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It’s cold outside. You want to have a good time in your backyard, maybe even invite some friends over to enjoy a roaring fire. Impossible? Not with a fire pit! There is, however, a constant conundrum: whether to choose wood, or propane. There are a few key differences, which is what we are about to cover, so as to zero in on which one is best for your particular circumstances.
An Introduction to the Propane vs Wood Fire Pit Debate
The term ‘fire pit’ easily brings to mind a basic notion: a hole in the ground, in which you start a fire. Safe, contained, and warm for anyone standing nearby. However, in case you are wondering why you would want to dig a hole in your backyard and how it could possible be used in tandem with propane—, let’s just make one small precision: there’s no need to do any digging. The fire pits you will find in several stores and markets are designed to stand on their own; similar to a grill, but in very different sizes and proportions. What you choose to feed your fire with, will come with certain conveniences as well as drawbacks, which we will be covering.
Wood: A Timeless Classic
It was Humanity’s first source of heat, and it remains a staple of many households to this day. Here are some of the factors behind its enduring popularity.
This can vary, of course, but depending on where you live it can be as easy as stepping out of your home and chopping down a tree or two. Even if you live farther away, it’s common for certain shops to carry a few cords of wood, already packed for your convenience. It’s cheap, too, when compared to propane.
As long as we maintain sustainable logging practices, there will be wood for us to use to keep warm. Trees are not going anywhere—provided we do our part.
Wood, in fact, can burn hotter than gas of any kind, which is additionally convenient considering what we discussed before about its affordability.
Wood is a frequent choice when it comes to BBQing, but we don’t mean just that. It can be as simple as running a stick through a chunk of uncooked (preferably marinated) meat, and putting it to the fire until it cooks; this is commonly known as ‘stick meat’. And there are, of course, the traditional hot dogs. Your choice of wood can directly impact the flavor of your food, which is why smoked goods (such as beef, or salmon) are so coveted.
Choose Your Wood Carefully
We just spoke about how your choice of wood can alter the flavor of your food; this can be a favorable change, or an unfavorable one. And it doesn’t stop there: if not careful, you can end up with a fire that doesn’t burn as bright, throws more (and more pungent) smoke, and greatly boosts the rate at which creosote builds up which can be a potential fire hazard of its own.
The Ideal Type
The harder the wood, the better for burning. This includes species such as ash (widely considered the top choice), birch, elm, oak, among others. Other types, such as apple, will be better for flavor but bad for a strong flame. Avoid soft woods with high resin content, such as pine. Humidity is another key factor: you should only use wood whose moisture content is lower than 20%. Achieving this may feel daunting, but it is far simpler than it sounds.
We’ve been talking about flavor, but in this case the word references a literal season. The practice of seasoning has been around for several generations, and all it entails is letting your wood sit outside, preferably uncovered (unless your area is known for frequent rains) and off the ground (so it won’t soak up moisture from the earth), during the summer, so it will be dry and ready to burn come winter or even fall. Wood should be split beforehand; this helps expose the interior to air and sun, and makes the process faster. When the time comes to start burning, there are a few ways to tell if your wood is dry enough for a proper fire:
Weight. Moisture makes wood heavier; when it is dry, you can tell the difference.
Color. Dry wood takes a more colorless look, different from when you just chopped it away.
Sound. When clapped together, two pieces of dry wood will give off a hollow, sort of cracking noise, as opposed to the duller thud of soft wood.
Measure it. With a moisture meter, you don’t need to guess anything: just insert the probes into a piece of wood, and you’ll get an accurate moisture reading in seconds.
Propane: The Clean Burn
Gas is a more expensive fuel, and it is finite, but it comes with a few perks that make it a pretty good choice. For starters, there is no need to do any preparation: whenever you need to restock, all you have to do is load your tank into your car and drive to the nearest appropriate location for refiling. This makes it effortless, and very compact, as you only need as much storage space as your tank would require.
It doesn’t burn as hot as certain types of wood can, but it is still perfectly capable of keeping you warm. It is quite efficient too, as you can easily control how much fuel you burn. Putting the fire is as easy as closing the valve, and there is no ash or related mess to deal with afterwards. There are no embers, and therefore no risk for the surrounding vegetation. Smoke is pretty much nonexistent, too, which means propane fire sources are can sometimes be used even when burn bans are in place.
All Fires Out: The Burn Ban
Smoke won’t only force you to change seats lest your eyes well up, or leave a pervasive smell on your clothes for days; it can also affect air quality, sometimes to the point of authorities issuing a temporary stay on fires known as the burning ban. As fire related activity typically picks up during the colder months (fall and winter), it is also around this period that burning bans may be more frequent.
A burning ban may vary in severity. A stage 1 will usually allow the use of some wood fire pits with special certification, as well as propane fire pits since they emit very little smoke under normal conditions. Stage 2 normally means no burning of any kind is permitted, with only special exceptions made depending on what your primary source of heat is.
What follows are a couple fire pit choices, one for each type of fuel, to help you choose when it comes time to shop around.
This one is potent, compact and fire burn certified, which means you can use it even when a ban is in place, and it is specifically tailored towards outdoors escapades. Compatible with a standard 20lb propane tank, it comes with a pre-attached 10″ hose for connection, and 6.6lbs of lava rock to provide a nice fire. Flame can be regulated via a knob to the side, with a maximum output of 58,000 BTUs per hour. Other accessories such as a carry bag, a cover and a conversion kit for natural gas, are available for purchase separately.
This one may not be too easy to carry around, but it is quite sturdy, made in 16-gauge stainless steel (the thickest currently in the market), and comes with a black powdercoated finish to make it even more resistant to corrosion. The ash pan at the bottom makes cleaning easier—just bring it up and dump the contents, and the internal airflow system helps provide a cleaner, more efficient burn. Although it can be used with regular fire wood, this one offers its own pellets, which are designed to light up faster and burn hotter. The pellets are made of discarded wood products, which may appeal to those who like reducing waste.
So: Which Is Best in the Propane vs Wood Fire Pit show down?
This is, as they say, the burning question, isn’t it? As you may have concluded by now, they are appropriate for different situations.
Go Wood If…
- You live in an area where gathering it is easy, or where your local stores carry it.
- Taking time to select the right wood, and to season it, is no trouble.
- Your budget is not so large.
- You would like to roast meat, such as sausages.
- There is enough space to hold a stockpile.
Go Propane If…
- You’re looking for something more compact, in terms of fuel and of the fire pit itself.
- Your area is known for frequent burn bans.
- You’d rather start and end the fire easily, and with no mess to deal with afterwards.
- Embers could put surrounding vegetation at risk.
- Smoke smell is something you’d rather not deal with.
What it comes down to, ultimately, is personal choice and unique circumstances. Whichever you go for, we wish you many warm nights by a cozy fire!