DEAR TIM: Outdoor fireplaces seem to be popular and I have the perfect patio to place one on. What do I need to know before I go shopping? I have seen them in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but am unsure as to what would work best for me and my family. The fireplace will not be used for cooking, just warmth and appearance. Should I build my own fireplace? Beth A., Chowchilla, CA
DEAR BETH: Anyone who has enjoyed the pleasure of warming themselves in front of a campfire on a cool evening knows why outdoor fireplaces have exploded in popularity. I am convinced there is a deep psychological pleasure trigger in our brains that is activated by fireplace smoke and the orange glow of the embers in a real fire. My guess is that programming goes back millions of years when fires provided needed heat for survival, cooking and a great place to have a conversation.
I really like my own outdoor fireplace as it allows me to enjoy the exterior of my home earlier in the spring and later in the fall. My own patio is treated as a room of our home even though it is outdoors. I can't tell you how much I enjoy sitting around a crackling fire just after sunset on an October night. That experience really recharges my mental batteries.
Outdoor fireplaces come in a variety of sizes , styles and price points. There is an outdoor fireplace of one type or another for every person. The first thing to check are your local codes and laws as some municipalities have real concerns about outdoor air quality. Traditional wood-burning fires can create air pollution problems when certain weather conditions create an inversion which traps smoke particles in the air. If local laws prohibit wood-burning fireplaces, look for approved models that may be fueled with natural gas or propane.
If you want the satisfaction of building your own fireplace, I suggest you find one that is prefabricated. Unless you are a serious do-it-yourselfer with great skills, you will struggle building a traditional masonry fireplace. Be aware that the actual design and construction of the firebox, smoke chamber, flue and chimney is a precise science, not speculation. If you do not size all of the components correctly, the fireplace will not burn properly and it may send clouds of billowing smoke towards you and your family as you sit near it.
The first thing I would look for in an outdoor fireplace is one that will satisfy your most important needs. If warmth is what you are looking for, I would urge you to get an outdoor fireplace that resembles a traditional campfire. This device will allow many people to gather around and bask in the radiant heat that is sent out in all directions by the fire. Traditional fireplaces reflect heat in a small cone in front of the firebox, so only a few people can enjoy the warmth as they sit in front of the fire.
If appearance is more important to you than warmth, then I feel sorry for you. There are so many gorgeous outdoor fireplaces, I can't imagine how you will begin to make a decision which one to purchase. Be sure to consider how the fireplace materials will withstand the elements in your location. An outdoor fireplace that might perform flawlessly in the southwest may fall apart in several years in the harsh, wet, winter-weather of the northeast.
Some of the magnificent outdoor fireplaces are fairly large and can not only take up valuable space on your patio, their weight may stress the patio and cause a crack. I urge you to create an imaginary fireplace on your patio and arrange your chairs and side tables so they are a minimum of four feet from the fireplace location. You want to take the time to do this to ensure you will have enough space for all to enjoy the new addition to your outdoor living space.
Do not underestimate the amount of room some of the larger outdoor fireplaces will consume on the average patio. These structures can be up to 3 feet in depth and 8 or 9 feet wide. It is also important to position the fireplace so that any smoke and embers do not pose a risk to your home and any nearby vegetation. The hot flue gases billowing from the chimney can toast nearby trees. You also do not want the fireplace to block any vistas from the patio.
Be sure to use common sense around wood structures. Some people place outdoor fireplaces on wood decks. Burning embers can sometimes find their way onto and under a wood deck and start a fire after you have gone inside for the evening. It is an excellent idea to consult your local fire department's fire prevention officer and get tips on how to safely install an outdoor fireplace. These individuals are interested in your safety and want to come to your house in a car, not a truck with flashing lights on and sirens screaming.