Written on: October 18, 2022
From the Propane Education & Research Council
The surge in fire pits for outdoor living projects that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as little surprise. With many guests unable or unwilling to gather inside, businesses expanded their operations outdoors to stay afloat.
What’s perhaps more surprising is that fire feature manufacturers and distributors are still tracking sales significantly above pre-COVID numbers, indicating a sustained interest among designers and businesses in enhancing outdoor living spaces, says Casey Harvey, vice president of sales for propane gas equipment and appliance distributor Ray Murray.
By adding light and warmth to gathering spaces, fire pits represent an affordable opportunity to make an outdoor space valuable year-round, says Art Kunkle, vice president of sales for fire pit manufacturer Warming Trends.
“I think what we’ve seen is a mainstreaming of the outdoor space and folks realizing that they don’t have to spend a hundred thousand dollars,” Harvey says. “You could spend $5,000 or $10,000 and get a beautiful, usable outdoor space. So I think the mainstreaming of that trend is here, and I think we’ve hit a new plateau in order to enable growth going forward.”
Here are six trends driving the sustained growth of commercial fire features.
1. Fire pits are a cost-effective option to make an outdoor space stand out.
In a world where adding hardscape, paving, and retaining walls can send the costs of a project soaring, fire features represent an affordable opportunity for a designer or contractor to make an outdoor space valuable throughout the year, says Art Kunkle, vice president of sales for fire feature manufacturer Warming Trends. “A fire feature gives them a reason to be out of doors,” he says. “It’s a source of light. It’s a source of warmth. It’s a great place for people to gather. That makes their project a year-round return on investment instead of just seven months of the year.”
2. Hospitality and multifamily projects lead the way.
Restaurants, hotels, and resorts have always been prime candidates for outdoor enhancements, and Harvey has even seen major hotel chains adding outdoor kitchens with fire features. Apartment complexes and even senior centers are also using fire pits as a hook to draw people outside to enjoy the building’s common areas. Harvey has also seen rising interest from new restaurants in using large fire pits as a design feature at the entrance, rather than just as a gathering space.
3. Regional design trends take over stone.
While stone has traditionally been the material of choice for fire pit surrounds, designers today are willing to experiment with other materials that follow regional trends, Harvey says. In the Northeast and along the East Coast, for example, metallic and modern finishes that resemble a kitchen design have become more popular.
4. Linear fire features carve out a larger role.
Round fire features still make up the majority of installations, with larger round shapes measuring 6–8 feet in diameter becoming increasingly common, Harvey says. But long, narrow, linear fireplaces are also growing in popularity. “We’re starting to see the division of this outdoor room into specific zones for different things, and using these long, skinny fireplaces or fire pits is a nice way to break up the space,” he says.
5. Propane- and gas-fueled features provide safety and convenience.
Several factors are driving a move to propane or gas fire features from wood, Kunkle says. A number of state and local ordinances prohibit burning wood in general or during periods of stagnant weather conditions to limit wood smoke and particulate pollution. Floating embers from wood can also pose a wildfire risk in some areas. Propane fire features include a thermocouple safety feature that closes the gas valve if the fire is extinguished by wind or rain. They also don’t leave guests with a campfire smell on their clothes or require owners to chop or store firewood.
6. Built-in gas lines offer operational advantages.
For most commercial businesses, running dedicated gas lines to the fire pit is preferable to a standalone propane tank, Harvey says. Rather than requiring staff to switch out cylinders in the middle of a meal service and having servers deal with relighting the flame, a dedicated gas line can be hidden away or run underground and connected to a facility’s main propane storage. Alongside the fire pit, businesses and designers can include gas grills and outdoor heaters with better performance than electric alternatives.
Even buildings with existing fire pits are now making the upgrade to gas, Harvey says. “The prices have been reasonable for gas fire pit inserts,” he says. “It’s probably anywhere from $200 on the low end to $2,000 on the high end for the burner and the controls, and then you’ve got to run the gas line. So it’s not a major retrofit installation cost.”
For an amenity that can keep an outdoor space habitable, cozy, and easy to maintain year-round, it’s an investment many businesses will find worthwhile.