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Best Practices: Fire Pit Building
Landscape Contractors Weigh In


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At this residence in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Tyler Washburn of Outback Landscape constructed this 4' diameter fire pit and surrounding seating from Belgard 'Stonegate Country Manor' retaining wall blocks. The cap for the gas fire feature is attached with retaining wall specific glue.


One practical way for landscape contractors to add warmth and inviting light to any landscape is to build a gas or wood-burning fire pit. These fire features are straightforward to build and can be purchased in pre-manufactured kits or be custom built on site. To get a sense of what is involved in building a fire pit, LC/DBM talked to some professionals with hands-on experience.

Determining Drainage Needs
Working with four crewmembers, Jorge Castellanos, owner and lead contractor for New York landscaping firm Aztlan Outdoor Living, excavated 9'' down, graded the soil and installed a geotextile fabric liner. After this was completed, drainage was integrated into the foundation to channel stormwater away from the fire pit. According to the contractor, this is one of the most overlooked and critical steps.

"Any contractor building a fire pit should plan for drainage and maintaining it," said Castellanos. "Every two to three years maintenance has to be performed: ash and debris must be cleared from the joints around the pavers. This will prevent damage to the fire pit footing and structure by allowing water to drain properly."

"If you don't have good airflow and drainage, you can get rain in the bottom of the fire pit and that can create some damage," said Tyler Washburn from Outback Landscape. "Especially if you have an electric start on a gas fire pit."

Nathan Boliek of TDH Landscaping built wood burning fire pits for two clients. Both units were set on slopes, creating the need for adequate drainage.

"Improper drainage will allow water to collect in the pit and cause damage to the unit while also creating a breeding ground for mosquitos," said Boliek.



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In Michigan, Kelly Karp of Landscape Design Services Inc. created a landscape to inspire fun, activities and memories, including a fire pit in the backyard. Karp recommends checking state and local ordinances for fire pit regulations, as every location will be different. Because the outdoor kitchen also needed gas, a licensed professional had to come out and increase the gas meter on the house. Photo: William Hebert


Sizing Up The Job
Boliek recommends not building a fire pit more than 12" in height.

"When most people sit by a fire they want their hands and feet to be warm," he said. "Prefab units are 18" to 24" which do not allow heat to make it below the knee."

Tyler Washburn of Outback Landscape created a fire pit that was 4' in diameter and about 28" tall. He recommends a 4' diameter pit if you're using gas, but says that a 3' diameter one works well for smaller residences. "Anything over 5' diameter starts to become a safety hazard," he advises.

Kelly Karp from Landscape Design Services Inc. in Michigan built a fire pit with exterior diameter of 5', noting, "That size is pretty common."

Fire bowls come in all shapes and sizes and can be custom manufactured to meet the project's specifications. The 'Simplicity' fire bowl that Debbie Gliksman of Urban Oasis specified for a Southern California project was 4' in diameter.

Jorge Castellanos noted that heat could be an issue with gas units. "If you build them too big they can get too hot, not something you would want near a patio," said Castellanos.



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At this Southern California residence, contractor Stanislaw Krupa installed the Landscape designed by Debbie Gliksman of Urban Oasis Landscape Design. The gas line had already been run under the existing paving, so it was just a matter of placing the custom 'Simplicity Edge' fire bowl.


How Close is Too Close?
Seating arrangements around fire features can be as diverse as the fire features themselves. Opinions differ as to how far seating should be from the fire pit for optimum comfort.

Jorge Castellanos opted to design and build a 5' diameter fire pit and s-shaped seatwall.

"If you have the seating too far from the fire you won't feel a thing; if it is too close it will be too hot," said Castellanos. "I've found that two to three feet works the best."

Washburn recommended placing seating about 18" away so "that way you can sit there and roast a marshmallow without getting too cooked."

For Karp, who placed movable chairs around the fire pit, the distance for seating depends on the size of the fire pit as well as how many people are around it. "You're probably going to be two or three feet away typically, but you can push as far as five or six feet if you had to," he said, citing one of the benefits of movable furniture.

At the residence where contractor Stanislaw Krupa installed a fire bowl, seating is provided by a cast concrete and stucco seat with Mangaris wood slats to emphasize the curve. Designer Debbie Gliksman from Urban Oasis explained that in this case the seating is 30" away from the fire bowl, right on the edge of her ideal 24-30" range.

"Permanent seating should be 36" away from the inside of the pit to allow for you to walk around," said Nathan Boliek. "If you want to rest your feet on the pit you should be between 24-30" from the inside of the pit."



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Jorge Castellanos, owner and lead landscape contractor for New-York based landscape contracting firm Aztlan Outdoor Living, designed and installed a circular wood-burning fire pit and surrounding hardscape for a home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.


Fuel and Ignition
Gas units are easy to start and require almost no effort to create a warm fire. Wood units take longer to ignite and require periodic maintenance. Some systems incorporate an electronic ignition to light logs at the flip of a switch while using wood as a fuel.

"A wood fire pit is harder to get started and needs to be cleaned," said Boliek. "Some customers love their wood burning pits, but also love being able to flip a switch and have fire. This is where a remote log igniter comes into play."

"You turn the gas on and light it, which ignites the wood in the fire pit. It's an easy fire start," explained Kelly Karp.

With a gas fire pit, the homeowner can "turn on a switch and have a fire, and not have to worry about making a wood fire," according to Tyler Washburn.



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Karp used a gas igniter for the wood burning fire pit. Because it has an open bottom, when winter rolls around and snow starts to fall, the homeowners don't need to put a protective covering over the fire pit. "They use it all through the fall and even sometimes into the snowy season," he said. "All the materials we used are fine here in our elements."


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Castellanos lined the interior of this fire pit with specialized firebricks designed to withstand the heating and cooling effects of regular use. Standard bricks and masonry are not ideal for use in areas with prolonged exposure to open flame. Exterior masonry can change color, crack or even explode.


Composition
After a licensed professional has installed any necessary gas lines, the fire pit can be built. Castellanos constructed his pit using retaining wall stones topped with a stamped concrete coping. The interior of the pit was lined with white firebricks to protect the exterior stones from the heating and cooling effects of regular use.

"Most bricks and masonry stones cannot handle heat," said Castellanos. "They start to change color, crack, or they can even explode. It is always a good idea to line a fire pit."

For Washburn, Belgard's 'Stonegate Country Manor' kit was the way to go. After building the fire pit around the gas line, a steel disc was set on top. The gas line hooked into a burner sized to the inside dimension.

Karp's masonry fire pit has a concrete block foundation with firebrick on the inside, a precast coping, and stone veneer that matches the rest of the backyard amenities. Completing this segment of the overall project took a couple of days.

For Urban Oasis, the gas line had already been installed under the existing flagstone paving, so it was a matter of ordering and placing the fire bowl. The bowl was filled with an even mix of dark gray, light gray, white and adobe red fire pebbles from the same manufacturer that produced the bowl.

Traditional building materials, such as natural stone and manufactured pavers, are easier to arrange when used in a square configuration, like one of the fire pits TDH Landscaping built in Maryland.

"When you're building a square pit it is easier to keep things plumb," said Nathan Boliek. "Building a circular pit requires lots of cutting to maintain a true circular diameter."



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According to Nathan Boliek of TDH Landscaping, gas fire pits require a professional to safely install the lines necessary to power them. This extra step in construction drives costs well above what it takes to build a wood-burning pit. "Wood takes more work from the client with lighting and cleaning, but is more cost effective," he added.


Maintaining It All Year Long
According to Washburn, fire pits "don't really take a whole lot of maintenance if they're designed and built right." He advises a once-a-year maintenance routine that includes updating the glass or cinder rocks.

In terms of preparing for winter and snowfall, he recommends getting either a dome shield or a hard canvas cover that can seal the fire pit for the winter - whatever it takes, "as long as you're keeping the snow off so it doesn't build up water underneath it," he said.

Some fire pits will not require any preparation for winter. "This one is all taken care of," said Karp. "It doesn't hurt it at all if there's snow on it." This is due to it having an open bottom so moisture and water can drain out of it.

On the other hand, for wood burning fire pits on permeable surfaces, Castellanos recommends maintenance every 12-24 months.

"Ash and debris can build up over time," he said. "This prevents water from making it down past the pavers to the soil, which will cause damage to the pit."



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The square shape of this fire pit was intended to flow with the angular design theme of the main structure. The builder installed 9 square feet of firebrick throughout the interior of the pit to protect surrounding pavers and decorative masonry. "Keep in mind that wood burns much hotter than gas. Gas is between 60-120 BTUs where wood is double that," said Boliek. "Most pavers can't take the heat from a wood fire."


Final Thoughts
Washburn recommends having a good plan in place before getting started. "Make sure you have a good budget for it, compact everything, and build a good solid fire pit," he said.

Gliksman advises careful fire bowl selection. "Originally the bowl was a rustic acid stain," she said. "I thought it was beautiful, but the client thought that it looked uneven." To solve this, the manufacturer was brought in to paint the bowl with a solid black stain.

Boliek believes a contractor should never stop learning. "Always learn about the latest products and technology on the market," he said. "This will help you learn what works best in terms of function, aesthetics and budget." According to Castellanos, experience and first-hand knowledge of the task at hand will teach you to pick the right materials for the job.

"You have to build these pits a few times to know that using aluminum paver restraints is too restrictive. They don't bend or flex very well," said Castellanos. "You also don't want to use plastic restraints that can warp due to heat. I've found composite works the best."

Karp is also a firm believer in practice makes perfect. "Experience is going to teach you a lot as far as what materials you're going to use, the size, and how to construct things," he said.

"Once a homeowner has a fire pit installed, having fun with it and cooking over the top of it and enjoying people and friends - that's the best part of it," Karp concluded.


As Seen in the August 2017 Issue of Landscape Contractor Magazine






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Last Updated 08-21-17