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How to Use Fire in Your Home's Landscape

Chris is a Certified Green Industry Professional with over 11 years landscape design and build experience in West Michigan.

The Constant Debate: Wood or Gas?

One of the main questions that I often receive from clients when they are diving into the glorious realm of firepit design is which fuel source to use: wood or gas? The simple answer is, it depends.

Both are great for ambiance and can achieve similar results for the most part. There are definite differences, however, and one may be more suited to your needs than the other.

A fire can create an intimate experience for any landscape.

A fire can create an intimate experience for any landscape.

Wood: Keeping It Real

One of the least complicated fuel sources is wood. Simply put, all you need is to stack the wood in the best way to draft, light a fire underneath, and voila! You’re on your way to smokey, fiery bliss!

For those who are not fire-making pros, however, this is not always how it goes to get a great wood-fueled fire rolling. One of the great cons of wood-fueled fire features is that it can be a chore to get the fire going and keep it going so that it can perform for your gathering time. Wood is a variable fuel source, which means that different wood types can yield different flame results.

This is especially important if you want to cook over the fire as some wood—like cherry, hickory, and oak—is great for adding flavor to whatever culinary concoction you’re working over the fire. You should avoid soft woods, like pines (or any evergreen for that matter), as the sap can cause flare ups and the flavor is often not the most desired.

The quality of the wood will also affect the quality of your fire experience. Wood needs to be dry to burn well. While this is a no-brainer to most, but it isn’t always easy in practice. If you purchase wood for burning, find a reputable source that has seasoned wood readily available. Otherwise, you’ll be stacking and waiting for your fuel source to be ready, and you can have some pretty smokey and unreliable fires in your future.

If you have wood available on site that is good for burning, then you’re in luck, as you have a fuel source that doesn’t need to be purchased! However, make sure you properly season your wood for use later.

Outdoor fireplaces are a very popular option in the landscape. Some prefer wood burning, while others prefer gas.

Outdoor fireplaces are a very popular option in the landscape. Some prefer wood burning, while others prefer gas.

Wood Fire Feature Construction

If you want that crackling fire to continue to burn in a functional and aesthetically pleasing spot for seasons to come, then consider a few thoughts toward how your feature should be constructed.

  • Mortar can and will crack under extreme temperature changes. If you have a fire feature that uses mortar, then make sure the exposed areas to flame (like the cap of a fire pit) are mortared with fire-rated mortar. Firebrick (specific brick material that withstands the intense heat) should line the inside and bottom of a masonry fire feature.
  • Draft matters. If you want to have an outdoor fireplace that is wood burning, make sure it is constructed by a professional mason that has experience with creating a fireplace that properly draws smoke up through the throat and chimney of the fireplace. Otherwise, your outdoor hangout will be a smokey blunder.
This unique fire pit has a steel sleeve to help protect the faux wood timber exterior.

This unique fire pit has a steel sleeve to help protect the faux wood timber exterior.

Gas Fire Feature Construction

Similar to their wood-fired brethren, gas fire features offer ambiance and long-lasting enjoyment long into the evening. In some ways, gas (natural or propane) fire features can be somewhat easier to operate but trickier (and more expensive) to construct.

When it’s time to head out and gather around the fire pit for a warm-up on a cool, fall evening, all you need to do is turn on the gas source and ignite the flame and you are good to go. No worries about wet wood, if it’s seasoned, or where it came from. Gas is a consistent fuel that burns hot and true every time.

Gas fire pits are a very convenient option for those who want a consistent and reliable flame without the nuisance of smoke.

Gas fire pits are a very convenient option for those who want a consistent and reliable flame without the nuisance of smoke.

Gas Fire Pit Construction

If you are in the market for building a gas fire feature, here’s a few design tips:

  • Use a reputable, licensed gas line contractor. Not only that, make sure the gas line install is permitted and inspected. Don’t cut corners here. It’s pretty simple, straightforward, and relatively inexpensive to do it right versus facing problems later.
  • Burner media should be fire rated. Many fire features that are gas fueled will often use decorative glass or stones to cover up the burner, which helps “dirty” the flame (making it look more natural rather than flamethrower). Again, don’t cut corners and throw whatever stones might be lying around the house to cover up the burner. Remember, gas flames are ridiculously hot, and expansion and contraction on a stone that has small microscopic pockets of water can come under pressure and actually explode and pop! Avoid a shrapnel-filled fire experience and pony up to purchase fire-rated materials that are safe for use in gas fires. Consult a fireplace professional if you have any doubts on what material to use.

Wrapping Up

Fire creates a great focal point in the landscape. There can be a wide array of options to consider to make yours unique. Always consider what your goals are for your fire feature. Take these goals and compare them against the size and restrictions of your space, and let that help guide your design choices.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.