Photo courtesy of Derby City Pools and Outdoor Living

When Alex Fransen talks to potential clients, he hears the same thing.

“We want it all,” says Fransen, president of Derby City Pools and Outdoor Living in Louisville, Ky. “They’re saying, ‘If we can’t go anywhere, we want it in our backyard — the water, fire, kitchen, pool.’”

In particular, fire features are a growing ask from homeowners who appreciate the idea of gathering around the crackling flames, staying warm on cool evenings, even roasting some marshmallows. Fransen says there is an opportunity at every residential site and many commercial properties to offer fire features as a part of a design.

Peter Muroski, president of Native Landscapes in Pawling, N.Y., is also fielding more calls than ever for lifestyle amenities like fire pits, outdoor fireplaces and custom structures that incorporate a grill top.

Ambiance is a key selling point in finding clients to buy fire features, but properly educating them on how to use those features is essential for safety.
Photo courtesy of Derby City Pools and Outdoor Living

Ambiance is a key selling point. But safety is a major consideration when designing and installing fire features — and when educating clients about how to use them properly. Whether you’ve built some fire pits or are installing custom-designed fire features that are as “smart” and connected as other wireless aspects of a home, here are some trends and safety measures to consider.

On-Trend Fire Features.

You’ve got the old-fashioned campfire with natural wood — cue up some sticks the kids gathered in the yard to act as hotdog skewers. Fireside stories, lazy nights, making memories: Fire brings a cozy-hearth feel to a backyard living area. Now more than ever, we’re looking for warmth and comfort. Fire also adds a sense of spirit and energy.

Fransen has found where there’s fire, clients also want water. His pool business is booming, as is the case across the country. The timber-and-glow aesthetic is a complement. “We do a lot of fire features next to pools,” he says. “We might have water coming out of the front with a sheer descent with a fire feature on top — and we even do these fire-water bowls next to pools. That’s a nice bowl of brass, copper or stone with water that spills back into the pool and fire comes out of the top.”

Another designer detail that upgrades the good, ‘ole fire pit is fire glass.

“Fire glass is another media that you put in your fire pan, so it’s like lava rock with colored glasses,” he says.

As people were forced to stay home more due to the pandemic, calls for fireplaces and other outdoor living projects skyrocketed.
Photo courtesy of Native Landscapes

Gas vs. natural wood? The jury’s out. For Fransen, more clients are going for the gas-powered, electronic-ignition features that can be controlled by a remote or a smartphone app because it burns clean, is easy-care and minimizes exhaust.

“I’m a natural wood guy and we have wood-burning fireplaces in our house, but in our backyard, we have a fire pit with gas — and the reason why is convenience,” Fransen says, adding that the clients he serves generally hire a pool and lawn service. “They’re not going to go out there, clean ashes and restock it with wood.”

Since the purpose of an outdoor living space with a fire feature is to enjoy it, reducing the dirty work makes sense for many homeowners.

In Muroski’s area, where many residences have larger lots and room to breathe, there’s a demand for natural wood and a campfire feel. In fact, that’s what Muroski looks forward to during the holidays. Fire features can be a year-round backyard attraction. “It’s a tradition around my house that we go out there, even if there is snow, we start a fire in the fire pit, and we sit around and sing Christmas carols,” he says.

Before You Build.

The abundance of fire pits and gas-powered fire bowls available in the big-box world make adding this feature to a landscape seem like a plug-and-play situation. But the reality is, you’re dealing with fire and potentially installing gas lines. There are structures, plants, children and personal property to consider before you break ground. Fire features are a growing aspect of outdoor living — and an attractive one. Here’s what to know:

Study the Permit Policy: Fire features come with added regulatory and safety guidelines because there are risks involved if a fire pit or fireplace is improperly installed or used. Before designing and building fire features, do your homework and get a solid grip on what is required to achieve a permit. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board — not to mention, a frustrated client and a project delay.

And remember, different cities and counties can have varying fire codes for outdoor campfires, fire pits and other fire-burning features. Beyond fire codes, gas-powered fire elements involve plumbing lines, and there are codes for those, too. “If you’re having an open pit and burning wood, I call the fire chief and tell him, ‘Here’s what we are doing — what are the requirements?’” Fransen says. “They can send someone out to take a look at the plans and the site and give you the information you need.”

“You don’t want to create a situation where smoke or hot coals blow toward a neighbor’s house.” Peter Muroski, president of Native Landscapes

Assure Ventilation: A common mistake when installing fire features is overlooking the burn type and how the vessel is vented. For example, natural gas tends to sink, and liquid propane tends to rise, Fransen says. “If it’s liquid propane and you put the vents down low instead of high, (the exhaust) can’t get out of the fire pit,” he explains. On the other hand, if vents are too high in a pit with natural gas, “you can create a bomb because it will trap the gas and it can’t get out of the fire pit.”

Overall, gas- and natural wood-burning fire pit pans have specific directions for installation. Read them. “Otherwise, you could end up pulling it apart later after you find out it’s not venting correctly,” Fransen says, a lesson he learned the hard way. “Air flow is critical and keeps it safe.”

Mind Your Materials: Not all stone and brick are created equal or adequate for lining fire features. Muroski reminds industry peers who are new to fire feature design and construction to use fire brick. “Natural stone, especially layered stone like sedimentary rock, can pop,” Muroski says. “And, that hot, molten rock can hit a house and be dangerous.”

Homeowners are also asking for more “smart” features when it comes to automating their fire pits.
Photo courtesy of Derby City Pools and Outdoor Living

Remember the Neighbors: “If houses are packed together tightly, you want to stay away from wood-burning fire pits or fireplaces and go with a gas option because there is less smoke with those structures,” Muroski says. “You don’t want to create a situation where smoke or hot coals blow toward a neighbor’s house.”

Protect Trees and Plants: Look up. Is the site where a client desires a fire feature shaded by mature, overhanging branches brimming with foliage? Fire can damage a tree canopy and nearby plants if the site lacks proper ventilation or is simply too close to landscaping. “Make sure you are not creating heat stress around trees,” Muroski says.

Environmental Considerations: Remind clients that drought conditions and natural, wood-burning fires often do not mix. “For instance, we’ve had a dry summer and you want to be extra careful with fire when the ground and everything around it is parched,” Muroski says. Advise homeowners that cities or counties might put a burn ban in place. This is for the health and safety of everyone in the community. Suggest calling the local fire department if a client is uncertain about the status.

Automate with Caution: Entire outdoor living spaces are automated now and can be controlled with a smartphone, from pool heating elements to landscape lighting and sound systems. You can turn on water features with an app. And the same is true with electric-ignition, gas-burning fire features. But Fransen chooses not to automate fire, and he explains why to clients. “Say you’re out to dinner at a restaurant across town and you do not have that line of sight to your fire pit,” he says. “Meanwhile, baby brother is home with a sitter and sitting next to the fire feature. You accidentally push the button on your phone while it’s in your pocket and it turns on.”

“If you’re having an open pit and burning wood, I call the fire chief and tell him, ‘Here’s what we’re doing — what are the requirements?’” Alex Fransen, president of Derby City Pools and Outdoor Living

Case in point: You could accidentally play with fire with an app-mishap or accidental pushing of a button. “I don’t want to take the chance of automating that feature to where you can’t see it, but you can turn it on,” Fransen says.

There are several safety factors that come into play when building fire features, including proper ventilation, materials used and proximity to neighboring structures.
Photo courtesy of Native Landscapes

Fire features do have a proceed-with-caution aspect to them. But they are in high demand, and a memory-making highlight of many backyards.

As Muroski says, “Have fun. Fire structures can be a wonderful addition to the outdoor environment.”

Don’t Get Burned—A Play It Safe Playlist 

It never hurts to provide clients asking for a natural, wood-burning fire feature to have a fact sheet as a resource to educate their family and friends. As their trusted landscape professional, you can have the conversation in person or create a tip sheet to complement projects that involve burning wood, natural gas or propane. Specifically, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers these tips for backyard, recreational fires. 

  • Burn seasoned dry wood that burns hotter and cleaner.
  • Get a moisture meter to check your firewood. Moisture content should be about 20%.
  • Cover stacked wood, but allow some airflow.
  • If there's an air quality alert day or burn alert, do not use your fire pit.
  • Do not burn green wood, construction waste, plastic, garbage or yard waste because the smoke can be toxic.
  • If you live in an area where forest and brush fires are a concern, take care to abide by local warning.

Learn more at epa.gov/burnwise/backyard-recreational-fires.