Around dusk, when the chill of night starts to set in, a light cracks out of the dark, sending the soft glow of a fire through the back porch. It's October, and an outdoor fireplace marries the cool mid-autumn air with the warmth of the hearth.
In our moderate Southern clime, outdoor fireplaces are more a matter of style and comfort than necessity. Most of us do not rely on fireplaces for our primary source of heating; nor do we set our hand-washed clothes to dry in front of the ingle; nor do we stew our dinner in a cast-iron caldron over an open flame.
Instead, we treat the outdoor fireplace as a luxury, a source of invigorating contrasts — the brisk air softened by a crackling fire; a view of Memphis' towering oaks against the night sky from the comfortable vantage of a radiant patio. "The draw is not so much the fireplace itself," says Sean Carlson of Regency Home Builders. "For a lot of people it's more just the ambience that it creates."
And outdoor fireplaces are quickly becoming a standard feature in new homes. "It brings Southern living back to the picture, just being out on the front or back porch," Carlson says, "and ever since we put in the first model, it's really taken off."
These outdoor fireplaces are no different from indoor fireplaces; a covered patio guards against the elements just as a roof does, and generally the maintenance is the same as it would be inside your home. A rough estimate from Carlson puts the fireplace, patio, and installation at around $4,500. (Running gas lines or working around the quirks of older homes may add to the total, and of course, special stonework and other customized features would cost more.)
Other outdoor appurtenances, such as chimineas and fire pits, are less expensive options and do not require the same full-scale installation, but they pose greater risks to safety and their use is contingent upon the weather. A chiminea is an open front, freestanding clay fireplace, and may crack over a long period of alternating between high temperatures and cool rain. A fire pit, which may be installed in a trench or held above ground in a coffee table-sized basin, runs a higher risk for injury and for losing control of the flame.
Safety is always an issue with fireplaces. No matter how contained the flame may seem, stray sparks can cause a fire. And where there's fire, there's smoke. When not ventilated properly, wood smoke hangs in the air so that anyone nearby inhales its "particulate matter," the fine particles that cause bronchitis and exacerbate heart and lung diseases. In addition, both wood and gas fireplaces can give off carbon monoxide, known as the "silent killer" because it is odorless, colorless, and tasteless.
These problems are avoidable. Proper installation, maintenance, and general attentiveness will set you up to safely enjoy your outdoor fireplace and bring the hearth back to the home.
Here are some safety tips:
Never leave the fire unattended. Always make sure the fire is out before you walk away. If the fireplace is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.
Never allow children around the fire unsupervised.
Keep a fire extinguisher nearby.
Keep the fuel pile small to prevent a loss of control over the flame. Never burn trash or painted or treated lumber.
Make sure that the smoke is ventilating properly. Only use chimineas and fire pits in open, well-ventilated spaces.
Install a fire safety screen to prevent stray sparks from spreading the fire.
Trim branches around the fireplace. Clean away leaves and combustibles.