We have a wood-burning fire pit in our backyard, and that’s because I’m a bit suspicious of gas canisters close to naked flames. So how safe are propane fire pits?
Correctly fitted and maintained propane fire pits that are ANSI-approved, are often safer than wood-burning fire pits as they don’t have open flames and produce sparks. You can also cut off the gas to extinguish the flames immediately with a propane fire pit, making them even safer.
Let’s look at the subject of propane fire pits in more detail, and discover how they work, where to use them, and what makes them potentially safer than traditional log burning fire pits…
Is a Propane Fire Pit Dangerous?
Propane fire pits are a low-maintenance and safer alternative to an open fire in your yard. They don’t produce sparking embers or smoke, and if there’s a problem, the gas supply can simply be shut down (much quicker than dowsing a fire). Because they don’t get as hot as a wood fire, fire pits are a great option to stand on decking.
There are two main issues with propane fire pits. They produce a toxic gas called carbon monoxide if they’re used in enclosed spaces, and there have been known to be propane fire pit explosions (under very specific conditions).
We’ll look at these two problems shortly; however, as the issues can pretty much be solved by keeping your fire pit well ventilated while burning and covered when not in use, they are far from deal-breakers when it comes to choosing your outdoor heat source.
Can a Propane Fire Pit Explode?
You’ve probably heard stories about fire pits exploding – and some of these will be true. However, if you buy a proper, ANSI-approved fire pit and install it correctly, there’s a lot less chance of having any problems.
Why do fire pits explode? It’s actually down to wet materials expanding and exploding in the heat. If it’s a home-built pit, this can be because it’s been made from the wrong materials. If it’s a manufactured model, it can be simply because the lava rocks have become damp.
How does wet rock cause explosions? It’s not all rock, only certain types of porous rock, concrete, and gravel. These soak up moisture from rain, which then stays inside the material. When the fire is lit, they naturally become very hot. The water turns into steam, the steam takes up a larger area inside the rock than the water, and boom – the pressure causes the rock or concrete to explode.
This is why if you’re using lava rock on your fire pit or BBQ, it’s important that you keep it dry. Cover your fire pit, and cure (dry out) the rocks if you think they may be damp.
Just to emphasize the point that you don’t want to be near exploding rocks, check out this film. It’s ten minutes, but it’s a very informative film about what happens when there are wet rocks in the fire…
Is it Safe to Use a Propane Fire Pit Indoors?
No, it’s not safe to use a propane fire pit indoors. Unlike a real fire, they don’t give off sparks so aren’t necessarily a fire hazard – but, they do give off carbon monoxide.
This can be dangerous if breathed in, and this is why propane and natural gas fire pits should be used outdoors, where there’s plenty of ventilation and carbon monoxide can’t build up.
There are exceptions. You could install a fire pit on an open-sided porch or gazebo as these have lots of natural ventilation. Follow ANSI guidelines about ceiling heights and proximity to walls. The ANSI guidelines are summarized here.
What is Safer a Natural Gas or Propane Fire Pit?
Both types of gas are safe to use in an outdoor fire pit. Natural gas tends to burn a bit cleaner (less soot) and is cheaper to run, and propane has a warmer-looking flame; but aside from that, you won’t really notice much difference between the two.
The main difference comes with installation. Natural gas is piped, so you’ll need to already have a supply and be willing to engage a qualified fitter to connect your fire pit. Propane (LP) comes in portable containers that you can install yourself. You can also move your propane fire pit around should you need to, as it’s not connected to the gas pipes.
Do You Need To Cover a Propane Fire Pit?
By law, a fire pit needs to be made from safe and durable materials. However, nothing lasts forever, especially outdoors, and you can prolong the life of your fire pit by covering it.
Covering your fire pit will slow down oxidation and help prevent rust. Even well-built stainless steel components will eventually rust if constantly exposed to rain or humidity. The UV in sunlight will eventually affect the pit’s appearance, dulling its finish.
You also want to keep those lava rocks dry. Porous lava rocks suck in moisture, which then expands as steam when heated, sometimes causing the rocks to explode. This is hardly relaxing.
Plus, you want to keep bugs and rodents out, especially the kind that will eat your gas cable… So, invest in a good cover, and use it whenever the fire pit is cool and standing idle. If there isn’t a made-to-measure cover for your particular model, go for a large size and secure it well, making sure every component is covered.
How Close Can a Propane Fire Pit Be To a House?
The general fire pit rule is that it must be 10 feet away from your property or a neighbor’s property. However, this is a bit more complex when it comes to propane fire pits, as they don’t emit sparks or smoke like wood-fired models do, and can be installed on your porch or patio.
For advice before you go to the effort and expense of getting a new fire pit it’s best to speak to your local fire department. Rules about what you can and can’t do in your yard vary from county to county, and even between towns, so it’s always worth checking before you commit.
The main concern with propane fire pits is ensuring adequate ventilation to prevent a dangerous build-up of carbon monoxide.
Are Propane Fire Pits Safe on Wood & Composite Decks?
If you want to install your fire pit on your deck, a propane pit is the best choice. A propane fire pit is safe on both wood and composite decks, because it doesn’t burn as fiercely as a real wood fire does, and certainly doesn’t give off those hazardous sparks.
Even so, you need to protect your deck with a fire mat, as propane fire pits still give off heat. You could also use a more structural protective surface such as pavers or heat-proof tiles.
Are Propane Fire Pits Safe in Gazebos & Pergolas?
A propane fire pit is a far safer option in a gazebo or pergola than a wood-burning fire pit would be. This is because these artificial fires burn in a far more controlled way, and don’t emit sparks that could start a fire (or at least damage) the wooden structure of the gazebo or pergola.
Because gas and propane burn cleanly, you won’t end up with a smoke-blackened roof or woodwork. This is a great benefit of not using wood in your fire pit. Also, because they don’t burn as hot, propane fire pits are less likely to overheat the floor. Any problems? Simply switch off the gas.
But what about carbon monoxide? We’ve mentioned this dangerous gas a couple of times during this article, and it is caused by poorly ventilated gas and propane burners.
The key here is ventilation. If your structure is well-ventilated, you shouldn’t have a problem. Ideally, it is open-sided and has a high ceiling, giving the gas the chance to escape, rather than to build up in a confined space.
Speak with your local fire department or planning office to find out about any local guidelines for installing and using propane fire pits. As well as advising you on your city or county laws, they should also be able to give you some useful safety tips.
So it turns out that in almost all use cases – and given that the pit is properly fitted and maintained – propane fire pits are much safer than wood-fired ones.
As I mentioned, we’ve always had a log burning model – but that could change based on the information discovered for this research – and given the fact that we have three kids to think about around the fire.
Looks like I’ll be off to Lowe’s or Home Depot at the weekend to inspect some of these gas fire pits up close. 🙂