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Should you use an outdoor fire pit?

They're popular additions to yards and entertaining spaces, but there are serious health hazards to consider.

outdoor fire pit
Last updated: 16 September 2021
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A fire pit can give you warmth, create a cosy ambiance and even double as a simple barbecue, making it a popular addition to any outdoor entertaining space. 

But how do you choose the best type for your yard? More importantly, should you use one at all?

UPDATE 22 October, 2021: This article has been updated to provide more information on the serious health hazards of wood burning smoke. 

What is a fire pit?

A fire pit is any structure designed to contain a fire. It can be as simple as a hole in the ground or a humble metal drum, but many people are now choosing fire pits made from cast iron, steel, brick or stone to create an attractive outdoor entertaining space. 

Fire pits hazardous to health

Burning solid fuels such as coal or wood in fire pits produces lots of air pollutants, including high levels of fine particulate matter (small particles that can enter the lungs) and carbon monoxide, as well as other toxic chemicals. 

Smoke from fire pits can be harmful. According to NSW Health, long-term exposure to wood smoke can decrease lung function and increase the risk of developing heart and lung diseases such as angina and chronic bronchitis.  Short-term exposure to high levels of wood smoke may cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, aggravate asthma or worsen heart disease.

Exposure to wood smoke can decrease lung function and increase the risk of developing heart and lung diseases such as angina and chronic bronchitis

In September, Victoria's Environment Protection Authority released their latest Air Emissions Inventory. It found that, in Metropolitan Melbourne, 51% of the most dangerous form of air pollution (PM2.5) was caused by wood fires. (In contrast, motor vehicles caused 30% and aircraft 7%).

And while children, the elderly, and those with respiratory problems such as asthma are more likely to develop health problems or experience worsening of existing health problems, wood smoke can affect anyone. 

This is why many advocacy groups and individuals have called for fire pits to be banned on health grounds, even though they're often met with community resistance

CHOICE doesn't test fire pits or recommend using them, but if you choose to buy one there are things to consider for each type.

cast iron fire pit

Cast iron fire pit. Image: Aussie Heatwave Fire Pits & Chimineas.

What are the different types of fire pit?

Cast-iron fire pit 

These round, rustic-looking pits are one of the most popular styles on the market. They're very hard wearing, durable and long lasting, but also heavy and can leave oxidation marks on the pavement below.

Steel fire pit

This is the cheapest type of fire pit, available at hardware stores including Bunnings. They can be built to look like cast-iron or stainless-steel pits, but are prone to rust and will deteriorate much quicker than stainless steel or cast iron.

Stainless-steel fire pit

Stainless-steel fire pits have a sleek modern look and work in a similar way to cast-iron fire pits. They're durable and hard wearing (not prone to rust, like standard steel pits), but can be more expensive than cast iron and standard steel.

Brick/stone fire pit

Brick fire pits are generally built into your yard. You can install a brick fire pit yourself or have a professional do it for you. They are very sturdy and good for cooking, but they aren't portable and can take up a lot of space. They can also be expensive and/or time-consuming to install. 

chiminea

Image: Aussie Heatwave Fire Pits & Chimineas.

Chiminea

A chiminea (literally 'chimney' in Spanish) is a traditional Mexican outdoor fireplace used for warmth and cooking. It's best at radiating heat, has minimal smoke and mess and can be used in any weather conditions. It can also be used as a woodfire pizza oven or grill/BBQ, but can be expensive.

Smokeless fire pit

Smokeless fire pits use a secondary combustion system. It works by drawing air from the bottom of the pit up the side walls and then injecting it back through vent holes around the lip of the fire pit, creating jets of fire that burn the smoke before it leaves the pit. There's a little bit of smoke in the first few minutes while the fire is starting up, but after that it's virtually smokeless.

Smokeless fire pits are  durable and good for built-up areas or for those concerned about smoke inhalation. Plus they're easy to light and produce a lot of heat. However, they use more fuel and there are limited design options. 

Design options

Aussie Heatwave Fire Pits & Chimineas owner Liz Jackson explains the different fire pit design options.

Shape

Most fire pits are either round or square. Jackson says a circular design creates the best airflow and conducts heat better.

Depth

Fire pits are generally either shallow or deep. Although some people may prefer the look of a shallow bowl, Jackson says a deeper bowl is safer, will hold the fire better, and will protect your fire from the wind. 

Colour

Jackson advises against fire pits that have been painted or coloured. "Any fire pit is likely to revert to a rusty colour over time, so it's better to opt for the natural colour to begin with," she says.

Choosing the right fuel for your fire pit

Wood

Many people love the large flame and woody aroma that comes from a wood fire, but they also produce a lot of smoke and have associated health risks. Choosing the right wood may decrease the health effects of wood smoke. WA's Department of Health recommends:

  • only using well-seasoned hardwoods
  • never using stained, treated or painted wood
  • chopping your wood into smaller pieces.
  • storing your wood loosely stacked and covered in a well-aired place.

Charcoal/heat beads/briquettes

Charcoal or similar products are easier to light, create less smoke than wood, and are generally better for barbecuing.

Gas 

Gas fire pits are relatively rare in Australia and can be expensive. They're also quite strictly regulated, so you'll need to check with your local council before installing one. Although these generate less heat than wood and coal powered pits, they're energy efficient, produce less pollution and don't leave ash or embers behind.

Ethanol

Fire pits with an in-built ethanol fuel reservoir offer similar benefits to gas fire pits, producing a cleaner but less intense flame.

Safety considerations

  • Never place a fire pit directly on grass (place it on a level, non-combustible surface such as pavers or concrete).
  • Place the pit at least three metres away from any structure or combustible material.
  • Never leave the pit unattended while it's alight.
  • Always keep a fire extinguisher or garden hose close by.
  • Choose the right size and fuel type for the intended area of use. For example, if you're buying a fire pit for a balcony, choose a small model and possibly gas to prevent excessive flames/heat.
  • The best way to extinguish your fire pit is to use a metal lid (which you'll need to buy separately). Otherwise you can use sand or dirt.  You can also use water, although it can create a lot of smoke and mess. Water and ash can also form a corrosive liquid that can damage steel fire pits.

Do you need council permission for a fire pit?

At a state level, lighting an outdoor fire pit is generally legal without a permit, but it may be subject to certain requirements, such as approved fuel types, distance from flammable materials and time of day. In South Australia, all outdoor fires require a permit.

Local councils may also require you to have a permit or have their own restrictions on backyard fire pits, especially in built-up or metropolitan areas, so it's essential to check with your council before lighting one.  

It's essential to check with your council before lighting one

Regardless of whether you're allowed to have a fire pit in your backyard or not, your council can take action if your pit is producing too much smoke.

During designated periods of higher fire danger, you may need to get a permit, meet extra conditions or not use your fire pit at all. . You're not allowed to use your fire pit during a total fire ban. 

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