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Saturday, Oct 27 2012 12:28 AM

Home & Garden: Outdoor fire pits and fireplaces

By Gregory D. Cook

With Bakersfield’s relatively mild winters, there is no reason why we can’t enjoy our backyards and patios year-round. And there is nothing quite like a cozy fire to bring people together, whether you are entertaining friends or just enjoying a relaxing night under the stars.

Today, there are plenty of options to consider when adding an outdoor fireplace or fire pit to your backyard.
We spoke with local contractors who specialize in helping you choose an outdoor living space you’ll enjoy for years to come.

Planning is key

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Fire pits can help set the ambiance of any outdoor living area.

A fire pit can help create a casual, fireside area for relaxing with family and friends.

Fire pits can be found in a variety of shapes and sizes.

It’s important to keep in mind that your backyard or patio is still part of your living space. That’s something people lose sight of, said Valerie Garewal, merchandise coordinator for Outdoor Galore.

“You really want to think of it like you are making your outdoor area another room of your house,” she said. “We’ve got great weather coming in, so you can sit out there with your fire pit and extend your outdoor time.”

As Thomas Hastin of Home & Leisure points out, having a plan is key to create an outdoor living space you will actually use.

“Putting in a fireplace or a fire pit should be part of a master plan for your backyard,” he said. “Set it up so that you love spending time there. That’s important, because if you don’t love it, you’ll never use it.”

Another point to consider: Well-planned outdoor living areas can be included as floor space when determining a home’s value.

Wood or gas?

Outdoor fire pits and fireplaces come primarily in two main types: wood-burning and gas. Both types offer some advantages and drawbacks.

Traditional wood-burning fireplaces and pits offer a different ambiance, with flames that crackle, pop and dance as they consume the wood. And no two fires are ever the same. But the laws regarding wood-burning fires in the valley can limit when they can be used. “The no-burn law does apply to fire pits, too,” said Sue England of LS England Designs. “But there are some fireplace inserts now that are carbon neutral, and you can burn wood in those even on no-burn days.”

Gas — either propane from a tank, or natural gas from the home’s system — is a popular choice because of the convenience and ease of maintenance.

“It’s clean-burning, you’ve got no ash and nothing goes up into the air,” Outdoor Galore’s Garewal said. “And … you can run them any time.”

Pit or place?

After you’ve made your decision, the next step is choosing how to present it.

An outdoor fireplace generally serves as an anchor point, and many people will put couches and other seating around it, creating a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Fire pits are typically freestanding, and allow people to gather around them.

A traditional fireplace is generally inset into a wall section, and will effectively heat a larger area than most gas fire pits. But fire pits can offer versatility in form and function.

“Whether you want it round or square, short or tall, we can build it for you,” Hastin said. “The sky is really the limit as to what you can put in. There are some really neat units out there.”

Making it you own

One of the advantages to purchasing a higher-end fire pit is the level of customization available. Many companies offer the ability to mix and match pedestals, tabletops and burners to create a unit that fits your individual taste and needs without having to custom build the unit from the ground up.

Whether you are looking for a small, decorative accent, or a large built-in that can double for a bar or table, there is likely a fire pit that will fit your bill.

In addition to ceramic logs, you can choose lava stones or even cracked glass or beads.

Glass centers, for example, make fires dance more, Garewal said.

“The flames will come up in different places, where with a log it just comes up around the log,” he said. 

When you don’t want a fire, accessories are available to turn your fire pit into a table, for example. Some companies offer inserts that will turn the pit into a cooler for those hot Bakersfield summers.

The bottom line

A quality fire pit or outdoor fireplace can help set the ambiance of any outdoor living space. But the first step is to consult an expert.

“We can help you turn your yard into what you want it be,” said England.

Added Hastin: “You want to have something that will be a beautiful part of your backyard, that you will still be happy with 15 years from now.”

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