Cooking Over a Fire Pit

Cooking-a-hot-dogMaybe at the ball park on an early summer evening, when your team is winning. Maybe then, but it is hard to imagine that a hot dog could ever taste better than when it is cooked on a skewer over a wood fire. Fire pits are for staring into, and sharing time with friends or family, but they can also be the way to enjoy dinner, especially when dinner is hotdogs with roasted marshmallows for dessert. If you have kids, you will see wonder in their eyes as they watch their dinner being roasted. There is magic in a wood fire for everyone, but especially for kids, and especially when hot dogs and marshmallows are involved. So if your fire pit is gathering dust, think about making it a part of your family dinner plans on the next appropriate evening. This is not a stock photo. I ate this hot dog after taking the picture with my iPhone, and it was delicious. Made me believe I am a pretty good cook.

Using a Fire Pit on a Deck

I tried googling “using a fire pit on a deck” and was surprised by the web sites Google recommended. A few advertised “Deck Safe Fire Pits,” but when I checked the web site, I saw fire pits that were no different from others, so it is not at all clear why they would use that term to come up in search. A few web sites advertised that they knew all about using a fire pit on a deck. And when I got to the recommendations, they said be sure to use a “pad under the fire pit.” …. no mention of what kind of pad. Other sites said to place pavers on the deck under the fire pit. That might help, but you would not want to leave those pavers there for more than a day or two because of the moisture that will get trapped between the pavers and the deck. Some web sites say that wood burning fire pits can start a fire on a deck, but gas burning fire tables are safe. We have a customer in Atlanta who had to call the fire department and replace sections of Trex decking after using a fire table on his deck. (deck damage in Atlanta page)

We are not claiming that DeckProtect™ is the only way you can enjoy a fire pit on your deck, but it does seem to be the only solution that is designed specifically for the purpose… the only one that is both effective and convenient, and the only solution recommended by Trex. (page about Trex recommendation) As with any other topic, you need to be skeptical about what you read online. Not all advice is good advice.

Porches and Decks


I think of porches as being old fashioned and representing a traditional life style. However, according to a 2014 survey, 76% of home builders said that new homes are likely to include a front porch.

I may not have read it right, but in any event, along with granite counter tops, walk-in closets, and "great rooms," front porches are in. They are believed to add "curb appeal" and therefore value to a home. A front porch might be a small structure for the front door, or it might be a larger space where you could hang out and watch the world going by. But if you want to spend relaxing time reading a book or chatting with friends, do you really want to be in the front of your house where all passersby can watch you? So some people say that the difference between a deck and porch is that the deck is usually on the back of your house, but in reality a porch or a deck could be anywhere depending upon how you want to use it and on the surrounding landscape.

So what is the difference between a porch and deck? The simple answer is that a porch has a roof, and a deck is open. A deck is for outdoor living, and a porch is somewhere in between outdoors and indoors. You can sit on a porch and watch the rain come down. A porch will have columns or posts to support the roof, adding to a semi-indoor feeling. You can add screens to the side of a porch to keep insects out in summer. A porch floor is more like an interior floor with no space between the floor boards. Porch furniture can be more like indoor furniture. And if you are considering adding a porch to an existing house, you will find it much more expensive…. naturally, because of the roof.

You would never use a wood-burning fire pit on a porch, but you might use a gas-burning fire table…. in which case you would want to take certain precautions such as having a DeckProtect under it to protect the flooring.

Photo credit:
Khongit Wiriyachan 123rf.com

Build a Saw Jack for Cutting Branches

If you like burning wood in a fire pit you need wood. If you are trimming or cutting down small trees, you need a convenient way to cut the branches into short sections that are the right size for your fire pit. I was cutting back a number of small trees, so I decided to build a special saw horse. It isn't really a saw horse, so I call it a "saw jack." A quick search on line seems to indicate that no one else calls it that. Perhaps no one else made one, but it works perfectly for me.
The build is very inexpensive and easy to do. You need six 2x3's eight ft long. Cut three of them in half with a 30 degree angle. and cut each end with a parallel angle. Each 2x3 cut this way will be a basic X.
Then, using 2-1/4" or 2-1/2" screws form three X's with 15" in the top section of the X. Cut additional sections of 2x3 to double up the lower part of each leg and screw them on. This will guarantee that no branch or heavy log will be too heavy for the jack to support. When you buy the 2x3's pick up four or five 8-ft. furring strips… 1x3" x 8'. These are very cheap and crude lengths of wood that will serve well crossing each X near the bottom and then connecting the three X's together. When you have your three super-sturdy X's take them to your back yard and connect them in a row using furring strips and screws. You want the first two a little over 3 ft. apart and the third X about 11 or 12 inches from the second one. This way you can support long or short branches or branch sections as you cut.

The next thing you need to do is…. sorry … wait a year before burning the wood in your fire pit because burning green wood generates a lot of smoke to get in your eyes. After a year or so, or longer, the wood will have dried out fairly well.

Should You be Concerned About Your Deck with Low-E Glass?

I first learned about this factor from a technical bulletin on the AZEK web site. First, what is low E glass? E stands for “Emissivity.” Emissivity can be described as percentage of incoming radiant heat that is NOT reflected. For example Aluminum Foil would reflect 97% of radiant heat from the Sun. It fails to reflect just 3% and therefore has very low thermal emissivity of .03. Asphalt has hight thermal emissivity of .88 because it fails to reflect 88% of incoming radiant solar heat, which is why it can get so hot on a warm sunny day.

Here is the strange thing about regular window glass. It fails to reflect even more heat than asphalt … 91%. (high thermal emissivity of .91) because the solar heat passes through it. This is why traditional home builders in New England wanted more and bigger windows on the sunny side of the house, at least in the Winter.

So what does this have to do with composite decking?

Azek, maker of composite decking, wants you to realize you may encounter a problem if you have windows and doors with specially made Low-E glass. This is glass with a micro coating that reflects most of the heat while not obstructing light. It is a high tech way to make thermally insulated glass to keep an interior space from heating up in the summer or from losing heat in the winter. A house with sliding glass doors opening on to a deck has a large glass surface perpendicular to the deck surface. Sunlight with its thermal radiation hits at an angle and could reflect directly onto the deck’s surface… except that with regular window glass, 91% of the heat passes through into the kitchen. Low E-glass would reflect the heat onto the deck, and that is the concern.

An Azek technical bulletin specifically warns customers about E-Glass in "AZEK Building Products Technical Bulletin #060310 Effects of Excessive and Unusual Heat Sources on AZEK® Products:


This is by no means a criticism of Azek composite decking. Excessive heat from Low-E glass is potentially a problem for composite decking made by any manufacturer. We applaud Azek for making customers aware of the issue. Unlike Trex, Azek does not specifically warn its customers about using a fire pit on a composite deck. They probably assume you are already concerned about that. It should be noted that Azek decking meets exacting building codes for heat and flame resistance.

The Azek bulletin refers the reader to the
Vinyl Siding Institute web site where I found the following FAQ items on a page about “Concentrated Solar Reflection.:”

"Is the damage from solar reflection and heat distortion limited to vinyl siding?
No. Other materials can be raised to temperatures known to cause short-term or long-term damage from exposure to intensely concentrated sunlight. Anything that falls in the path of that reflected beam can be harmed including cups, bags, pool covers, car parts, painted surfaces, and cedar shingles are a few of the materials reported in the media to have been damaged. People who have found themselves in the path of such beams of have reported extreme discomfort and the inability to remain exposed for more than a few seconds without enduring the risk of burns. Eye damage from even a brief exposure is highly likely."

"Does this happen only in the summer, or only in hot climates?
The phenomenon can occur anywhere the sun shines, in any season. Even when the air is cool in winter, if the sun’s energy is concentrated onto a small surface area, that location can become far hotter than the surrounding area. But in many cases the relationships of the angle of the sun, the direction of the window and the location of the house wall are “just right” only at certain times of the year."

"Can the high temperatures created by concentrated sunlight set my siding on fire?
No. The ignition temperature of vinyl siding is approximately 720-750 °F (380-400 °C). This is well above any temperatures reported to have been caused by even the most extreme cases of concentrated sunlight reflected from windows. In fact, the ignition temperature of wood is lower than that of vinyl siding, so wood materials such as siding, fencing or decking would be at greater risk of ignition than vinyl siding."


What does vinyl siding have in common with composite decking? Vinyl.

Composite Decking

While Trex is a very well known brand in composite decking and the leader in the industry, there are many other brands, made by a number of different companies, and made of different combinations of materials. Generally, composite decking is a board made of basically sawdust and a binding agent and covered with a thin layer of plastic. I don't believe that the word "sawdust" is used in the industry. You will also almost never see the term "plastic" used. The terms used are PVC or HDPE, etc. which are acronyms for their chemical components, typically, but not always recycled from plastic bags and soda bottles. It is the (plastic) outer layer that has the color and the faux wood texture. It is also this layer that is most vulnerable to heat damage. Each manufacturer will use its own formulation of the HDPE or PVC, so they are not all the same. Often, but not always, the manufacturer will promote the particular qualities of its proprietary formula that make its brand superior. We have been doing a lot of research into the composite decking industry and will be sharing it with our readers over the coming weeks.

Hot Dogs and Marshmallows

While fire pits are often enjoyed as a way for a group of friends to sit around a fire and spend time together joking and telling stories, they can also provide for some wonderful traditional family time. We didn't have fire pits when I was a kid, but I do remember camp fires when we went camping as a family and evening picnics on the beach or on the rocks by the ocean with a fire to sit around. My dad would make the fire, and my mom brought a picnic basket with hot dogs and buns and skewers. I know grilling is popular today, but nothing compares to watching the hot dog turn brown over an open flame. Then after the hot dogs, out would come the plastic bag of marshmallows. This was one of the big challenges when I was a kid. How to hold a skewered marshmallow over the fire at just the right height that would make it deliciously browned without letting it get close enough to the flame to catch fire. The challenge is so not much skill as patience, which most kids aren't very good with when they are thinking about how good that treat is going to be. I almost never succeeded in browning the marshmallow since my impatience inevitably took the puffy white dessert closer and closer to the flame. It turns out that marshmallows seriously combustable; it also turns out that they are seriously delicious when they are charred black with gooey sugar on the inside. Even the scolding by parents who never failed to point out that this was not the proper way to do it, could not dampen the joy of the experience. If there is point to this blog, it is to remember how much kids love a good fire and what a fire pit can do to bring a family together. One more thought; I am a grandfather now, and I still would rather cook a hot dog over an open fire than any other way.

The Thing About Fire Tables


Fire tables are more and more popular with homeowners. Not without good reason; they have a lot of advantages and great features. All of the fire tables we have seen burn gas, not wood. This means you don't have to buy or cut firewood, and there is no clean up. They also have a certain elegance about them that you don't get with a wood-burning fire pit. When you have really nice upholstered deck or patio furniture, a fire table fits in nicely. While you would not expect the relatively small flame from the gas fire to generate as much heat as a raging wood fire, the heat tends to get trapped below the burn area. Most fire tables have enclosed case-like structures. They look great, but there is nowhere for the heat to go… so it builds up. And this is where you could run into a problem for the surface underneath. In some cases our square DeckProtect will fit your fire table well. In many cases the fire table will be rectangular, not square. The solution is to simply measure the length and width and then go to our custom sizes page to place your order.

The Compelling Magic of Fires

What is it about a fire that is so engaging? There must be something buried deep in human nature, going back thousands of years. To say that appreciating fire is a connection to our caveman roots is really not so much of a stretch. After all much of human nature and behavior has a very long history. So in the modern world where we can cook our food in a microwave and keep warm with the turn of a dial on a home thermostat, why do we need fire?

For cooking and staying warm, we don’t need fire, but for our spiritual comfort, perhaps we do. I am old enough to remember a world, not only without cell phones, but also without TV. My family had a TV for about two of my growing up years. It was a big box, bought second-hand, that had a fuzzy black and white image. Most of my youth was free of television. We spent our time doing other things, playing outdoors, building models, making things, reading, playing monopoly, building forts in the woods, and a lot of very special time gazing into a campfire or fireplace. Looking back, I remember a rich childhood, lacking nothing really.

I think the popularity of fire pits has something to do with reconnecting with our basic human nature.

Christmas Trees and Fire Pits

You may already know this. I was frankly shocked when I discovered how effective a few sprigs from a Christmas tree are for getting a good fire going in a fire pit. Having missed the deadline in January for putting the tree on the street to be picked up by the town, we decided to cut the branches off and put them aside for warmer weather when we could safely dispose of them in the back yard. When warmer weather came, and I was trying to get a fire going in the fire pit, I remembered the Christmas tree branches. It turns out that a handful — seven or eight roughly ten-inch sections — of very dried out evergreen is more than effective for starting a fire. Explosive is the word that comes to mind. Within seconds, the fire is leaping skyward. Have some kindling too of course, not just hardwood logs. You may remember from your scouting days that a fire is built in pyramid or teepee form with the lightest kindling at the bottom and thicker pieces of wood on end leaning toward the center with space for air around and through the stacked wood. With dried Christmas tree sprigs at the center or your teepee, your fire will surely get going


This photo is a stock photo from www.123RF.com. When I used parts of a Christmas tree to start a fire, I was jumping back, not taking pictures. So this tip for fire pit enthusiasts is also a cautionary tale for anyone setting up a real tree for Christmas. We have always heard that Christmas trees are a fire hazard, but I, for one, did not understand how absolutely explosive this combustible material can be. I hope that everyone will be very careful with their tree at Christmas, especially when it starts to dry out. And if you do decide to save some branches for your fire pit, please store them as safely as you would store gasoline.

Planning a New Deck

A contractor generally takes responsibility for knowing what local ordinances are and for getting the building permit. However, you should look into this yourself and perhaps even discuss it with your local building inspector. In many communities there are zoning laws that limit the size of a structure relative to the size of your lot or how close your deck will be to the property line. Look into how deep the footings should be in your part of the country and for the particular nature of the terrain. The more you know beforehand the better. The contractor should know that he is dealing with a savvy customer.

Materials and Construction Techniques
A contractor may have a limited set of ideas when it comes to materials. He may have built a dozen decks in more or less the same way with the same kind of decking or the same style of wooden railings. There are so many other ideas and options that he may not have researched. Just a couple of hours at your computer will expose you to a vast array of options. The big question is whether to go with natural wood or with composite decking. That is a question worth researching. Even if you have already decided on a composite deck, there are different types of composite decking with different advantages and disadvantages. A great web site for planning and researching is Decks.com. You should also spend time visiting the web sites of manufacturers of decking, rail systems and other components.

Working with a Contractor
There are articles on line with tips for finding a good contractor. I would avoid using a referral service or web site that lists contractors who paid to be listed. It is always comforting to have a recommendation from a friend, but even then there are things to look out for. Even if your friend was happy with a contractor, that contractor might not be the best choice for your particular project. Good contractors are booked months or even years in advance. One thing to be particularly watchful for is scheduling. Deck contractors have a reputation for lining up a lot of jobs in the spring, knowing, but not being completely honest with you, that they wont’t get to some of the projects for months. Sometimes a contractor will take a cash deposit to seal the deal, then have materials delivered to your lawn where they will sit for four or five months before he starts the work. In the meantime, he has the deal locked up. Ask a lot of hard questions about scheduling and get the answers in writing.

Built-in Fire Pit for Your Deck

If you're planning a new deck and know you want to have a fire pit, you can build the fire pit into the deck. The result can be very cool. Check out Google images under decks with built in fire pits. This kind of fire pit is most commonly round and built of stone. It is really an outdoor fireplace with no chimney. Built in fire pits can be surrounded by decking or they can be set in a circle of stone or tile. Contractors often build a circular bench around one side. This kind of fire pit is more elegant than most portable fire pits and certainly a lot more expensive. Aside from cost, though, there are some limitations. All of the built in fire pits I have seen pictures of are ground level. I am sure it would be possible to build a fire pit into a raised or second-story deck, but it would take some pretty special construction technique. Another limitation is that part of your deck will always be where a fire pit is. You can't use it for anything else. The advantage of a portable fire pit is that you can move it. Place it on the deck in September or October when the evening weather is perfect for sitting around a fire, and put it in the garage when you would rather have a glass table with an umbrella to sit around. Or in July, put an inflatable pool for little kids in that part of your deck. Another thing I would think twice about is the beautiful built in bench in a semi circle around the fire pit. My preference would be a chair that I could pull in closer to the fire to roast a marshmallow or stoke the fire with a poker. I would like option of moving the chair to a different side of the fire pit to avoid being downwind of the smoke. Built in fire pits are so elegant that I really would want one… if I had enough space and enough budget to build a sprawling, perhaps multi-level, deck with additional room for a dinner table, lawn chairs and whatever else. With limited budget and space resulting in a deck that you will want to use in a variety of ways, I would recommend an easily moved portable fire pit and of course a very easily moved DeckProtect to go under it.