Flipping a switch to ignite the flames is a whole lot easier than kindling a stack of firewood. Safer, too.
"The outdoor living trend is continuing to gain momentum," said Ross Johnson, sales and marketing manager for The Outdoor Great Room Co. in Eagan, Minnesota. "It started with grills and then people began spending money for outdoor furniture. Fire pits have evolved, with consumers moving toward gas for less expense and a multitude of issues."
Fire pits, fire rings, and fire-ring or fire-pit tables come in all sizes and shapes, in-ground or portable.
Fire pits are holes dug into the ground to keep flames from spreading. They vary from intimate cooking fires for two to elaborate, gas-fueled burners that become conversation centres for large gatherings.
Fire rings are cleared flat surfaces with protective metal, stone or concrete built around them to contain the burn. They often include cooking grills fueled by wood or gas — either natural gas or propane.
Fire-ring or fire-pit tables have holes in the middle for open flames to provide ambiance and warmth. The tables can be used for place settings when the burner centre is capped.
"Round tables are still the No. 1-selling burner, but we're seeing more popularity with linear, even L-shaped, table-type seating," Johnson said. "It depends upon how much room you have on the patio or deck."
Johnson advises against using fire tables for cooking.
"I recommend they get a grill," he said. "They're easier to clean up."
Some considerations on wood vs. gas before you buy or build:
— Wood-burning fixtures are cheaper to make and use. Wood gives off more heat. You can cook using wood. Wood is portable.
— Gas is easier to light and control. Firewood is expensive and harder to find for urban dwellers. In many areas of the country, gas fires are allowed but wood fires are banned for reasons of safety, air quality and convenience.
Many homeowners have moved beyond the stand-alone BBQ grill, said Travis Stark, manager of Capital Patio & The Flame Shop in Lincoln, Nebraska.
"You can get outdoor dishwashers and refrigerators now — a whole outdoor kitchen," Stark said. "Fire pits can be integrated into that."
Some homes have multiple outdoor entertainment areas, said Leisa Rogers McCollister, a spokeswoman for OW Lee Co. Inc. in Ontario, California.
"Larger houses have lots of little areas, like off master bedrooms," she said. "People furnish them with comfortable seating and fire rings."
Why outdoor kitchens?
Many reasons. Their mood-setting atmosphere can be enhanced with LED lights, freestanding walls, benches and water fixtures. They can be used as gathering sites for cooking and conversing, to provide supplemental outdoor heating, to expand a home's usable living space or to boost its resale value.
"I wouldn't use one (a fire ring or table) in a January blizzard here in Minnesota, but it can extend the outdoor season six weeks earlier in spring and six weeks later in the fall," Johnson said. "That's an extra three months that people can enjoy outdoors."
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