Fire pits and outdoor fireplaces can be a lot of fun -- a center of attraction rather than an inconspicuous source of warmth. Fire pits are designed for use on masonry surfaces, not wooden decks. Some owners report making simple hearths for wooden decks out of concrete paving stones or brick pavers, but this kind of adaptation needs careful monitoring. This type of outdoor heater requires the most time to produce warmth, and poses slightly greater safety risks -- though experts say the risk is minimal as long as you choose a fire pit with a spark screen.
Environmentalists are conflicted about heating with wood. It's the least efficient source of heat and pollutes the air (so a fire pit isn't the best choice for anyone with respiratory problems). On the other hand, wood is a renewable fuel and some environmentalists argue that burning wood doesn't contribute more to global warming than letting fallen trees and limbs decay on their own.
There are three basic types of fire pits:
We found no comparison tests of fire pits, and brands and models are so scattered among retailers that there's no consensus among owner-written reviews either. There's a slight consensus about brands, however. Both Landmann and Fire Sense make fire pits that get high ratings from owners reviewing them. At the other extreme, we found quite a few fire pits and outdoor fireplaces with low ratings -- mostly based on flimsy construction and early rusting.
The Landmann Big Sky Stars & Moons Fire Pit, Georgia Clay (*Est. $150) is a circular fire pit on short legs, with cutouts shaped like stars and moons through which the fire shines. It isn't really made of clay; rather, it's steel painted a clay color. You can get the same fire pit in black, and several other cutout designs are also available. A dome-shaped spark shield keeps sparks from flying out, but this fire pit is designed for use on masonry patios only -- not for wooden decks. It comes with a cooking grate and poker. At the time of our report, 18 owners reviewing it at Amazon.com give it very high ratings, saying it's deeper than most and that it holds plenty of logs. (The fire bowl is 23.25 inches in diameter.)
Also getting good reviews at Amazon.com, the Landmann 28472 Scroll Series 30-Inch Copper Fire Pit with Spark Guard (*Est. $150) is copper, so instead of rusting, it gradually ages to a verdigris green. To protect the copper fire bowl from warping, you put a layer of sand in the bottom. One owner was buying a second one after the first one lasted seven years.
At HomeDepot.com, owners give especially high average ratings to a pair of rustproof Fire Sense fire pits. The Fire Sense 29-Inch Firebowl Hammered Copper Cocktail Firepit YCCFP-CO-H (*Est. $130) gets rave reviews from owners. The spark screen folds into itself so you can toast marshmallows from one side while leaving half the screen in place.
As a budget fire pit, the Fire Sense 30-Inch Stainless Steel Cocktail Firepit, with Decorative Stand (*Est. $100), looks like a good choice because the stainless steel won't rust. Owners say it's easy to assemble and makes a great centerpiece for outdoor gatherings. A few report that the cooking grate was left out of their packages, which makes the spark screen fail to fit well.
The Home Stars and Moon Fireplace (*Est. $80) gets enthusiastic reviews from owners reviewing it at Target.com. This steel fire pit has an attractive stars and moon design but is rectangular in shape rather than circular. It comes with a rain cover as well as a spark shield and poker.
Most of the fireplace-shaped patio heaters we found draw criticism for flimsy construction, but at Target.com, owners like the Target Firehouse (*Est. $150). It sits low to the ground and looks like a miniature fireplace with a front opening. The steel can rust, but a rain cover is included. Oddly enough, the same fireplace sold at Home Depot as the Fire Sense Black Steel Pagoda Fireplace (*Est. $200) earns a very negative review from an owner who complains that the flimsy door warped almost immediately and won't close properly. Either there's a quality-control problem or it's crucial to limit the heat output of the fires you build in this model.