Looking to bring a fire feature to your backyard or patio, but can’t decide if you want to buy a chiminea, fire pit, or ethanol fireplace? Here is the ultimate guide that goes over all of your outdoor fireplace questions!
Outdoor fireplaces are a wonderful attraction on chilly fall evenings. They bring heat, light, and a heartening warmth to those in their midst. There is something magical about watching flickering flames. Being by a fire with friends and family brings a deep connection that virtually all of humanity shares.
The ability to cook can be helpful, and even simply roasting marshmallows can be a rewarding experience! Backyard fireplaces help to extend the useful length of time one can use a yard or patio space, because it can be quite comfortable sitting outside by a fire, even on a chilly evening.
These units can be an excellent compliment to grilling and can help keep a backyard party or event going long into the night.
The Three Outdoor Fireplace Options
When considering the options for an outdoor fire feature, there are three main categories to choose from: chimineas, fire pits, and bio-ethanol fireplaces.
Chimineas are outside fireplaces, typically made of metal or clay, and are used for heating and for cooking. They are vertical in design, with an open top to channel smoke.
Fire pits are horizontal in design and wider in area, so that a larger group can cook, and experience warmth. Some fire pits will come with cooking grates, but many will need an additional fire pit grate for cooking to make meal preparation easy. Unlike chimineas, there is no chimney to direct smoke away.
Bio-Ethanol fireplaces are a newcomer to the outdoor fireplace market, and come in a variety of designs, from wall-mounted pieces to table models. These do not burn wood, but rather a clean-burning, environmentally-friendly ethanol liquid solution.
Chimineas are essentially mini-fireplaces, and generally consist of a chimney tower with an open slot for inserting wood on the bottom/side, and an open top to expel smoke. The draft created by the air-flow through the chiminea causes air to travel through the unit and exit above the eye-level of those sitting around the chiminea.
This makes it a pretty comfortable system for those chilly autumn evenings.
You get the warmth and glow of a fireplace, and the smoke isn’t directly in your face. Also, the air flow through these units generally results in a hotter, cleaner-burning fire than what a fire pit generates.
These units virtually always burn wood or charcoal, though you may find a propane gas chiminea around every so often. If you would like to look at specific chiminea models to buy, please check out our Chiminea reviews here.
Fire Pits can run the gamut from a glorified bonfire to an elegant, modern, sculptural outdoor fireplace. It is possible to make a fire pit by simply assembling some rocks on some sand and putting wood inside. However, for this overview, we are focused more on fire pit units. These units typically burn either wood or liquid propane gas. Wood burning fire pits are generally metal bowls and tables with bottom vents, and sometimes a top screen to prevent embers from flying around at those sitting nearby.
The large, open design of a fire pit, without a chimney, generally results in poorer air-flow than a chiminea. Because of this, those sitting around the fire pit may inhale a good deal more smoke and soot than would be produced by a chiminea. Fire pits also tend to leave more ash and charcoal than a chiminea would leave, due to the different burning process.
LP Gas fire pits generally comprise a decorative housing for a propane tank and a burner that creates a pleasing flame with fire-glass for reflection and ambiance. Fire pits are a bit easier to use for cooking than chimineas or ethanol fireplaces are. They are large, and many allow for a cooking grate to be inserted over the firebox.
If you want to look at specific fire pit models to buy, please check out our fire pit reviews here.
Ethanol Fireplaces are a relatively new entrant in the outdoor fireplace market and have a lot to offer. These systems can either be wall mounted or table-mounted. They burn a bio-ethanol liquid fuel (also called gel), which is clean burning and produces only water vapor as a byproduct. These units tend to look super-modern and will fit very well into a contemporary patio space.
Bio-ethanol fireplaces come in a huge variety of designs, from tabletop units to wall mounted pieces, to torches, to beautiful sculptures. They are vent free and relatively maintenance free.
They are green, quiet, and produce no smoke or soot. However, they also don’t produce as much heat as a wood burning or gas fireplace, especially when used outside. They do give off heat, but not as much as a traditional fireplace would.
When they are used outside, the heat is dispersed quickly. They are more for ambiance and mild heating, as opposed to true heat on a cold night.
Another downside is that there is no crackling fire, and no wood to smell, so if you are in love with the idea of burning wood, these units are not for you. If you can live without the wood and with less heat output, these may be your best bet.
Wood Burning Units
Chimineas and Fire Pits are made of many different materials that can impact their longevity. Because they are exposed to the elements, and they also deal with extreme temperature fluctuations, materials are a big concern. You can find units made of materials such as steel, copper, clay, cast iron, and cast aluminum. Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks of each of these materials.
There are a variety of types of steel used in chimineas and fire pits. Commonly seen types of steel include stainless steel and weathering steel.
Stainless steel is covered with chromium oxide, which creates the classic stainless finish or may be painted black or another color. If this layer gets damaged due to high heat or impact, rust can form. Stainless steel is generally a good material choice for a chiminea or fire pit, but one needs to be concerned with how panels of different units are joined.
If they are welded together, the steel should be corrosion resistant. But if they are riveted together, there may be some issues with rust down the road.
Another type of steel that may be a little friendlier to the elements is known as weathering steel, or Corten (or Cor-ten) steel. Corten steel is a type of steel that weathers over time and gives a pleasing, rust-like appearance.
If you like the idea of the steel weathering like copper does, corten steel is a great option. It can be quite beautiful in an industrial sort of way, though it may not be to everyone’s taste.
Copper is a gorgeous finish and is both high-heat safe and weather-resistant. It has been used forever in crockery and deals with cooking temperatures, and it has also been used for building roofing, so it is capable of being outside and handling bad weather.
Copper is ideally suited for outdoor and high heat environments. However, the copper finish will gradually turn from the classic penny color to a tarnished green over time when left out in the elements. We love the look, but if you want something that stays the same color, copper may not be your material of choice. Click here for more details on copper fire pits.
Clay is probably the oldest material choice, especially for chimineas. Clay is a classic material choice, with a variety of possible looks and finishes associated with it. It can look modern an ancient at the same time, and it doesn’t need as much maintenance as metal fire burning materials do.
Clay is heat and water resistant, but it can easily be cracked or shattered with the impact of a piece of wood or metal poker. If you like the look of a clay chiminea or firepit, be very gentle with it.
You don’t want to crack the chiminea with a big fire going inside of it! When not in use, and especially when it is going to be cold out, we recommend bringing your clay chiminea inside so as not to expose it to extremely cold temperatures.
Cast Iron is an attractive material with many positive features and a few negative features. Cast iron fire pits and chimineas are solid in a way that most other units are not — they are often extremely heavy and may be hard to ship.
They can handle high temperatures, but the surface can rust, so it may be wise to paint them with high-temperature stove paint every so often to keep them looking fresh. This will help keep any rust from creeping in and ruining the unit.
Also, you may want to place a fireproof mat underneath the cast iron chiminea or fire pit to ensure that it does not stain the floor material below it.
Cast Aluminum is a similar material to cast iron, but it has a couple of advantages.
Cast aluminum won’t rust or warp in high temperatures, though it’s a good idea to keep it painted similar to cast iron. It is also a good deal lighter than cast iron, which is a big plus for those who don’t want to leave their outdoor fire unit outside for winter.
These units tend to be more expensive than some of the other materials, but are absolutely an attractive choice if you’re willing to spend a little extra money.
Sheet metal is used in some fire pits and chimineas, though it’s generally not a great material choice. The metal sheets can warp in the heat of the firebox, and if the enamel wears, the unit can rust quickly and get ruined. Sheet metal units tend not to be the most durable choice, though they may be cheaper than some of the other material options.
Sheet aluminum is another common material, often used as a lower cost alternative to copper. Unfortunately, the joinery in sheet aluminum chimineas and fire pits tends to not be of great quality and is often a point of failure. Sheet aluminum is generally thin, and if its finish is damaged, it can rust rapidly, so be gentle with these units!
Gas and Bio-Ethanol Units
Materials are not as important to Gas and Bio-Ethanol gel units, as the firebox is generally self-contained, and does not interact with the housing material as would a chiminea or fire pit that burns wood, where radiant heat is created. Most of these units are made of metal, generally steel or aluminum, and rust is still a concern.
It is best to keep these units covered when not in use.
In terms of styling, there are loads of different options for gas and ethanol fireplaces. This article gives some great insight into styling modern fireplaces, with a focus on indoor and outdoor use.
Size and Weight
Wood Burning Fire Pits and Chimineas
Size can be a very important consideration, as smaller chimineas and fire pits may not be able to accept full-sized logs used in home fireplaces. Standard logs are typically 16″ – 18″ long.
If the firebox of a unit is too small, the user (that would be you, reader!) would need to further chop logs to fit the smaller firebox. This step can be a significant detriment to using an outside fire place at all, so care should be taken in deciding if the wood splitting and cutting aspect is something you want to deal with.
Some wood sellers will chop to smaller bits, but there will likely be additional cost involved.
Getting an over-sized firebox is a safe bet, as you can always make a smaller fire in a large box, but you can’t go the other way.
When considering chiminea and fire pit weight, generally heavier materials are going to be stronger, but you must compare like materials.
For example, comparing the weight of a corten steel unit to that of a cast iron unit will not give much useful information. Heavier materials make a unit more difficult to move, but also make it feel more substantial, which is a good aspect to have when dealing with fire.
LP Gas Fire Pits
Since most LP Gas fire pits are built around the dimensions of a typical propane tank, they mostly end up being the size of a small table. They can typically warm the four people sitting closest, and that’s about it.
Weight is not much of a concern with these units, as the fire isn’t really designed to heat up the housing material for radiant heat, but rather to just burn with a pleasing flame.
If you’re looking for the unit to be movable, lighter is generally better, but we do recommend you get a cover if you’re going to leave a lightweight LP gas fire pit outside for any period of time.
Ethanol fireplaces come in a variety of sizes, and with a variety of burner configurations. Some only have one flame, but larger units are available that burn multiple flames at once.
Multi-flame units do not look the same as having a larger fireplace with one unifying fire. In these cases, there are generally multiple individual flames. But of course, this produces more heat and is more substantial than just having a single flame.
Like LP Gas, the materials chosen for these units isn’t critical, as they are just housing the burner. In fact, some of the ethanol units can be inserted into a coffee table or any other housing of your choice.
In terms of weight, generally lighter is going to be a better choice. One nice thing about gel fireplaces is that they can be moved inside and used inside or out, as they are clean burning and produce water vapor as a byproduct. Consequently, getting a lighter unit may be wise so you can use it both inside and outside, depending on your needs.
In this section, we will examine the different types of fuel that are commonly burned by outdoor fireplaces, and consider the positives and negatives of each.
Most chimineas and fire pits are built to burn wood. Typically a good hardwood such as oak will be the most satisfying and preferential to burn.
You can find firewood in many places: if you’re buying in bulk, check your local craigslist or google “firewood” in your area. If you’re looking to buy small amounts at a time, lumber companies will often have wood available, as do grocery stores and hardware stores.
Pinon wood (pronounced pin-yon) is a popular fuel source for chiminea users due to its delightful piney scent. Pinion wood also helps to repel mosquitoes and insects in general and is an excellent choice for burning. See our guide to pinon wood for more information.
You can also apple wood, pine cones, hickory, or any other exotic wood species if you would like to create a more aromatic smoke profile. Exotic woods can also impart outstanding flavor is when used for cooking purposes.
Some people use their chimineas and fire pits for cooking, and charcoal is the simplest and most flavorful way to grill. Charcoal obviously doesn’t offer the same flame characteristics that hardwood does, but if food is the primary focus, it can’t be beat.
Even if you’re not typically burning charcoal in your fire pit or chiminea, it may be good to keep some extra charcoal around for those times when you’d really like to cook.
Fire Logs / “Duraflame” logs
Fire logs can be used in chimineas, but they tend to give a bit flatter, less vibrant flame profile than a true hardwood-fueled flame offers, and they many of these logs don’t crackle like real wood does.
The paraffin coated logs are environmentally friendly because they are made of waste wood and paraffin (though some burn different materials, like these recycled coffee ground logs).
Fire logs are very easy to get started because the wrapper can be ignited and no fiddling with kindling and lighter fluid is needed.
LP Gas (Liquid Propane)
LP gas is the source of fuel foremost gas fire table and fire pits. Propane gas is an easy source of fuel: it uses the same system as a gas grill to supply the fire fuel to the fire table.
LP Gas tanks can be filled virtually anywhere, from hardware stores to grocery stores to camps, and ignition is as simple as the push of a button. Propane gas is not renewable, and while it is clean burning it is not the most environmentally friendly fuel source available.
Natural gas is the most reliable fuel source for outdoor fire tables and fire pits. Of course, it may require some costly plumbing work in order to make it viable. Many homes run on natural gas as a fuel source, and a plumber could run a natural gas line from the main out to the location of the fire table or chiminea, connecting that unit up to the house’s fuel source.
As it comes from the gas company directly, there is no need to go pick up canisters, and you won’t run out. Natural Gas is not a renewable fuel source, though there is a clear trade-off with ease of use and lack of fussiness.
Bio-ethanol, also known as ethanol or gel, is a renewable fuel source created by fermenting the sugars and starches of plant byproducts. Plants such as sugar cane, wheat, oats, and corn, are fermented using yeast to create alcohol. Other plant sources such as switchgrass, potatoes, bananas, dates, and rice can be used as fuel sources.
This process is entirely renewable and environmentally friendly. It can usually only be used in specialized bio-ethanol fireplaces, and cannot be burned in standard chimineas and fire pits without some sort of conversion kit.
Safety is an important priority when dealing with outdoor fire equipment. Be sure to have a fire extinguisher, bucket filled with water, garden hose, etc. available should the need to quickly extinguish a blaze arise.
Do not leave the fire unattended, and be sure you actually know how to use your fire extinguisher should an emergency occur. You don’t want to have to figure out what to do while your chaise lounge is going up in flames!
Prior to going to sleep, you should confirm that your fire is completely extinguished, even if it means filling in a smoldering fire or embers with water or sand. An errant ember, even in a quieting fire, could still cause major damage.
Children and Pets
Finally, you should also keep in mind that many of these units happen to be about the same height as a toddler or a pet, and if you have a little one running around, many of these units get very hot when in use! Aside from ethanol fireplaces, the housings of wood and gas burning fire pits and chimineas can get very hot, and accidentally bumping the units can cause burns.
If children or pets are around, be sure to keep an eye on them lest they get too close to the fire.
Rust is always a problem when leaving metal fire pits and chimineas outside for long periods of time. We recommend that you try to keep the units covered when not in use, and protected from snow and heavy rain when possible.
As a preventative task, it may be wise to paint the inside of a chiminea with Rustoleum high-temperature oven paint every so often to ensure no bare metal gets exposed due to heat in the firebox, and no bare metal gets exposed to the elements.
If you start to see some bare metal, you can always just spot-paint those areas to touch them up.
If you are using a clay chiminea, you should be aware that clay chimineas can occasionally crack with no warning, even with a fire going inside! This rarely occurs, but you should keep in mind that such events can happen, and take the appropriate caution.
The good news is that the cracks can often be prevented by starting out making smaller fires, and gradually working up to larger fires (“curing” the clay chiminea). Start with just burning kindling for a little while, then move onto a small fire, and eventually onto a full-sized fire. This will help protect your chiminea.
Also, should a crack form, you can fairly easily repair it with refractory cement. After you apply the refractory cement to the cracked or damaged areas with a trowel or painters palette (depending on the crack size), let the cement dry and smooth it with a wire brush or some sandpaper to get it to blend with the surrounding area.
When that is done, the area can be painted to finish off the chiminea’s look once again.
Here we will look at the environmental impact of the primary fuel sources of outdoor fire pits.
Wood and Charcoal
Wood is a difficult material to judge for environmental impact. It is a renewable resource, as obviously it comes from trees. But the act of burning wood can send particulate matter into the air, and cause air quality concerns.
Smog and soot are not good for the lungs, and if you are in an area (such as Los Angeles) where air quality is a major concern, wood may not be a good choice, but if you are in an area with good air quality and lots of wood around, it may be an excellent choice. If you choose to burn wood, you should be sure that your wood is sustainably harvested, and not from clear-cut forest land.
Propane gas is a petroleum or natural gas byproduct and is certainly not a renewable resource. It is a relatively clean-burning gas, but still produces sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other byproducts you don’t really want to breathe.
Depending on how much you use your fireplace, the number of pollutants you end up putting into the atmosphere may not be significant (compared to say, driving a car) and the ease of use aspect of LP gas is an important consideration.
Duraflame-Style Manufactured Logs
Duraflame-style logs are likely to be a little more environmentally friendly than traditional wood is, because they are assembled by mixing waste wood or other discarded products with paraffin and other ignition agents. They generally burn cleanly and are a bit closer to the recycled material than traditional wood is.
Natural Gas is also a relatively clean-burning fuel, but like propane gas, is not a renewable resource. Compared to coal or oil, natural gas is quite benign, but compared to wood or bio-ethanol, it is a polluting fuel source. Like LP Gas, it may be extremely convenient to use, and depending on how much you think you will use, it may not end up being a significant source of pollution.
Bio-Ethanol is a clear winner here, being both a renewable resource and a clean burning fuel producing only water vapor as a byproduct of burning. It is made from fermenting crop waste like corn husks and switchgrass, and is certainly the environmental choice.
However, if you are looking to get a lot of heat out of a fireplace, the bio-ethanol models may not be the best at supplying a great amount of heat, and fuel costs are a bit higher than some of the other fuel sources listed here.
Here we will discuss the general experience of using each of the three different categories of outdoor fireplaces.
Chimineas may be the most pleasant type of outdoor fire feature to be around. The chimney design channels smoke out of the top of the unit, and away from the faces and lungs of those surrounding it. The sides of the chiminea warm up and provide radiant heat to those around it, and the firebox offers the charming glow of a real wood fire, with snapping embers and crackling wood.
Often one can cook on these units, or at least use them to roast marshmallows, so all the bases of what is commonly desired in an outdoor fire feature are touched.
Should one of these units get knocked over, most likely the ashes and embers will stay contained within the unit, and not send burning bits of fuel everywhere. This may make them a little safer option than some of the other outdoor fireplace units.
If warmth and a lack of smoke are the primary desires, a chiminea may be your best bet for an outdoor fire feature.
Fire Pits and 360′ View Chimineas
Fire Pits offer a few advantages over other fireplaces, as well as a few drawbacks. Firepits (and 360′ view chimineas) allow people on all sides of the unit to feel the warmth and also to actually see the flame. For many, this an important aspect of the experience of an outdoor fire.
However, with the flame comes smoke, and depending on the wind direction, many people will not want to sit in the path of the smoke.
Additionally, it is often easier to cook on a fire pit than on a chiminea, as the flame is accessible to all those surrounding the unit, and multiple people can cook at the same time.
Should a fire pit get knocked over, embers and burning fuel may be more likely to spill out onto the environment around the unit, and it could cause more damage than a chiminea or ethanol fireplace would.
If cooking, warmth, and the ability for all to see the flame are your priorities, a fire pit would be an excellent choice.
Ethanol fireplaces are generally sleek and modern looking, and provide a very simple fire experience. They are clean burning, and can be placed almost anywhere. There is no smoke to worry about, and they can be seen from all sides (some can be mounted on the wall!).
They don’t provide as much warmth as other fire features do, and while one can cook on a gel fireplace, they generally aren’t designed with cooking in mind. Also, they can be used inside, which means you may be able to use just one unit for both an indoor and outdoor fireplace.
Should an ethanol fireplace get knocked over, likely not much damage would be done. Unless the reservoir for fuel was ruptured and fuel was spilled all over the place, likely the gel fireplace would not do any damage to the surrounding area. Some of these units use glass panels for protection, and should these panels get shattered, you may need to clean up some glass, but probably won’t need to call the fire department.
If you’re looking for the ambiance of a fireplace, and for a little warmth, the bio-ethanol fireplace is likely for you; if you want to do a lot of cooking, you may want to look elsewhere.
Summing It Up
Any of the fire features covered above will be a wonderful addition to your backyard patio or deck space, and will help you enjoy your leisure time. Having a pleasing heat and light source will allow you to extend your outdoor use into the colder nights, and will likely make you look forward to those nights when it just feels right to sit outside by the fire with a glass of wine and good companionship.
There are many aspects to consider when shopping for an outdoor fireplace, and we are sure with a little planning, you’ll be able to find just the right style of unit for your needs.
If you would like to look more closely at specific Chiminea models, please check out our Chiminea reviews here. If fire pits are more your thing, please check out our fire pit reviews here. And lastly, if you think ethanol is the way to go, take a look at our ethanol fireplace reviews here.