Contractor does hot business with flame effects

Flame designer Michael Van Buren explains why these effects continue to grow in popularity and why propane is the best way to fuel them.

By Mark A. Newman

For more than two decades, Michael Van Buren, P.E., has made a living designing fire features for homes and businesses around the world. As principal of Blazing Design Inc. in Essex Junction, Vt., Van Buren conceptualizes, designs, and oversees the creation of a variety of both interior and exterior fire features.

And if you think you've seen more fire features in homes and businesses in the last few years than ever before, you'd be right. According to Van Buren, one of the reasons for the popularity is simply that these fire-producing systems are now being mass-produced, making them more accessible. Ten years ago, he says, there were few ready-made outdoor features available. "There were no testing standards for those products," he explains. "Anything done had to be custom-made for specific applications. Now there are manufacturers of pre-packaged units that can be put into existing structures or site-built into masonry structures."

Another reason for the increase in demand for fiery design features is the popularity of outdoor living spaces. Just a decade ago, most patios were simply used for sunbathing or storage sheds; now people like to bring their living spaces outdoors as much as possible. "A landscape architect working on a design is a lot more likely to include a fire pit or other fire feature than he is a pool, spa, or hot tub," Van Buren says.

While fireplaces and fire pits have become the most common flame-driven design enhancements, designers are stepping up their game and creating effects that capture the eye as well as the imagination. Many homeowners are requesting items such as torches, fire bowls, and "mixed elements" — combining fire and water — usually after seeing such a feature at a restaurant, hotel, or resort.

These custom fire columns act as a welcoming beacon to visitors at a home in Vermont and make the home truly stand out.
The warming flames of this outdoor fireplace make an ideal centerpiece for a lodge's dining porch in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. The fireplace is a magnet for the lodge's many guests on cool evenings.
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Fire pits have become one of the most common propane-fueled exterior features in recent years, helped along by more readily available kits and equipment.
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The flip of a switch

Unlike topiary or even a water feature, the appeal of fire effects lies in the fact that fire is an experience. While you can capture other aspects of a home or landscape with a camera, you can't really do the same with flames. "You have to experience it to realize the benefits," Van Buren says. "Flame is a hard thing to picture. But when you see it in person, that's where the effect is: the feeling of warmth and radiant heat embodies a sense of relaxation that comes from it."

Aside from the fact that the features are readily available for pros like Van Buren and other contractors, these flame effects are easy to operate and maintain. "You can have a roaring fire in a fire pit as quickly as you can flip a switch," Van Buren says. "You don't have to stoke kindling for an hour and a half. And once you have a nice fire, it doesn't need constant stoking or monitoring. You can turn off [propane-powered features] and just walk away. That convenience is a real benefit." Plus, there are no wayward embers to pop out and cause harm.

Planning and more planning

Installing flame effects, however, takes more than the flip of a switch. Van Buren stresses the importance of planning, planning, and more planning. "Make sure you have everything planned out and coordinated with your team, because there's a significant amount of infrastructure that needs to go in," he says. The installer will need to verify that fire effects are installed with proper propane and electricity lines and controls to start and extinguish the flame.

"You can have a roaring fire in a fire pit as quickly as you can flip a switch."

All the involved contractors need to know what's expected of them, and they should all have complete sets of the plans. "Too many times a design gets put on landscape drawings but doesn't get put on the electrical and mechanical drawings," Van Buren says. "That detail is missed often, and it causes unwelcome surprises later for the homeowner in terms of higher costs. The plumber has to know if he needs to run a line out for a 150,000-Btu fire pit."

Aside from the client having to dig deeper for more money, these oversights can mean a lot more work for the entire construction crew.

Since the appeal of these effects is so much about the experience, Van Buren maintains that propane is a much more appropriate fuel for these flames than natural gas. "Propane has a much yellower flame," he says. "So it tends to be more aesthetically pleasing. Others may not notice, but I'm a little picky about that because it's my job. [Propane creates] a more traditional flame."

To learn more about flame effects and fire features, check out these Propane Energy Update articles:

Will new energy codes change the way you build?
Contractor does hot business with flame effects
Five reasons HVAC pros should learn about tankless water heaters


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