Turning Up the Heat | Bring Toasty Ambiance to Chilly Fall Evenings

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As homeowners search out comfy year-round ways to spend more time outdoors, the likes of patio fireplaces, backyard fire pits and “mushroom” heaters have become a mainstay in adding natural warmth to the fall season, while offering area residents a wonderfully welcoming decorative oasis. Shall we get lit… in a manner of speaking? Consider a sophisticated, fully functional outdoor stone fireplace that turns the terrace into a year-round destination for ambiance, radiance and of course, s’mores. How about an organic woodburning firepit, or if desired, the same fueled by natural gas? And patio heaters, also known as mushroom heaters for their shape and height, have evolved from high-end restaurant accoutrements to consumer must-haves when looking to bring toasty incandescence to your cool-climate patio.

Homeowners absolutely have their eye on such outdoor accessories. The American Society of Landscape Architects reports that fireplaces and fire pits have become the number one outdoor design element for U.S. consumers. Design expert Kate Campbell from HGTV’s Decked Out, via the Housecall blog, notes that such features “not only add ambiance to an outdoor space but also provide heat and light that allows you to use your deck later into the evening and into the year.” In addition, they make for an idyllic focal point and gathering spot, she says.

Belgard, a manufacturer of outdoor living products, offers on its website, “Once upon a time, the living room fireplace was the favored gathering spot for family and guests, and roasting marshmallows over a campground fire was part of the annual family vacation. Modern outdoor living combines these two traditions into one with outdoor fireplaces and fire pits.”

By the numbers, the blending of indoor and outdoor living continues to become increasingly popular. The Houzz Spring Landscaping Trends survey reveals that 56% of homeowners said they intend to undertake landscaping projects to make their yard friendlier and more entertaining; at the center are outdoor fire pits and fireplaces. Their aim: “to provide warmth and ambiance to prolong the summer season well into fall.”

According to landscape and hardscape firm CLC, Inc., “More and more people are moving their living outdoors. Outdoor spaces are a great way to bring people together while making your yard look great,” its website offers. “Hardscape features, such as fire pits and fireplaces can create gorgeous spaces that add ambiance and warmth to your landscape.”

IMPROVE_OutdoorWarmth2Focal point: Outdoor fireplaces
Alongside the popularity of posh outdoor kitchens, the presence of a fireplace designed and built into the space has become as ubiquitous as a gas grill. It’s not complicated; the outdoor fireplace has the same elements as those indoors–firebox, hearth, flue and chimney. Sans the technical terms, an outdoor fireplace provides a wondrous place to gather with friends and family as an anchor for your outdoor space.

Options can range from simple brick designs that become a focal point for small patios, all the way to elaborate creations with dramatic brick or stonework chimneys. Another option: portable models that add the same warmth for a lot less coin.

For a permanent fixture, consider the overall layout of your outdoor space. For instance, where exactly does the patio best belong in relation to your home and how large will it be? Will the fireplace be the focal point or perhaps a small conversation area? Many use the outdoor fireplace as a central gathering spot for parties and casual entertaining, so it helps to plan seating as well. Next, what materials ignite your design zeal? Today’s most popular finishes include brick, stone, stucco, rock and porcelain.

IMPROVE_OutdoorWarmth3For a custom build, an outdoor fireplace’s starting budget point in our area is typically around $5,000. Do you prefer woodburning or propane-fueled units? Residential propane tanks range in size from 100 to 1,000 gallons (as opposed to portable 20-pound tanks, typically used with gas grills), an additional cost.

Today’s patio kitchens are indeed becoming more sophisticated; now that additions of heating elements have become standard, the budget can run upward of $30,000 to include an elaborate grilling area, running water and sinks and semi-permanent seating.

IMPROVE_OutdoorWarmth4Fire pits… so many options
Backyard fire pits, meanwhile, are among the most versatile tools to add ambiance to a nippy outdoor evening. A woodburning unit costs as little as $60 from your neighborhood home center, or up to $2,000 when built into a patio by a local landscape contractor, utilizing a self-supporting supply of propane. There are also DIY options; according to Home Advisor, the average cost to build your own fire pit is $700.

Premade units from a local home center or online retailer typically have metal bottoms that can be susceptible to rust if left outside. More upscale models offer a concrete base and brick-and-mortar walls, with weep holes to enable moisture to drain. Popular materials include varieties of stone; brick pavers and traditional fire bricks are also standard. Available in a range of colors from brown and gray to traditional deep brick red, fire bricks accommodate both charcoal and firewood.

A typical structure ranges from 20 to 45 inches across and 12 to 20 inches high, according to Home Advisor. And then there’s fuel type. Firewood, of course, requires only a fireproof bowl and/or paving stones with good drainage; gas must offer connectivity via the same sort of stationary propane tank used with an outdoor fireplace. Again, many homes are outfitted to connect outdoor grills already in use.

If you decide to place the fire pit in your backyard, be mindful of nearby trees and steer clear of overhanging branches. Make sure the yard is level where the unit will sit to eliminate standing water or puddles and avoid bricks sitting in excess moisture.

IMPROVE_OutdoorWarmth5Patio heaters now a residential mainstay
With so many options and decisions to make in the quest for your ideal fire pit, ah, now you may exhale. A patio heater is much simpler to select. With a burner on top of a pole, it is typically fueled by liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), propane or butane, and directs the flames against a perforated metal screen; heat radiates from the surface of the screen in a circular pattern around the appliance. While once considered a commercial item, these outdoor accessories are now ubiquitous in stores and online. Expect to pay about $200 for the unit.

There are also some creative, if not curious alternatives. A chimenea burns wood instead of gas. Somewhere between a dwarf mushroom heater and outdoor fireplace, this freestanding front-loading “fireplace” offers a bulbous body with a vertical smoke vent or chimney. Other hybrid patio heaters include electrically powered radiative heaters emitting infrared energy which in turn heat the surrounding air; also available are wall mounted heaters and propane-fueled tabletop heaters.

When looking to light up the outdoors, such features as an outdoor fireplace, fire pit and patio heater “add light, heat and an interactive experience that really enhances your time spent outdoors,” says Registered Landscape Architect Mary Dresser, on the Earth, Turf & Wood blog. “A fire feature can also add a lot of ambiance to your space, making outdoor meals, lounging or entertainment even better.”

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