While researching the different types of fire pits to put in my backyard, I found myself wondering how do electric fire pits work. Though most of us are used to indoor igniters like electric fireplaces, it almost feels counterintuitive to have an electric fire outdoors. I spent some time tinkering with and testing electric fire pits to find out how they work.
When the electric fire pit is switched on, an electric current gets directed to its surface igniter which heats up until it gets hot enough to ignite a pilot light. The pilot light then heats a thermocouple which converts the heat into an electrical charge that activates the main gas valve. Then the fire pit’s valve opens, and the fuel can then be ignited to produce the flames.
In this article, I’ll explain how electric fire pits work, what makes them different from traditional wood and gas burners and how they should be used for optimum performance.
It’s all about getting the energy in that initial electrical spark over to the gas valve so the ignitable fuel can be released.
Table of Contents
How Does An Electric Fire Pit Work
The first thing to know is electric fire pits are safer than the more popular wood and gas alternatives. It’s because this type of igniter system has a built-in failsafe.
Instead of lighting a match and relinquishing control to the flames, with an electric pit, there’s a series of internal responses that need to happen for the fire to stay lit.
In the same way that a simple electrical circuit won’t work if its chain of responses gets disrupted, an electric fire pit is a controlled system that cuts the fire off automatically if any component malfunctions.
Fewer accidental fires are caused by electric fire pits for this very reason. But let’s dig a little deeper:
1 – The ON/OFF switch is toggled to turn the fire pit on.
2 – The fire pit’s electrical ignition system sends an electrical current to a conductive surface igniter.
3 – The surface ignitor heats up until it is hot enough to ignite a basic pilot light (similar to the ones used in electric stoves).
4 – The hot pilot light transfers heat to a thermocouple which converts the energy back into electricity.
5 – The electric current is used to activate the fire pit’s primary gas valve, instructing it to open and release the ignitable fuel.
6 – The burner ignites the free-flowing gas, and the flames appear. The entire ignition process should take a maximum of twenty seconds (but more usually around ten seconds) when operating correctly.
7 – If for any reason the flames get extinguished and unignited gas starts flowing, the thermocouple automatically shuts the main valve for safety reasons. Some of the most sophisticated electric pits can reignite the gas themselves or at least try to before switching the device off as a precautionary measure.
NOTE – Electric fire pits need some type of electric power source, but it doesn’t have to be a main supply. Some models come with integrated battery packs, and these are particularly useful if you can’t position your fire pit close to the house. The downside, over hooking an electric pit up to the main supply, is the fact you’ll need to replace the battery at some point.
How Do You Start An Electric Fire Pit
Assuming your electric fire pit is correctly hooked up to a power supply (if it doesn’t have a battery) and a gas line, starting it should be as simple as pressing a button.
Many contemporary models come with remote controls. All you’ve got to do is press the ON button just like you would with a television remote.
1 – Press the ON button on your remote control.
2 – The flames won’t spring up instantly. It can take as long as twenty seconds for the components to heat up and respond in the required manner. This is normal. You won’t be able to see it but the surface igniter will start to glow within 5 to 10 seconds.
3 – Within 10 to 20 seconds, the gas valve will open, and flames will appear.
4 – To turn the electric fire pit off, just push the OFF button on your remote control. This will instantly shut off the gas valve and extinguish the flames.
Difference Between Electric Fire Pit and Regular Fire Pit
When they’re in operation, there’s very little difference between electric fire pits and the more common wood and gas alternatives.
All three types produce flames, so they have the same capacity to heat a space. The difference is in how those flames are generated.
Here are some more differences you might want to know about:
- Electric fire pits are activated by a sequence of controlled electrical currents, charges and sparks. Traditional fire pits just require the fuel (wood or propane) to be ignited with a push-button igniter or match.
- Electric pits handle the ignition sequence without your help. You don’t need to do anything except turn the device on with a remote control or push-button. Provided they have a suitable power source from an integrated battery or mains supply, there’s no other action required. You need to manually ignite a wood or gas fire pit.
- Electric fire pits are considered to be safer than wood and gas burners because the internal ignition sequence is used to control how much gas is feeding the flames. The flames can be made bigger, smaller or turned off at the touch of a button. Most gas burners can be controlled in this way as well, but wood fire pits need a lot of manual tending and maintenance.
- Electric fire pits have an automatic fail-safe mechanism. If the flames are extinguished, the gas valve shuts to prevent unignited (and potentially toxic) gas from flowing freely and causing a hazard. Some gas fire pits also have this feature, but traditional wood burners need to be watched closely. You should never leave a traditional wood fire pit unattended.
- Electric fire pits are much cleaner than wood fire pits. As with standard gas pits, their lack of wood means no ash or soot residues. This means less air pollution and less maintenance required to keep the pit clean and functional.
- Depending on whether or not your electric fire pit has an integrated battery pack, there may be limitations on where you can position it. Battery-powered pits can be placed almost anywhere provided there are no environmental hazards but pits that need a mains power supply will need to stay relatively close to the house unless you’ve got a portable generator.
- Electric fire pits tend to be significantly more expensive than gas and wood versions. They last for longer and they’re much safer but there is a bigger price tag. The most affordable type of pit is a basic wood burner.
- Electric and natural gas fire pits produce no smoke, so your clothes won’t smell after you’ve been sitting around one. Smokeless fire pits are considered much more neighborly than traditional wood burners because they don’t disrupt the activities of people nearby who don’t like the smell.
Does Electric Fire Pit Give Off Enough Heat
The fuel that burns hottest is wood. It’s true electric and natural gas pits don’t burn quite as hot. I’ve used all three types of fire pits though and, honestly, I think the environment has a more noticeable impact.
In terms of output, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between the heat from an electric pit and the heat from a wood pit.
If one does feel significantly colder, it’s probably due to a feature of your surroundings. In optimal conditions, low wind, plenty of ventilation, ample fuel, the difference is negligible.
A warm fire is a warm fire. Plus, you have much more control over the heat output with an electric fire pit. Most electric igniters allow for variable levels of gas flow so users can control brightness, heat output and fuel consumption.
How To Increase Flame Height On An Electric Fire Pit
1 – Remove any decorative/heat-conducting rocks you have stacked around the fire pit’s gas valve (if relevant).
2 – Clean the area around the gas valve taking the time to remove any crud or debris. Make sure the fire pit is unplugged and switched off before you do this. It might help to use an air compressor to blow away any dust and built-up materials.
3 – Clean the electric ignitor in the same way taking care to check for obstructions around the cage and burner ring. If a fire pit hasn’t been used for a while, insects may enter its tubes. Spiders are notorious for leaving webs in burner tube holes.
4 – If the flame still isn’t big enough for your needs, try adjusting the flame adjustment valve. I strongly recommend you read the manufacturer’s instructions before doing this.
5 – Consider the features of your electric pit’s surroundings. Is it in a particularly windy area? Could you relocate it to a spot with more natural windbreaks? Sometimes, a lackluster fire pit just needs a more suitable location.
Where Can You Put an Electric Fire Pit
Safety guidance says all fire pits should be positioned a minimum distance of 10 feet from a house or other structure, and preferably around 20 feet.
The further a pit is from your home, the smaller the risk of accidental fires. While It’s true electric pits are significantly less likely to cause accidents, due to their fail-safe mechanism, they should still be treated with care and caution.
Here’s some advice on where to put your electric fire pit:
- Appropriate distance from your home (10 feet away or more)
- In a space with lots of ventilation. If placed beneath a shelter, the structure should be open on at least three sides, preferably four.
- Natural windbreaks such as shrubs and trees can help an electric fire pit burn more efficiently but make sure they’re not close enough to ignite and cause a fire hazard.
- Unless your electric pit has an integrated battery, you’ll need a long extension cord – heavy duty for wet weather – or a portable generator. Battery-powered pits can be positioned much further from the house because they don’t need access to a mains supply.
- Electric fire pits produce no smoke so you shouldn’t have any problems using one close to neighboring homes provided the spot you’ve picked is appropriate and free of fire hazards.
- It’s safe to use a high-quality fire pit on a wooden deck. The bottom should be built to distribute heat in a way that isn’t going to burn the deck’s surface. If you’re still concerned, you can pick up anti-scorch mats for a small price. Just place these underneath your pit before to protect the deck.
- Whether the surface you select is made of wood, concrete or grass, it must be level so that the pit stays stable. Your electric fire pit should always feel steady. If it’s tilted or leaning, you run the risk of it tipping over while in operation. This could cause a fire if there are combustible materials around.
Helpful Tips About Electric Fire Pits
Electric fire pits are extremely easy to use so they’re ideal for homeowners who have no experience with traditional wood burners.
They’re more environmentally friendly than wood-burning fire pits and much less disruptive. If you want to enjoy a hearty fire of an evening but don’t want to disrupt your neighbors, an electric model is a great choice.
Here are some helpful things to remember:
- Electric fire pits can ignite themselves. All you need to do is push the right button.
- Before buying an electric fire pit, check whether it has an integrated battery pack or needs access to the mains supply. This will affect where you can put it and how you operate it. Both are easy to use but the latter may need to be positioned closer to the house or hooked up to long extension cables.
- Electric fire pits are some of the safest on the market. They have a fail-safe which switches the gas valve off if the flames are extinguished for more than ten seconds.
- Electric fire pits are more expensive than wood burners, but they are cleaner, safer and more energy-efficient overall. For environmental reasons, people are encouraged to consider investing in greener technologies like electric pits.
There’s something about wood burning pits that inflames the imagination and electric pits cannot replicate it, I confess.
However, I think it’s more of a psychological attachment than anything to do with the technical capabilities of electric fire pits compared with wood pits. We’re just used to what we’re used to. And what we’re used to can change.
The environmental benefits of smokeless fire pits are such that we should all consider investing in this technology. Fewer emissions mean less air pollution and a much healthier atmosphere for our families and neighbors.
All of that and we don’t have to give up cozy nights around the fire. Some changes are worth stepping out of your comfort zone.