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How to choose an outdoor fire pit

From a classic cast-iron bowl to a smokeless steel pit, what's the best option for your yard?

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 an appealing addition to any outdoor entertaining space. 

But how do you choose the best type for your yard? We explain everything you need to know if you're considering buying (or building) a fire pit.

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 more stylish and versatile fire pits made from cast iron, steel, brick or stone to create an attractive outdoor entertaining space. 

Are fire pits safe for your health?

Burning solid fuels such as coal or wood can produce 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, and can increase the risk of breathing difficulties and hospitalisation for people with asthma or other people vulnerable to smoke.

Some advocacy groups and individuals have called for fire pits to be banned on health grounds. 

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.

Pro
Very hard wearing, durable and long lasting.

Cons
  • Very heavy
  • Can leave oxidation marks on the pavement below.

Cost: Prices range from $200 to $2000.

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.

Pro
The cheapest kind available.

Cons
  • Prone to rust
  • Will deteriorate much quicker than stainless steel or cast iron.

Cost: Prices range from $50 to about $400.

Stainless-steel fire pit

Stainless-steel fire pits have a sleek modern look and work in a similar way to  cast-iron fire pits. 

Pro

Durable and hard wearing (not prone to rust, like standard steel pits).

Con
Can be more expensive than cast iron and standard steel.

Cost: Prices range from $380 to $2000.

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.

Pros
  • Can be custom built
  • Very sturdy
  • Good for cooking (bricks distribute heat evenly).
Cons
  • Not portable and can take up a lot of space
  • Can be expensive and/or time-consuming to install.

Cost: Varies dramatically depending on the materials you choose and whether you install it yourself or have a professional install it for you.

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. 

Pros
  • Minimal smoke and mess
  • Best at radiating heat
  • Can be used in any weather conditions (wind, rain, etc)
  • Can be used as woodfire pizza oven or grill/BBQ
  • Some can be used in undercover areas (if you also buy a flue extension).
Cons
  • Expensive
  • Doesn't have the same look as a fire pit (less visible/open flame).

Cost: Genuine Mexican clay Chimineas start at about $250 (although you can buy imitation products for less), but they have a limited lifespan and can crack easily. Sturdier cast-iron chimineas can cost anything from about $600 to more than $2000.

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.

Pros
  • Good for built-up areas or for those concerned about smoke inhalation
  • Durable (stainless steel)
  • Produces a lot of heat
  • Easy to light.
Cons
  • Uses more fuel
  • Limited design options.

Cost: $400–1000.

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.

Can you make your own DIY fire pit?

It's certainly possible to build your own fire pit out of bricks, concrete, stones, or a combination. But remember to use a fireproof material on the inner layer, such as a metal fire pit ring or fire bricks. 

For the outer layer, you can use a heat-resistant material of your choice, depending on the kind of finish you want.

fire pit cooking accessories

Image: Aussie Heatwave Fire Pits & Chimineas.

Can you barbecue food on a fire pit?

According to Jackson, you can convert almost any fire pit into a barbecue simply by adding a grill plate. 

"You can buy specialised grill plates or just a simple one from a camping store," she says. 

There are also specialty barbecue fire pits if you intend to use your pit primarily as a barbecue, and you can buy accessories to convert the top of a chiminea into a wood fired oven.

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 can be harder to light and manage. 

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 thes 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.

How do you light a fire pit?

There are many different ways, but Jackson suggests one of these methods:

Wood

Use: dry firewood, firelighters and kindling.

  1. Set your timber in a grid or teepee formation, leaving gaps between your pieces of firewood to let the air circulate. 
  2. Mix kindling and firelighters in with the larger logs.

Coal/wood (best for beginners)

Use: coal, wood and kindling.

  1. Create a bed of charcoal/heat beads on the base, light with firelighters.
  2. Place wood on top in a grid formation, along with some kindling. The bed of charcoal will help your firewood burn. 

Coal only

Use: coal and firelighters.

  1. Create a base of coal and light with firelighters.

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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