What to Know Before Digging a Fire Pit

This fire pit was built in the wrong location by a homeowner who didn't orient it to the view and prevailing wind direction.
This fire pit was built in the wrong location by a homeowner who didn't orient it to the view and prevailing wind direction. (By Tim Carter)
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By Tim Carter
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Q: DEAR TIM: Last night I sat around an outdoor fire pit at a friend's house. Everything about this magical spot was enjoyable. I want to build one for myself. What's involved? Is it a good idea to have a patio fire pit, or should I consider a garden fire pit? Do you have to have a ring for a fire pit? -- Valerie C., Brant, Mich.

A: DEAR VALERIE: The first thing you need to do before you get out your shovel is to check with local officials. Many communities have started to restrict outdoor fires for all sorts of reasons. At the very least, there may be zoning regulations that control whether you can build an outdoor fire pit, and if so, its size and where it can be on your property.

Where you choose to place your fire pit is crucial. Unfortunately, the previous owner of my house made two big mistakes when he built the backyard fire pit. The first was to ignore the view. My patio is next to a large lake, but the fire pit is on the house side of the patio -- so your back is to the magnificent lake view when you look at the fire. Next spring I plan to move the fire pit so you can see the fire and the lake.

The second mistake was failing to orient the fire pit with respect to the prevailing winds. More often than not, I'm bathed in smoke when I sit at the fire pit, as the patio is downwind of the fire. I can't believe the previous owner made this basic mistake. The planned new location will allow the smoke to drift over the lake and away from my patio most of the time. There will be occasions when the wind will shift, but for the most part, I'll be sitting on the patio smoke-free.

You can choose from countless fire pit designs. Some are as simple as the traditional campfire surrounded by a ring of rock. A friend of mine built a fire pit in the middle of his patio and had a welder make a 5-foot diameter steel fire pit ring. He set the top of the steel fire pit ring flush with his brick pavers for a sleek look.

When I relocate my fire pit, I will use the large round boulders that form the back wall of the present pit. These rocks will be about nine inches higher than the surface of my patio. The inner diameter of my fire pit will be no less than five feet.

I prefer to build a fire pit that's recessed in the ground about nine to 12 inches. It's best to construct a gravel-lined drainage ditch away from the bottom of the fire pit to a low spot on your property. This prevents standing water. The last thing you want is to have to bail out ashy water some evening when you want to build a fire.

Where the trench leaves your pit, you can install a drainage pipe to channel the water. Be careful if you use plastic pipe. Don't extend the pipe into the fire pit, as the heat of the fire and the coals will melt it. I plan to use a cast-iron pipe in my fire pit to eliminate the possibility.

Finally, keep safety foremost. Consult with your local fire department. The fire-prevention officer may be able to offer some tips so you don't set fire to your house, your neighbors' houses or the nearby woods. Be sure you assemble some basic firefighting tools and supplies to have at the ready when you have a roaring fire. A charged garden hose is a must.

Tim Carter can be contacted via his Web site, http://www.askthebuilder.com/printer_Submit_Question.shtml.

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