Fire Pits: Choosing the Right Fuel Type

Fire pits are a fantastic, multi-use landscape feature. They create a natural gathering spot for evening entertaining as people flock to enjoy the light and warmth of the flames. When well-situated, they also provide a stunning focal point from other areas of the yard and even indoors. While there are endless variations in style and design for an outdoor fire pit, there are generally only four fuel choices, each with its own benefits and drawbacks: wood, natural gas, propane, and ethanol.

Wood fires are the classic, and for good reason. They can put out a lot of heat, which can make the difference between enjoying your landscape or staying indoors on chilly evenings. Wood fire pits can be located virtually anywhere, with no need to run supply pipes or electricity to the unit. Wood is easy to source, and nothing can match the crackling pops and smoky scent of a real wood fire.

Those same classic features, however, are also the biggest downsides of a wood fire. Anyone who has spent an evening outside around a fire has probably also spent that evening constantly moving to avoid a face full of smoke. Meanwhile, the sparks and embers from the fire can be extremely dangerous in the right conditions. Not only is it irresponsible to have a wood fire during the hot, dry summers we often get in Spokane and Coeur D’Alene, but it is also illegal if a county-wide burn ban is in place. These often last from the summer into the early fall, which also happens to be some of the best time to actually enjoy your fire pit.

A natural gas fire pit can be a focal point even when you're not enjoying its warmth.

A natural gas fire pit can be a focal point even when you're not enjoying its warmth.

Natural gas and propane fire pits provide a much safer alternative to wood fires while maintaining much of the positive qualities. Both fuels burn cleanly and the fire is easy to start, utilizing either a match-throw system (turn on the flow of gas and ignite with a lit match) or fully -automatic electronic ignition. With the right hardware, you can even sit inside and turn on the fire pit with a remote control. Gas fire pits can’t quite match wood fire for heat, but a sufficiently high Btu burner can come pretty close.

The biggest challenge with gas fire pits is the infrastructure involved. Although it’s possible to integrate a portable propane tank into the design of the fire pit, generally gas itself has to be piped to the unit, and many electronic ignition systems must be hard-wired as well. The costs can add up quickly to make a gas fire pit a surprisingly costly project. And unlike wood, which is a quickly renewable fuel source, both natural gas and propane are non-renewable fossil fuels, for which the price is always trending up.

Ethanol fire pits offer a compromise between wood and gas. Like a wood-burning fire pit, ethanol fire pits are self-contained units which can be located anywhere without running utilities. Like a gas-burning fire pit, ethanol burns cleanly without smoke. It burns cleaner than gas, in fact, producing only water vapor and carbon dioxide, which can allow for their use indoors as well as out. Ethanol is also a plant-based, renewable fuel. So what’s the downfall? Ethanol simply can’t compete with other fuel sources on heat output. And since the fuel isn’t pressurized like gas, the flames can’t stand up to a stiff breeze. Ethanol fires can be beautiful and provide great ambiance, but they won’t do much to keep you warm on a chilly night.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for fire pits, but at Pacific Garden Design, we have designed and installed a wide variety over the years. If you’re considering a fire pit for your backyard landscape, get in touch with us to discuss the possibilities.