Fire Pits

By Anica Wong

January 30, 2013 5 min read

There were many things that Erin Lang Norris and her husband were looking forward to when they moved out of an apartment and into their own house in south central Wisconsin. Top on that list was having a yard for building big fires to enjoy during the summer and winter months. But the property they purchased didn't have a fire pit, so Lang Norris had to take things into her own hands, literally.

"I don't know how many bottles of ibuprofen I went through," she says, noting that building the 5-foot-wide fire pit was a feat of will and physical strength.

Lang Norris couldn't afford a landscape designer, so she went to the first place most people do to get more information on any do-it-yourself project: the Internet. She was sorely disappointed at the lack of concise and helpful material and instead decided to give it a go herself.

The first step was mapping out the space for her fire pit. It ended up having a 5-foot diameter, a typical size, says Tim Lindgren, president of Lindgren Landscape & Irrigation. But you need a lot more space than that to accommodate the structure.

"You'll have the fire pit itself -- 5-foot outside diameter -- and then you have three feet of seating all around it. All of a sudden you have an 11-foot space to fit a round fire pit," calculates Lindgren. This size was perfect for Lang Norris' 2-acre plot; the fire pit didn't get lost in the area but also wasn't overwhelming.

Lang Norris' biggest challenge, she says, was deciding what kind of stone she should use. She wanted something durable enough for high temperatures, which can foster brush fires, and cold Wisconsin winters. After pricing options at the local stone yard, she picked sandstone and then layered the inside of the pit with firebrick she picked up at the hardware store.

Lindgren suggests that any fire pit be made with masonry blocks veneered with bricks, fake stones or real stones on the outside. This gives the pit the strong structure it needs to withstand the heat of a fire and leaves an aesthetically pleasing view for the homeowner.

Once the size is sketched out and the stone bought, the heavy lifting and digging begins; this is where the painkillers come in handy. How deep you dig your foundation will depend on the type of soil in which you are digging. Lindgren, based in Colorado, has to accommodate expansive soils that tend to shift structures. The foundation is the area of the ground that the stone cylinder will sit on. After this area is dug out, cement is poured in and rebar stuck into the cement to add stability and strength.

Lang Norris spent many hours chiseling pieces of stone to fit into the puzzle of the expansive fire pit walls. She carefully placed each piece exactly where she wanted it, which oftentimes required her to shift the stones from one space to another, trying to get all of the pieces just right. She then built a top cap of thicker stones that went all the way around the cylinder, giving the structure a nice finished look.

While Lang Norris' fire pit is wood-burning, Lindgren gets many requests for gas fire pits. In these cases, his company would install a valve that runs through the exterior of the wall, into the bottom of the pit and capped by a burner system. Lava rocks or glass would cover the burner system but allow the flames to come up.

"The pros to doing a wood-burning fire pit is a real flame, the smell and crackling of a campfire," Lindgren says. A gas pit is easy to manage and maintain. Lindgren even installed a fire pit that the owner can light using an iPad app.

Lindgren suggests that homeowners check the local fire codes before they start making decisions on the type of fire pit they want. Some areas don't allow burning firewood in city limits, and if there is a gas line involved, permits must also be in hand. Messing around with a gas line is no simple undertaking, Lindgren says.

All in all, Lang Norris spent about $450 on her fire pit while Lindgren's company, which primarily caters to high-end residential locations, charges between $3,500 and $4,500 for a fire pit. Both options are viable and in the end, people are going to gather around it the finished project.

"In Colorado, we are trying to take advantage of the outdoor living. What can we put outside that will prolong our season?" Lindgren asks. Lang Norris knows just the thing.

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