I love spending long summer evenings outside, soaking up the warmth and the sound of crickets. But as days get shorter and cool weather creeps in, patios, porches, decks, and back yards all become less and less hospitable, forcing us back inside earlier and earlier until winter is upon us. One of my favorite ways to fend off the changing seasons – and squeak a little more joy out of the dregs of summer – is to warm up the night with an outdoor fireplace. Traditionally these are either big, involved, permanent installations or cheapie space heaters, but the growing popularity of biofuel fireplaces has made for outdoor fireplaces that are both beautiful and portable – not to mention much more affordable.
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Adding any kind of heat source to an outdoor space – whether it’s a tiki torch or a full sized fire pit – is the best way to extend your outdoor season. As summer moves toward fall, outdoor spaces have less light and less heat, and contained flame provides both, to say nothing of that rustic, outdoorsy summer-camp ambiance. Even a relatively small flame can provide sufficient heat for an outdoor seating area, like a dining set or sectional, and can provide a central point for intimate gatherings even after the summer grill season has come to an end.
Unfortunately fire doesn’t play well with most building materials, which means outdoor fireplaces aren’t always so simple to achieve. Fire pits need to be well walled in, brick or stone fireplaces need to be well ventilated, and distance from flammable materials – like your roof or siding – should always be a top consideration. These large scale outdoor fireplaces are beautiful, certainly, but are necessarily a permanent installation. Between safety and construction, this means large, built in outdoor fireplaces are really only ideal as part of a large and expansive outdoor renovation.
But while tossing a log on a large fire is the traditional choice, thankfully it isn’t the only choice anymore. Biofuel fireplaces are an excellent alternative because they’re entirely self contained and completely portable. What is a biofuel fireplace? Essentially, these are the modern version of an oil lamp: a small, contained fixture filled with a liquid fuel that can burn for several hours. But unlike oil lamps, biofuel fireplaces don’t have a wick, and so can produce larger and more intense flames. And because the liquid fuel (more on this in a moment) is completely clean-burning, there’s no smell or smoke, soot, or other residue. They’re completely non-toxic and can be used indoors or out without ventilation, and produce only negligible amounts of CO2 and water vapor when burned.
These portable fireplaces burn liquid ethanol made from agricultural products. The specific ingredients will vary a bit by brand, but can include sugar cane, corn, beets, and potatoes. Ethanol – or ethyl alcohol – is made from the fermentation of these products, and the resulting clear liquid is then further refined to produce a liquid that is 100% clean burning. In practice, you simply pour a small amount of this liquid into the reservoir of a specially designed outdoor fireplace and ignite it with a long match or lighter. It will then burn for up to ten hours depending on the size of the fireplace, and produce enough heat to warm the surrounding area.
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Unlike full sized, built in outdoor fireplaces, biofuel fireplaces come in a wide variety of sizes, from more traditional fire pits all the way down to small tabletop ornaments. Regardless of size, they’re freestanding and more or less portable. Because the fireplace itself is heat proof, and the fuel reservoir relatively isolated inside of it, they can be placed just like a piece of furniture or other decor item. And while of course you should be aware of proximity to any flammable items, the risk is somewhat lower because the height of the flame is controlled by the nature of the fuel and contained by the design of the fireplace.
Biofuel fireplaces offer the light, warmth, and beauty of natural flame without the smoky smell, poor air quality, or stains. But because they do use a real, live flame, they also make excellent centerpieces. Their typically simple designs mean the flame itself is the focal point of these modern fireplaces. Some smaller outdoor fireplaces resemble small decorative dishes filled with polished rocks or other small items like marbles or shells which hide the fuel container and accentuate the flame like a flower in a vase. These are small and light enough to be placed almost anywhere, too: on a table, along a walkway, poolside, or otherwise. The larger the fixture the more heat and light it produces, of course, but even smaller models are more than sufficient to warm up an early autumn evening – meaning you can set one on a table, fill it, light it, and host a party even as the weather starts to cool.
What’s your favorite way to extend your outdoor season? Do you like the idea of these portable, indoor/outdoor fireplaces, or is a built in fireplace worth the expense?