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Outdoor Patio Heating: Fireplaces

Standing fireplaces make a very attractive focus in a yard. Their elegant appearance adds a more formal feel to a space. They tend to be larger than other types of fireplaces, if only because they are more likely to have a large masonry structure surrounding them. The firebox lends itself to the potential for larger than average fires, but most are built in a more conventional size. By outdoor fireplace, we are referring to those fireplaces that resemble the classic indoor fireplace. If you are interested in a fire pit, fire ring or other freestanding fire, read about them here.

The masonry structure of the fireplace may connect to another backyard structure such as a grill, outdoor kitchen, pool or seating area. The structure itself can be helpful as a wind break. Outdoor fireplaces are generally, one-sided units, although some designs may have two open sides. The also tend to be large and set at the edge of a social area.

Fireplaces provide heat through thermal radiation, like the warmth of the sun's rays, but some can also provide convective heat. The masonry can absorb heat and then in turn heat the surrounding air.

One drawback to a fireplace is that seating by the fire tends to be more limited than with a fire pit or freestanding unit. Instead of people surrounding a fire, everyone must sit in front of the fireplace and each person is a little farther away than the next. However, the wind break effect of the fireplace may help to offset this.

First off, your community may have rules against the use of wood burning fireplaces, so you'll need to get that question answered right off the bat. Additionally, there may be building codes that dictate where a fireplace can be built, primarily its distance from combustible material and structures. When selecting a location, select one well away from overhanging branches.

When designing fireplace seating, keep in mind that people need about 24" minimum. Because the atmosphere is casual people will tend to spread out and they may also need space to set a cup or plate, 30 to 36" may be a better measurement to use. Distance from the fire will depend on the the size of the fire. A fire with a few logs or gas logs will require a minimum distance of 2 feet and a rough maximum of 5 feet. Again the wind break may keep the area warmer and so more distance may be acceptable. For large, roaring fires, a minimum distance of 4-5 feet is more common and a rough maximum of 10-12 feet. A lot of factors can influence these figures, not the least of which includes personal preference. If this planning is critical to your project, try to visit some other fireplace installations to get an idea of what will work for your yard.

A fireplace can be built from masonry or a fireplace insert can be used. Most inserts are designed to be gas fired. If an insert is used, the surrounding structure can often be framed with wood and a masonry veneer applied. If you plan to have a wood burning fireplace, some inserts exist for that purpose, but more commonly the entire structure will be masonry to accommodate the heat of the burning wood.

Fireplaces can be fueled by wood, natural gas or propane. Generally speaking, propane (LP) is used with replaceable cylinders, although some homes are fueled by propane. Natural gas (NG) is more common with a dedicated connection to a household supply line. Natural gas is much more convenient than wood or propane (unless your home runs on LP). Determining which generates the most heat is somewhat of an open question. Gas fireplaces are rated in BTU's so an LP or NG fireplace of the same rating should generate the same heat. However, there is some disagreement about whether BTU's are the only factor. Specifically, there is a school of thought that LP provides a more yellow flame and thus more radiant heat, while natural gas provides more convective heat. If you are an expert on this topic, we'd love to hear from you.

Burning wood has some pluses and minuses. Burning wood does pollute, so if that matters to you, then you should probably choose a gas fireplace. Also, a wood burning fireplace is probably the least convenient. It requires you to maintain a store of wood, which requires storage space as well as lugging it around. Getting the fire started is more of a chore and keeping the fire going requires some small amount of attention, unlike gas. On the upside, the aroma of burning wood can be as pleasing as the warmth you get. Also the crackle of wood is a sound you don't get with gas.

A fireplace is likely to be the focal point of your yard. It is much more expensive and requires more space than other options, and in some cases may not provide as much heat. If you are going for a look, then this is the way to go. If your want simple, practical heat, look into a freestanding fireplace or a patio heater.

Learn more about the options in outdoor heating in these articles listed below.


Outdoor Heating Overview

Outdoor Fireplace

Freestanding Fires and Fire Pits

Patio Heaters

Commercial Heaters

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