Please don’t call them fire pits. Even if smokeless fire bowls are essentially gas-powered fire pits, inventor Elena Colombo said, “I don’t think anything sounds better if you use the word ‘pit’ to describe it.”
What inspired her to design her first fire bowl, nearly two decades ago?
“I wanted to make a beach fire,” said Colombo, who had a house on Long Island and a pile of wet firewood that refused to burn. “I needed an alternative. This was in 2001, and we weren’t really Google-searching back then. When I looked online for a vessel that could be gas-powered, the worst-looking stuff came up: masonry fireplaces, things with wrought iron stands, something shaped like a Grecian column.
“So I thought maybe I should make one myself,” said Colombo, who built her first propane-powered fire bowl using a repurposed garbage can and a swimming pool heater.
Colombo’s breakout moment came in 2004 when she designed a metal fire bowl for the gravel courtyard at the Sunset Beach hotel on Shelter Island. Nowadays her Brooklyn-based company, Fire Features, manufactures a collection of fire bowls—in standard sizes that range from 45 to 68 inches diameter. “A fire bowl should look big. You don’t want it to look like a little salad bowl with Adirondack chairs around it,” she said. “When you put something outside, you don’t want it to disappear into the landscape.” (She also creates custom designs—including large fire troughs—for clients.)
Is a fire bowl the right feature to add to your garden? Read on for advice from Colombo:
Photography courtesy of Elena Colombo.
1. What is a fire bowl?
Unlike a fire pit, which is designed to burn wood a fire bowl powered by gas is smokeless “is like jewelry for your landscape,” said Colombo, whose designs often have shallow profiles to focus the eye on the flames, not the vessel.
Depending on the kind of gas you already use at your house, a fire bowl can be configured for natural gas or propane.
2. How do you build a fire bowl?
You can kindle a fire bowl with either an electronic or a manual pilot-ignition system. “Mine are manual for the most part, because they are really reliable,” said Colombo. “With an electronic ignition system, it’s all well and good until the first rainstorm when you realize you left the lid off and now you have to replace your system.”
For code compliance and safety, “you run a gas line first to an emergency shutoff valve located within plain view of the fire feature, within 10 to 15 feet, against a wall, and then you go back underground and run the line through a control panel before it goes to a fire feature,” said Colombo.
Fire bowls often have control panels on the side so a gas line runs to the side, as well. The biggest mistake she sees, she said, is when the gas line runs directly from the meter to the center of the fire bowl. It should run to the plain-sight emergency shut-off valve first, then the control panel, and finally to the burner.
3. What is the best fire bowl material?
For durability, Colombo’s fire bowls are made of metal: bronze, copper, Corten steel, and mild or stainless steel.
“It’s really important to chose a material “to complement the architecture of your house,” she said. “If you have a modern house, a stainless steel fire bowl will be a contemporary, modern look. Mild steel or Corten will rust to a reddish or tobacco brown color to match more rustic architecture.”
If you have dark-colored window mullions, a metal that develops a patina with age is a good choice. “Copper will look very similar to bronze after they patina, but bronze has a higher price range,” she said. “If your house is on the water, bronze is the least corrosive of the materials.”
4. What is a water bowl?
A bowl that has both a flame and a water feature is a water bowl. (Submersible burners are available.)
“It can operate as a fountain without the fire. or fire and water at the same time, which is fun,” said Colombo.
5. Can I put a fire bowl on a deck?
Unlike a wood-burning fire pit which can send sparks or embers into the air to ignite nearby surfaces, a gas-powered fire bowl is safe to operate on a wooden deck with the addition of a metal heat shield. “Putting it near to the house is important. It’s a ready-made party as soon as you turn it on,” said Colombo.
The lack of embers and sparks makes it safe to site a fire bowl within 20 feet of a house, on a deck or patio, or beneath a pergola or 12-foot-high porch ceiling. (A high clearance is required to safely operate open-air, gas-powered fire bowls.)
“I tell people not to put fire pits in ‘destination’ locations far away from the house because it’s inconvenient,” she said. “For the most part, I think a location that extends the square footage of your house to the outdoors is better, so you can have access to the kitchen—and the refrigerator—and people can gather at the perimeter of the house rather than 100 feet away.”
6. What kinds of inserts are available for fire bowls?
Unlike fire pits, which turn wood into ash, fire bowls have decorative inserts that will last the lifetime of the bowl. Inserts—including lava rocks, metal “branches,” and concrete balls are “mostly a question of budget,” said Colombo.
7. Do you need a safety screen for a fire bowl?
“You need a safety screen if you have small children,” Colombo said. Commercial venues with a lot of foot traffic, including hotels, often install them as well.
8. How much does a fire bowl cost?
Fire bowls, which require a gas line, are more expensive than outdoor fire pits. Fire pits cost an average $700 to build depending on size and location, according to Home Advisor. Prices for Colombo’sfire bowls start at $3,800 for a 45-inch Mild Steel Burn Bowl. “I call them art that works,” said Colombo. For a full price list, see Fire Features.
For more ideas for fire bowls and fire pits, see:
- Landscape Design: 10 Tips for Adding a Fire Pit, from Judy Kameon
- 10 Easy Pieces: Smokeless Fire Pits
- Landscaping Ideas: 10 Fire Pits, for an Instant Outdoor Living Room