The Ultimate Backyard Fire Pit Buying Guide for Pools and Patios
What could be better than a relaxing afternoon in your beautiful backyard pool?
How about a relaxing afternoon in the pool, followed by a cozy evening around a stylish and functional poolside fire pit?
If you need a good reason to consider adding a fire pit to your backyard decor, consider this: we wouldn’t be here without fire.
Fire can create or trigger some of the most powerful memories of our lives. Cuddling with a loved one… roasting s’mores with family and friends… bundling up and telling stories around the fire on a cold night. Combine your backyard pool with a fire pit and you might literally change lives.
This article will help you through every stage in your fire-pit-buying journey, from code and compliance to style and space considerations. We’ve partnered with landscape designer and stylist Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery, creator of BOXHILL, to provide you with the best and most comprehensive fire pit guide you’ll find anywhere online.
We’ll also look at fire from a deeper angle, so you can understand why humans have such a deep, primal connection to fire -- and how you can use the psychology of fire to make better memories around your fire pit.
Why people love fire
Have you ever wondered why we’re so drawn to fire? You’re not alone. After a few memorable evenings beside my own poolside fire pit, I started doing some research. Here’s what I discovered…
Humans can’t live without water, but we wouldn’t be human without fire. In fact, fire is so fundamental to our existence that Darwin thought of it as one of the two most important breakthroughs in human history.
Controlled fires allowed early humans to cook their food, which provided them with more nutrients for much less physical effort.
Instead of chasing prey or gathering plants to eat all day, humans could gather around their fires to tell stories (Darwin thought language was the other most important human breakthrough), invent better tools, develop civilizations… in short, to become the dominant species on planet Earth.
Fire evokes our emotions because we need fire to be truly human.
Now you’ve got another interesting story to share with folks when you get together around your awesome new poolside fire pit.
If you want a new fire pit for your backyard pool and/or patio space, any buying decision needs to begin with one simple -- but far from straightforward -- question: are you actually allowed to have a fire pit in the first place?
Fire pit codes and compliance (the legal stuff)
You may or may not be legally allowed to use a fire pit in your yard. It would be devastating to install the fire pit of your dreams, only to have some local official pull up a few days later to tell you it has to go, or you’ll face some sort of penalty.
How can you know if you can use a fire pit? Will you be restricted to certain types of fire pits? Are you obligated to place and use fire pits in certain places and/or certain ways?
Look up your local laws, regulations, and ordinances.
There’s no “universal” fire pit code. A Northern California property may be significantly more restricted in its use of outdoor fires than a home in rural Arkansas.
The best way to find relevant local codes is to hop on Google.
Search terms like “fire pit regulations” and/or “fire pit codes,” followed by your town or county and your state. Any Google search recommendation you’ll see here should be performed without the quotation marks, because quotation marks will force Google to only search for results with the words you’ve quoted in the exact order you’ve quoted them.
For example, River Pools is based in Warsaw, Virginia. Warsaw tends to follow building and fire codes set by Richmond County, and more broadly, by the state of Virginia.
It’s rather challenging to actually find relevant codes for Warsaw and for Richmond County. Many smaller local governments are bad at the whole internet thing. If you can’t find legitimate information on Google, you should probably go straight to the source -- call up your local building authorities.
To find the relevant authorities, adjust your search to terms like “building codes,” “fire pit regulations,” or “fire marshal,” with your town, county, and state included. The fire marshal or fire department may be the most helpful authority -- if they can’t tell you or send you the relevant codes, they ought to know who can.
Call up some officials, ask them for more information, and you’ll have a starting point for the rest of your fire pit journey.
Some styles and/or types of fire pits may require professional installation, particularly if you’re building a permanent (in-ground) fire pit, or want to install a fire pit that burns natural gas. If you’ve already gotten far enough to prioritize these types of pits for your backyard project, you should probably contact a plumber.
Not every plumber will have the training and credentials to install or connect gas lines, but you’ll probably want a gas plumbing professional for any gas-line connections -- and they’d better know what the codes are for your area before starting any work!
Hopefully you’ve verified that you can use a fire pit, and you now know of any restrictions or regulations you’ll need to follow when installing and using your new fire pit.
The boring part is (mostly) over. Let’s get to the fun part: creating the ideal environment for your fire pit and finding the perfect pit for your backyard space.
How to choose the perfect fire pit
Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery has helped hundreds of homeowners design their perfect patio spaces in her 20-plus-year career as a sought-after landscape stylist. Her guidance starts simply, but it offers a critical structure for your fire pit thought processes:
First, the size of your patio will determine everything else you’ll do with it.
A gigantic backyard can offer more space to spread out, but that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have fewer options for your fire pit.
However, you should create a layout for your patio furniture before choosing a fire pit.
Creating a perfect patio layout
You might be tempted to structure the whole patio around your fire pit… but this approach generally will leave you with fewer options for everything else.
Starting with the foundational patio furniture, like outdoor couches, chairs, and tables, can help you create a coherent patio design that’ll pair well with the surrounding decor. Your patio furniture (fire pit included) should match the look of your paved and/or tiled patio space, which hopefully also matches the exterior of your home.
As you choose the style of your foundational furniture, you’re also choosing dimensions. The dimensions of things like couches and tables influences what you can do with your patio space, and your available patio space will obviously influence what you can use, and where you might put it.
In the old days, before everyone had computers in their pockets, you had to create patio layouts by hand with graphing paper. It’s much easier now with any number of PC and mobile apps. Some apps will even have furniture pre-loaded and can display pixel-perfect renderings of your preferred furnishings over an accurate top-down and/or first-person view of your real-world patio.
Top patio design apps
If you want to be hands-on with your patio layout, here are a few of the top landscape or patio design apps available in 2021:
Houzz is a great design app used by many professionals. It also offers a free design app with millions of pre-loaded furniture products, which you can often purchase in the app itself. There are so many options in Houzz that it might become overwhelming, so you should probably start your design with some preferred furnishing styles already in mind.
iScape is a more focused version of Houzz -- it’s centered exclusively on designing outdoor spaces. This might make it easier to incorporate the actual landscape elements of landscape design into your planning, as iScape has a deep database of trees and other plants to place in your virtual backyard. Unfortunately, iScape is (currently) Apple-exclusive, so Android owners won’t be able to use the app at all.
Decorilla is similar to Houzz -- it was built for interior design, but it also includes features to design your patio. Both Houzz and Decorilla are more furniture-oriented, but Decorilla differs in one critical way: it’s not a free app, but is rather a premium service that pairs you with a professional designer.
If you feel overwhelmed by your options and don’t think you have the time or training to execute a brilliant patio design on your own, Decorilla can offer professional guidance. All Decorilla packages include multiple concepts from two vetted designers, which is similar to some other online design service marketplaces, like 99designs (which we’ve used to create some neat graphics in the past).
Fire pit space considerations
Once you’ve got your patio furnished (even if it’s only a virtual rendering), you’ll be ready to find the perfect fire pit.
First, make sure you’ve got enough space for safe and enjoyable fire pit use.
BOXHILL recommends dedicating a 12’ by 12’ to 15’ by 15’ square area of the patio to your fire pit. This doesn’t mean you can’t put anything else in the fire pit area. Some fire pits can be safely positioned a mere 18 inches away from chairs and couches, while others require two to three feet of separation from any furniture.
If you want to use a natural-gas-burning fire pit, you may need to place it at a certain distance from your home so it can be properly connected to any existing gas lines. Generally, natural gas plumbers recommend installing no more than 20 feet of connecting line between your main gas line and your fire pit.
Fire pit size considerations
Fire pits come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and heights. A small, squat fire pit might be best for occasional use, while a taller, larger fire pit can be a place for guests to gather around and chat... like a bar table that’ll burn you instead of serving you a drink if you lean too closely into it.
Here are BOXHILL’s size and height infographics, which can help you understand the purpose and use cases of some common types of fire pits:
Fire pit fuel types
There are three common fuel types used to light fire pits, and one slightly less common type:
- Natural gas
- Wood (or other organic sources)
Most modern fire pits burn natural gas or propane.
Wood-burning fire pits often come in bowl-style designs to better contain the fire, but you can buy wood-burning fire pits in square or rectangular shapes as well.
The fuel source you can use is usually determined by a combination of fire codes, style preferences, and fuel availability -- you won’t be able to use a natural gas fire pit if you don’t have a natural gas line to connect. You won’t be able to use multiple fuel types in a single fire pit, either, so don’t buy a wood-burning bowl expecting to switch it to natural gas next year.
Natural gas fire pits
Natural gas provides the greatest control and flexibility of any fire pit fuel type, provided you can connect your pit to a gas line. Not only do you have precise control over the intensity of the fire, you can also turn it on and off with the push of a button.
Some modern natural gas fire pits can even be controlled with an app, if you have an auto-ignition system. These systems tend to cost about $2,200 to install, but if you’ve already got your pool systems hooked up to smart-home (or smart pool) apps, they tend to fit right in with your other technological upgrades.
Here are a few natural gas fire pits we love, to give you some ideas of what might be possible for your patio:
Propane fire pits
Propane fire pits are popular choices for homeowners who don’t have natural gas lines on their property. If you’ve ever used a propane barbecue, you already have a basic idea of how propane fire pits work.
These pits use the propane tanks you can get and/or refill at many stores. They may be built with hidden recesses to store the tank, similarly to a propane grill, or they may require their own gas line.
If your propane fire pit doesn’t include a space for tank storage, you can get a tank cover or enclosure -- many pits without dedicated tank storage do have tank covers that match their design. You’ll need to run a propane pipe from the tank to your fire pit, but this is pretty simple, since you’ll typically only need to screw both ends of the pipe into the tank valve and pit valve.
Propane fire pits can sometimes be controlled by auto-ignition systems, but you’ll still need to manage the flow valve. I’ve wasted a few propane tanks by forgetting to tighten the valve closed after grilling a few burgers for the family (I have a natural gas fire pit in my patio).
Here are a few propane fire pits we love:
Wood-burning fire pits
Wood-burning fire pits can be good choices if your local fire code permits them, and if you have ready access to lots of dry logs. Burning wood is definitely a mood-setter, and it’s the most primal and emotional type of fuel you can use in your poolside fire pit.
However, wood-burning fire pits are also more labor-intensive than other fire pits. You’ll need to stoke the fire, add more wood when it gets low, and clean out the ashes after it’s over.
If the emotional upside of a wood-burning fire pit outweighs these downsides, wood might be a good option. It can also be easier to cook over a wood-burning fire pit, since any drippings will just fall into the burning wood instead of staining decorative elements.
Here are a few wood-burning fire pits we love:
Gel fuel fire pits
Some fire pits use gel-based fuel. These gels tend to be primarily isopropyl alcohol or methanol mixed with a thickening agent. Gel fuel is sometimes called “canned heat” or “canned fire” because it’s often sold in cans -- you might already know popular gel fuel brands like Sterno, which is commonly used to heat buffet trays and other food served at large events.
You can buy gel fuel in cans online or at many local big-box stores, but you should only use it with a fire pit specifically designed to utilize this type of fuel. Gel-based fire pits tend to be smaller and more suitable for enclosed spaces, like balconies or enclosed patios. Most freestanding fire pits placed next to inground swimming pools will probably use one of the other three fuel types.
This is BOXHILL's favorite gel fuel fire pit:
Auto-ignition systems for fire pits
As mentioned earlier, fire pit auto-ignition systems tend to cost $2,200 and up to add onto an existing fire pit. They might not be cheap, but they can save pool owners a lot of hassle, particularly for those with limited mobility who might otherwise need to hunch over their pits to start the fire by hand.
An auto-ignition system is generally the only way to control multiple fire pits simultaneously. If you’ve got a fire pit at each end of your pool, the “wow” factor will be dialed to 11 if you can tap an app and set them both alight at the same time.
One note of caution on auto-ignition systems: the voltage of your system matters. There are two common voltages for fire pits sold and installed in the U.S. -- 12-volt (12V) systems and 120-volt (120V) systems.
You can usually situate a fire pit with a 12V auto-ignition system within five feet of a pool, but you shouldn’t use a 120V auto-ignition fire pit near your pool at all. If you want poolside flames, don’t get a 120V auto-ignition system!
Fire pit accessories for fun and functionality
A good fire pit isn’t so different from any other piece of outdoor furniture… except in the sense that it’s the only piece of outdoor furniture you’d ever want to see in flames.
BOXHILL recommends treating most standalone fire pits like furniture, for cleaning and maintenance purposes. If it gets dirty, scrub it clean with a solution you know will be safe on the fire pit’s material surfaces. Replace worn-out and/or unusable parts, such as fire glass or lava rocks, with fresh material, just as you might replace the cushions on a patio couch or chair. And to keep your fire pit clean and tidy when it’s not in use… cover it up.
Fire pit covers
One “accessory” BOXHILL recommends for all fire pits, regardless of size or shape, is a fire pit cover. You want to cover your fire pit for the same reason you’d cover any other outdoor furniture -- it’s a low-cost, low-effort way to keep things clean and free of debris.
Most fire pit covers are made to fit a standard range of sizes, like those covered in the two infographics we shared earlier in this article. Fire pits with unique dimensions may come with their own custom cover. However, just about any round, square, or rectangular fire pit you can buy should have a perfect-fit cover available, often in a range of materials, colors, and/or patterns to help you maintain your patio’s aesthetics all year round.
You might also consider a fire pit screen.
Most fire pit screens are designed for round pits, and will create a screened bowl over the top of the pit with metal grating. These screens create a globe-like appearance that still allows you to enjoy your fire pit without risking leaves and other debris falling in.
A fire pit screen might also be a worthwhile investment for families with small children -- metal grating might not prevent every possible injury, but a screen should significantly reduce the risk of potential burns.
Fire pit cooking grates (and other cookware)
Want to roast more than a few marshmallows over your fire pit? You can -- if you’ve got the right type of pit with the right accessories.
A cooking grate can transform your fire pit into a barbecue of sorts. Most grates, like most screens, are designed for round fire pits. You may be able to find a cooking grate to fit square or rectangular fire pits as well, but these types of pits tend to be less ideal for cooking. If you want to cook over your fire pit, make sure you have the usual suite of fire-based cooking equipment, like long-handled tongs, a barbecue scraper, some kabob skewers… you know, the usual.
Keep in mind that you might not be able to control the temperature and height of your fire pit flame to the same degree of precision you’d get from a propane barbecue grill, or even from high-end charcoal barbecues like the Big Green Egg.
Most fire pits are mood-setters that might make some tasty burgers if you’ve got the right setup, but they’re not meant to replace high-quality barbecue grills. However, some fire pits, like BOXHILL’s Urban Cowboy model, are designed to look good while making tasty burgers (and all sorts of other food, too). If food-prep functionality is a priority, look for a fire pit that highlights its cooking capabilities.
Other fire pit accessories (lighting, tending, cleaning)
Different types of pits will need different accessories. Any pit without an auto-ignition system or some other form of push-button ignition will probably need a light. Any good barbecue lighter -- you know, the long pointy ones -- should do the trick.
If you’re getting a wood-burning fire pit, you should probably get a rack of tools to manage the fire once it’s going, too. Tongs will help you add wood to the fire. Tongs will help you stir it up and keep things burning. Shovels and brushes will help you clean up the ashes once the fire goes out and the heat dies down.
You can use fireplace tools for fire pits, too, so try shopping around in fireplace accessories before paying a premium for accessories because they’re promoted for fire pits instead of fireplaces.
You might also want a log rack for a wood-burning fire pit. These accessories can sometimes hold tending tools as well as logs, and you can cover them up to keep them dry when you’re not by the fire. Alternatively, you could just keep a big pile of wood in the corner of your backyard, but that probably won’t look particularly aesthetic.
Fire glass and lava rocks
If you’re using a natural gas, propane, or gel fuel fire pit, the top of the pit is probably filled in with fire glass or lava rocks. These items are durable, but they won’t last forever, particularly if you’re using your fire pit to cook food. You can order replacement fire glass or lava rocks whenever you feel like your current batch is getting a bit grungy, and you might want to keep a spare sack of the stuff in storage, just in case.
Igniting some inspiration
Has this article helped you decide on the fire pit of your dreams? Please tell us what you thought about our guidance by leaving a comment below -- and please let us know if we might have missed covering anything you’d still like to know about fire pits. We’ll update this article with relevant information whenever it comes to light!
No pun intended, of course.
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