Form and Function Key to Fire Pit Selection

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Fireplaces and fire pits are increasingly being used as a design element rather than a heating element, according to Peter Schoenfeld, vice president of sales for Fireplace Warehouse and National Board Member of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association.

He sees a lot of designs, especially for clients with west- or southwest-facing backyards, that employ linear fireplaces to shield some of the backyard without blocking their mountain views.

“We do a lot of see-throughs as well so that if you are sitting down, you can actually see through the fire and into the view,” he said.

Sealed-front fire pits and indoor-outdoor fireplaces are popular products among outdoor designs these days.

Sealed-front units have glass over the front and don’t have an open flame. Schoenfeld recommends those types of products especially for homeowners with mountain properties or who intend to use their property for rentals or Airbnb.

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Sealed-front fireplaces are a little more expensive than other options, but “what people are liking about the sealed-front units is that the elements don’t really get inside of it: leaves and dust and spiders and bugs,” he explained.

He urges designers and landscape architects to talk with their clients to learn more about how they intend to use the fireplace and how comfortable they are with lighting it.

“It’s very important to tell the customer how they’re going to have to interact” with the unit when they use it, he said. For example, a match-lit unit is the least expensive, but some customers may not be comfortable with it.

“I get a lot of clients who just don’t want to put their hand near the fire or get their face over it,” he said. “That’s one of the main things that goes on in the outdoor segment is how people actually light or turn on their fireplace or fire pit.”

Decorative logs are still popular, but Schoenfeld noted that he’s also seeing designs that incorporate more unique ceramic shapes.

“We did a project with a nightclub that has skulls,” he said. “They’re made of a ceramic material that allows the heat from a fire pit. We see a lot of trends towards larger ceramic products that are able to go in there.”

Schoenfeld tries to discourage homeowners and designers from using wood-burning fireplaces in outdoor designs.

“We’ve had to educate the client that it’s putting so many particulates into the air and you can’t really put it out as easily,” he said of wood-burning units. However, those types of products are still a major part of the market, and he noted that EPA-approved clean-burning units are becoming increasingly popular, especially in Colorado where our low humidity helps prevent fire boxes from rusting.

Some clean-burning wood fireplaces only put out four grams of particulate compared to about 200 grams put out by an open fire, he said.

He also stressed the importance of planning for cross ventilation when installing an outdoor fireplace.

Some designers don’t know about cross ventilation requirements, but air “needs to move through those areas to keep the electronics dry and keep the plumbing dry and allow the interior of the fire pit to dry out,” Schoenfeld explained. “When they look at that screen they say, ‘I don’t want to see that,’ but it’s really important for the client, especially if they are on propane. They have to have a way for the gases to dissipate or the heat to dissipate.”

Most manufacturers will provide calculations for the size and number of vents need to properly ventilate a unit, he said.

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