Nov. 12 2019 06:00 AM

Fire features are hot, and not just because of the flames they produce.

Photo: Oregon Outdoor Lighting

What is it that draws us to want to sit around the soothing flames of a roaring fire? It must be something that’s coded into our DNA, a throwback to our cave-dwelling ancestors gathering around a blaze, enjoying a barbecue compliments of the latest hunt.

Design/build contractors who create outdoor living spaces are well acquainted with our innate desire to gather around the orange glow of a blazing fire. Many of these spaces will include a fireplace, fire pit or bowl, tiki torches, or one of the newest and coolest hot things out there, the fire table.

Fire pits and fire features are part of the red-hot outdoor living trend. “Millennials, in particular, like the outdoors, and they want their homes to have a seamless flow from the inside to the outside,” says Joey S. Shimek, vice president of sales at The Outdoor GreatRoom Company, Burnsville, Minnesota. “And people who live in the more northern states want to extend their short summers as long as possible.”

Photo: Oklahoma Landscape Inc.

There are four major types of fire features: fireplaces, usually built as part of an outdoor living room; fire pits or bowls, freestanding units that sit on or are dug into patios; tiki torches; and fire tables that sit at dining height, with room for plates and cups with a long, narrow stream of fire running down the center.

Shimek says, before installing a fire feature for a client, a contractor should ask the client a few questions — such as what’s the primary use going to be? Are they going to want to place glasses or dinner plates around it, or do they just want something warm to sit around and enjoy? What sort of space is available? What sort of décor does the outdoor room have, so the feature can be made to blend in with it?

Regardless of where a fire feature is on a client’s wish list, the contractors who install them agree that they’re hot commodities. Ed Geneser, who handles design and sales at Country Landscapes Inc., Iowa City, Iowa, says “A lot of our customers come to us with the fire feature as their number one priority and not as part of a larger project.”

Just the opposite has been true for Aaron Wiltshire, owner and president of Oklahoma Landscapes Inc., Tulsa, and a veteran outdoor room contractor. “Very rarely do we get a call where someone says, ‘I just want a fire feature, and I want it right here on my existing patio,’” he says. “Even if someone just wants a fire pit, it’s usually a part of a larger patio extension.”

A range of products to fit any budget

Fire pits and fire features are within the reach of just about everyone. “A wood-burning fire pit without natural gas plumbed to it could be had in the $1,500 range,” says Wiltshire. “Or, they could buy a fire pit or fireplace kit that I would install for them — that’s a lower-cost option.” Something as nice as the large, linear (rectangular) granite-clad feature he recently installed for someone cost around $12,000.

Geneser says younger buyers tend to gravitate toward fire pits. “They’re more sociable and easier for larger groups of friends or family to gather around,” he says. Fireplaces cost quite a bit more, which is another reason younger homeowners go for the pits and bowls. He’ll also suggest fire tables to those types of clients, touting the tables’ quick-connectors that allow great flexibility.

The type of kit Wiltshire referred to is still a contractor-grade product, not something that a do-it-yourselfer could buy at a local big-box store. There’s a huge difference in quality between those two products.

Photo: Fire Pits Direct

“Contractor-grade fire features will have things like high density powder-coated steel finishes in a range of colors and be made out of glass-fiber reinforced concrete,” says Adam Kahler, director of sales and marketing at Spotix, parent company of Fire Pits Direct, North Liberty, Iowa. “That material handles sudden temperature changes well. If the ambient temperature outside is cool and somebody lights up a cold gas fire feature that’s surrounded by standard concrete, the temperature contrast could crack it almost immediately.”

“Our burners use grade 304 stainless steel,” says Shimek, “which is known for its high corrosion resistance and meant to be used outdoors. It’s not going to tarnish or rust right away like a cheaper product. You’re not going to be replacing it after one year.”

Geneser says that lower quality units may be made of aluminum or a cheaper grade of steel that will rust. “A lot of the units we sell are made of steel and brass, and those are never going to deteriorate.”

Wiltshire says, “Generally what we see is that the big-box products have a limited lifespan, like a chaise lounge that sits outside all the time. Eventually, that just wears out and you throw it away. The beautiful thing about having a full-masonry installation plumbed with natural gas is nothing can rot or decay, and it’s easy,” Wiltshire says.

This allows for spontaneity. “People don’t say on a Thursday, ‘Let’s have a fire Saturday at about 6 o’clock,’” says Wiltshire. “No — they’ll be inside the house eating dinner and someone will say, ‘It’s nice out, let’s go light a fire.’” He adds, “Ease of use is a big deal. It’s my job to make people’s outdoor living environments very easy for them, and thus, something that they will use consistently.”

Wood versus gas

Gas-powered fire features are by far more popular overall than wood-burning models, according to Kahler and Shimek. But there’s something romantic about the sound and smell of a crackling fire, and some people want to recreate that “campfire” feeling in their backyards.

Photo: Country Landscapes Inc.

In that case, Wiltshire has a speech prepared that tends to take the stars out of people’s eyes. “Clients will say, ‘We want a wood-burning fire pit,’ and I’ll say, ‘That’s fine, we can do that. But you know how every summer there are ‘no-burn’ days? How you have to get a wood fire started, tend it and put it out? And how at campfires, people complain that the wind blows smoke in their faces? If you’re okay with all those things, then let’s build you that wood-burning fire feature.’ After they hear that, about 70% get talked out of it.”

Romantic notions aside, a lot of times local ordinances will dictate the choice, says Geneser. “If it’s a small yard and the code says a wood fire feature needs to be 25 feet away from a combustible surface, they might have to go with gas. In a lot of neighborhoods nowadays, houses are really close together, and you don’t want to be producing a lot of smoke for your neighbors.” Still, he says that quite a few of Country Landscapes’ clients request wood-burning features.

Smart technology and safety

Fire features are increasingly compatible with smart home technology. Many features have remote control capability allowing the user to turn it on or off or modulate the flame via a dedicated remote or phone app. “We’re finding it much easier to integrate with pool systems and a variety of different home automation systems that are on the market now,” says Kahler.

Owners of high-end residences or commercial properties such as restaurants and hotels want the convenience and safety of electronic ignitions and smart technology. An electronic ignition is safer for a number of reasons.

“A conventional gas fire feature typically has a ball valve,” says Kahler. “You turn the gas on manually using a standard fireplace key, and then light it with a match or lighter. That doesn’t work well in a commercial setting because there’s too much margin for error. Patrons can interfere with it, and things can happen, such as leaving the gas valve open overnight.”

Photo: The Outdoor GreatRoom Company

Many electronic-ignition fire features have timers, an especially useful safety feature in the commercial arena. A bar or restaurant manager can set the feature to turn on at 6 p.m. and off again just before closing, instead of depending on an employee to remember to turn it off.

This technology may come at too high a cost for some budget-conscious homeowners, however. An electronic ignition generally adds about $1,500 to the cost of a gas fire feature, so many will opt to light it with a match.

A contractor-grade fire feature will be safe, if properly installed. A new standard from the American National Standards Institute requires that any gas-powered outdoor fire feature must include a mechanism that automatically shuts off the flow of gas should the pilot light blow out from a sudden gust of wind.

Kahler’s company trains all its product specialists, the people who interact with contractors, through the National Fire Institute. “That is a certification that a lot of people who work in the market space have,” says Kahler. “It means that someone has in-depth training on the safety aspects of gas fire feature installation.”

Local ordinances may dictate who can plumb gas lines. Country Landscapes uses a certified subcontractor for this purpose. The installation must pass a city inspection afterward.

The ABCs of BTUs

A British thermal unit is the measure of the amount of energy required to heat one pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. With regard to a gas-powered fire pit or feature, the higher the number of BTUs, the more flame and heat the fire pit or feature will generate, and the more warmth is felt from the fire. The output of a fire pit or feature will generally range from 30,000 to 100,000 BTU.

The appearance and height of the burner’s flame is affected by other things besides the number of BTUs. The amount of air mixed with the gas before it is burned affects the overall color and height of the flame. More air can be added by opening the air shutter, if there is one, wider at the orifice.

The more air in the mix, the bluer and shorter the flame will be. It will also be a cleaner burning, higher temperature flame.

Conversely, closing the shutter and reducing the airflow produces a brighter yellow, taller flame. Closing the shutter too much results in a sooty, dirty flame. (Note: Not all manufacturers utilize adjustable air shutters on their burner systems.)

A larger orifice hole or a higher gas pressure means more BTUs, assuming all other factors remain the same.

Natural gas has fewer BTUs per cubic foot than liquid propane. Both are sold by the BTU, so the more BTUs a feature uses per hour, the more it costs to use the feature. Generally, it’s desirable to have a high BTU measure for a gas fire pit or feature.


Fire pit pitfalls

There are a few general things to keep in mind that will help your installations go smoothly.

Wiltshire says a mistake that installers sometimes make is in not understanding the BTU (British thermal unit, a measurement of thermal energy) requirements of the firepit ring or burner. “All fire features need a certain number of BTUs to function properly,” he says. “You need to make sure that you have enough gas supply going into the feature so it will be able to operate at its highest level.”

Younger buyers tend to gravitate toward fire pits, similar to what is being installed here.
Photo: Fire Pits Direct

“Sometimes, there’ll already be a stub-out for, say, a gas grill,” adds Geneser. “But when we test it, we can see that it doesn’t deliver enough gas to run the feature properly and we’ll have to run a line off the meter. If the meter is on the opposite side of the house, and we have to navigate through walls and around trees and posts, sometimes that’s insurmountable, and they’ll have to settle for running the feature off a propane tank.”

Wiltshire cautions you to be careful about where you place a feature so that it doesn’t become something that could potentially burn the house down. It’s also important to add a drain hole so rainwater won’t build up inside the cavity.

Heat up your bottom line

The profit margins on fire features can be high. “Contractors make a lot of money on these things,” says Shimek.

Wiltshire agrees. “Fire features are profitable,” he says. “However, if I was just installing fire pits alone, then I probably wouldn’t be in business. But I’m not — I’m also building a patio, a retaining wall and a built-in seating area. The fire feature is just one piece of the puzzle that I’ll assemble for someone.”

“They do add to a project’s bottom line,” he continues. “But you just need to make sure you charge enough for them and not put them in too cheaply. If you price them correctly and understand your labor costs, they can make you a good deal of money.”

With the right information, proper equipment and planning, a fire feature can help you add to your project’s bottom line without getting burned.

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at maryvillano@igin.com.