When Remington Lane and her friends graduated from Sun Prairie High School last spring, they had a homework-burning party in the Lanes’ backyard — one of many celebrations that have taken place around the permanent fire pit Denise Lane had professionally installed two summers ago.
As part of a $7,000 project, which included a new stone deck and a retaining wall that provides additional seating, the fire pit is a welcome addition to the family’s backyard and is used on a weekly basis.
“A friend of mine had a get-together after work, and everybody there loved her patio and fire pit. That’s where I got the idea,” Lane says, admitting that she initially experienced sticker shock regarding the cost. “It took me a year to talk myself into it, but now I’m so glad I did.”
Many Madison-area residents are talking themselves into fire pits these days, despite design and installation prices that typically begin at a few thousand dollars and — with the inclusion of a patio and a retaining wall — can approach $10,000, $15,000 or even more. “The economy has improved, and people have a little more discretionary income now,” says Dave Loecher, landscape supply manager at Circle B in DeForest. “You can get up to $20,000 very quickly.”
Landscape contractor Karl Norland went on 15 residential appointments one recent week in April, and 10 of them included conversations about fire pits. “In the past, people wanted water features, such as ponds or waterfalls,” says the owner of Norland Landscape in Waunakee. “But those involve a lot of maintenance. Fire pits are all about nostalgia — going camping and being around a campfire, sharing conversations with family and friends.”
This trend has been building for years, says Darrin Braun, a landscape specialist at County Materials Corporation, a landscape and construction products supplier with locations throughout Wisconsin, including two in Madison. “During the recession, people stayed home more and enhanced their homes to give them more value,” he says.
Options abound for homeowners wanting to add some literal spark to their outdoor living experience. From DIY kits to elaborate landscape packages, and from wood-burning styles to gas-burning options, fire pits represent one of the latest developments in the backyard evolution.
“It’s all about backyard enhancement these days,” says Jeremy Goodwin, manager of United Brick & Fireplace’s retail store on Madison’s west side. “When I was growing up, we had a rusty 55-gallon barrel. That was our fire pit.”
Looking to upgrade from a rusty barrel or that portable four-legged fire pit from a big box store? Here’s a checklist.
Where to begin?
Because a fire pit is not as traditional an amenity as a deck or a patio, it’s not surprising that some homeowners don’t know where to turn for initial guidance about installing one. Do you call a fireplace company? A materials supply firm? A landscape and design specialist?
Turns out any of those professionals can help, but depending on the type and extent of the project, you may end up being referred to someone else.
The most common fire pit involves the placement of a steel fire ring or a circle of fire bricks (5 feet in diameter is typical) on a flat surface and then reinforced with glued stones or bricks. Concrete is not fire-resistant, so that ring is a critical element of any circular fire pit. A concrete cap around the pit’s perimeter adds decorative value and enhances safety.
Such fire pits can be designed and built from scratch by professionals, but they also are available as less expensive user-friendly kits intended for installation by homeowners.
Materials come stacked on pallets in the order they’re to be installed, says Jim Collar, a landscape architect with Barnes Inc. in Madison. “As long as you have the time and the patience — and the back strength — to do it, you can,” he says.
Be careful, though. This is fire you’re talking about, and sometimes it’s better to have a professional involved from the beginning, even if that adds to the cost. “I never say the homeowner can’t do something on his own,” Braun says. “But as a company, we suggest hiring a professional who follows industry standards.”
Preparation can be tricky and involves ensuring proper compaction, drainage and space allocation. Even a professional mason like Pete Fass, who never built a fire pit until he installed one in his own backyard for his daughter’s 16th birthday party three years ago, cautions against the DIY approach. “I just did it by the seat of my pants,” Fass laughs, adding that even though he enjoys the fire pit on a nearly year-round basis, he doesn’t want to build another one.
Although wood-burning fire pits are far more popular in Dane County, gas-powered fire pits and fire tables provide alternative design options that hide the propane tank and extinguish easily with the turn of a knob. They often feature lava rocks or fire glass and can create an entirely different and more decorative backyard environment.
What about local fire codes?
Anyone adding a fire pit must ensure it complies with local burning ordinances, which vary from municipality to municipality. Those regulations can be obtained by placing a quick call to the fire department or city, village or town hall.
Despite the differences in ordinances, common requirements include installing the fire pit a designated number of feet away from homes, decks, tree branches and other foliage. In some cases, municipalities also mandate that a removable screen be used to cover the pit at all times.
Additionally, be aware that some neighborhood covenants include burning restrictions that might be stricter than local government regulations. “If people want a fire feature in their backyards, they will look at the rules and work within those rules,” Braun says. “If they have to, they will compromise. There are adjustments that need to be made, and that’s typical of any project — not just a fire pit.”
Won’t a fire pit get boring?
Denise Lane estimates she and her teenage children use their fire pit at least twice a week, especially in the spring, summer and fall.
With ample room for chairs and 10 outdoor lights surrounding the patio, the welcoming environment encourages social gatherings and chilling out in front of a warm fire. Sometimes, her son even pulls out his guitar and starts to strum.
Pete Fass finds himself using the fire pit and the 360 degrees of warmth it emits well into the winter months, as long as temperatures aren’t too cold. “It doesn’t throw off as much heat as you think,” he says. “But it’s like a magnet for the neighbors.”
The next step up from a fire pit is an outdoor fireplace, or even a complete outdoor kitchen with a grill, a pizza oven and other cooking amenities. Those are much more expensive options that nevertheless are becoming more popular with homeowners who have the available space and means. “They’re literally bringing the inside out,” Braun says. “It’s an extension of the house.”
Like fire pits, outdoor fireplaces can be custom built, and they also come in kits. They’re assembled much the same way, too: stacked and glued, without the use of mortar.
Regardless of which fire feature you choose, this much is certain: You will be spending a lot more time relaxing in your own backyard.