other synthetics. Having a house made of a certain material doesn’t restrict what can be used in the fireplace, but it can affect the entire aesthetic of the yard. Typically, models that use more recent forms of fuel like ethanol or electricity can be made of more modern materials like plastics.
Finally, people need to consider what kind of fuel is available in their region. Not everyone will have natural gas lines running through their neighborhoods or easy access to propane, so those models might not work. Similarly, running an electric fireplace can put additional strain on the electrical system of a small house, so it’s important for anyone interested in an outdoor fireplace to do their research before picking a model. No matter what fireplace idea for your home you have now you know where you can find it.
Basic Outdoor Fireplace Safety
- Choose a thick material for the firebox to prevent cracking or breaking
- Remember to keep the fireplace 3 ft. away from nearby surroundings
- Don’t keep plants near the fireplace
- Make sure the fuel shut-offs for gas fireplaces are easy to reach
- Always keep some form of extinguisher (mechanical, water, sand, etc.) near the fireplace when lit
- Maintain and clean all parts of the structure regularly
- Do not leave a fire unattended
- No fireplace should be left on a wooden deck
- Do not burn trash or plastic
- Do not put the fireplace near tree branches or electrical wires
A lot of these rules seem like common sense, but many people forget fundamental safety because they are having too much fun with their new fireplace. These rules apply to all types of fireplaces, including ones run by ethanol or electricity. If something does go wrong with the fireplace, the best course of action is to not panic and call the fire department. Be sure to use the extinguisher if possible, and avoid touching any wires or metal in the case of an electrical mishap.
Now that there is a clear understanding of the types of outdoor fireplaces, how they work, and the pros and cons, be prepared to enjoy a brand new centerpiece for all outdoor gatherings. Since you now know what fireplace you want, check out our guide on how to design around your outdoor fireplace.
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