What to Look for When Buying a Fire Pit

Circular firepit made of gray stones with protective cover on top of fire

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

A fire pit is a way for outdoorsy types to get some use out of the backyard during the cold winter months. At other times of the year, it also makes a nice gathering place for roasting weenies and marshmallows, talking with friends, or telling ghost stories. Just imagine sitting in a circle on your patio without a fire—pretty boring, right? Everyone would quickly lose interest and walk away. A fire pit provides warmth, sparks creativity and discussion, ignites passions, and can be mesmerizing and relaxing as you stare at it for a while.

Before you go shopping for the perfect pit, do some research and decide where it will be located, learn about the best materials, how to operate it safely, and ways to make it comply with environmental laws and guidelines. As you'll soon find out, a fire pit is more than just a hole in the ground.

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    Modern fire pit in a backyard

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    Unless you are only interested in digging a hole in the ground to roast a pig for a backyard luau, a fire pit can be a focal point of your yard. Styles of fire pits available include basic metal fire bowls to elaborate, multi-level and multifunctional units that are combination fire pits and beverage coolers.

    Other possibilities include square models that resemble low tables, with room upon which to set a drink or plate.

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    Wood-Burning Laws

    For starters, you can't use wood-burning fire pits on covered porches, nor is it advisable to use them under low branches or in windy areas.

    Check with your homeowner's association, city, or county for restrictions pertaining to outdoor fire pits, fireplaces or burning wood. Some regions impose fines for violations. In addition to safety and property restrictions, a municipality may have wood-burning or fire pit laws for those tending fires under the age of 18.

    Scientists and environmental agencies are trying to raise public awareness about the dangers of inhaling smoke from wood-burning fireplaces and fire pits. Programs like the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Burn Wise, along with Healthy Hearths, from Southern California's South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), provide information and incentives to educate and reduce pollution from wood-burning fires.

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    Types of Fuel

    If you love the sound of a crackling fire and an aroma that will linger on your clothes and in your hair, then wood might be the choice for you. Average-sized logs are 24 inches, so make sure the pit can accommodate them.

    Propane or natural gas pits can be used on open porches with overhead roofs, and are generally neater, with no pile of wood, ashes, smoke or debris with which to contend.

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    When choosing a fire bowl, opt for something that will wear well and extend the life of your fire pit. Cast aluminum is less likely to rust, while copper can stain. Cast iron is a solid but heavy choice.

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    Most fire pits are easy on the budget, with a nice, safe model available for under $300 or so. Fire tables and pits that use more expensive materials can climb upwards in cost. A custom-built fire feature using natural stone and other customized features can cost several thousand dollars.

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    Permanent or Portable?

    Depending on its location, your budget, and materials used, a fire pit can be custom built as a permanent fixture in your yard or can be a portable model that is easy to move around wherever the crowd gathers.

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    Location, Location, Location

    Again, check local ordinances regarding placement of a fireplace or fire pit along with "recreational" fires. Code requirements may dictate the location of a backyard pit and will influence the way in which you operate your outdoor fire feature.

    While it may seem obvious, fire pits should never be used indoors, according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association (HPBA). Other places not to place the pit: on a wooden deck, anywhere that is considered too close to your house or another structure, on the lawn, under an overhang or anything that could quickly catch fire.

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    Common sense prevails, but it never hurts to review safe practices when tending a recreational fire in your own backyard pit. Make sure every household member knows the rules and don't leave children alone with the fire.