DEAR TIM: Last night I sat around a fire pit at a friend's house. Everything about this magical outdoor fire pit, including the occasional puff of smoke, was enjoyable. I've decided I want to build a fire pit. What's involved? Is it a good idea to have a patio fire pit or should I consider a garden fire pit? Do you have to have a fire-pit ring? Valerie C., Brant, MI
DEAR VALERIE: You and I, and thousands of other people, were doing the same thing last night. It was a glorious autumn evening and I watched the last rays of sunlight wash the trees across the lake from my house with my back to the fire. Unfortunately the previous owner of the house I moved into made several mistakes when he built my backyard fire pit. I think he was a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning from all the gas that washes over you as you sit in front of my fire pit. Next spring I intend to move mine.
The first thing you need to do before you get out your shovel and order the material to build your new fire pit is to check with your local officials. There are many communities that are starting to restrict outdoor fires for all sorts of reasons. At the very least, there may be zoning regulations that control if you can build an outdoor fire pit, and if so, its size and where it can be located on your property. Don't overlook this important step.
There are countless fire-pit designs. Some are as simple as the traditional campfire surrounded by a ring of rock. A friend of mine built a fire pit in the middle of his patio and had a welder make a five-foot diameter steel fire pit ring. This homeowner set the top of the steel fire pit ring flush with his brick pavers for a very sleek look.
When I relocate my fire pit in the spring, I'll use large rounded boulders that currently form the back wall of my fire pit. These rocks will be about 9 inches higher than the surface of my patio. The inner diameter of my fire pit will be no less than 5 feet and there's a good chance I'll make it 6 feet in diameter.
The previous homeowner who built my fire pit made two enormous mistakes. The first one was to ignore the natural view. In my case, the patio is immediately adjacent to a very large lake. The fire pit is on the house side of the patio and your back is to the magnificent lake view when you look at the fire. I plan to move the fire pit so that you can see the fire easily and view the lake to the left of the flames.
The second mistake that was made was failure to orient the fire pit with respect to the prevailing winds. More often than not when you are sitting at my fire pit you're bathed in smoke as the patio is downwind of the fire. I can't believe the owner made this basic mistake. The new location will allow the smoke to drift over the lake and away from my patio most of the time. There will be occasions when the wind will shift, but for the most part I'll be smoke-free sitting on the patio.
Consult with your local fire department's fire-prevention officer. She/he may be able to offer some great tips so that you don't set your house on fire, your neighbors' and/or the woods around your home. Be sure you assemble some basic fire-fighting tools and supplies to have at the ready when you do decide to have a roaring fire. A charged garden hose is a must if it's available.
I prefer to build a fire pit that's recessed in the ground about 9 to 12 inches. It's best to construct a gravel-lined drainage ditch away from the bottom of the fire pit to a low spot on your property. This feature prevents standing water from laying in your fire pit. The last thing you want is to have to bail out black ash-laden water some evening when you want to build a fire.
As the trench leaves your pit you can install a drainage pipe to channel the water. Be careful if you choose to use plastic pipe. Don't extend the pipe into the fire pit as the heat of the fire and the coals will melt it in short order. I plan to use a cast-iron pipe in my fire pit to eliminate the possibility of problems.
If you decide to build an outdoor fire pit and you have neighbors who live nearby, you can maintain friendly relations with them if you take the time to burn only very dry wood. Wet wood creates vast amounts of smoke that pollutes the air and irritates neighbors. Dry wood releases far less unburned combustible material into the air.
Never burn garbage, plastic or anything other than wood in your fire pit. Different man-made objects can release very toxic gases as they burn. You can poison yourself, your friends or neighbors.
Use common sense in dry weather when there is a possibility of wild fires or forest fires. Follow all outdoor fire bans in dry weather or periods of low humidity and high winds. The seemingly simple fire in your outdoor fire pit can kill people and cause millions of dollars of damage in very short order if conditions are favorable.