If you need an attention-getter in the backyard, you can’t do any better than a feature boasting fire and water.
With these elements, you can think big or small. If the family would like something intimate, a cozy fire and water bowl next to the spa will be a perfect fit. For those with a grander vision, you can create a miniature volcano with flames billowing at the top and water spilling down the sides, or a long fire trough in front of a sleek water wall.
Whichever direction you and your client choose to go, you need to set up the system correctly. Consider the following construction guidelines.
- Separate the fire and water
Some designers and homeowners want to emulate resort-type features that shoot fire directly out of the water. This is done by bubbling gas up through the water, and introducing a spark of some sort to its surface. Installations of this type may be fine when designed for a resort by a specialty fire consultant. But experts caution against trying to do this in a backyard — particularly when working with remote-controlled systems. “It goes against code, typically, with the electrical and the water,” says Kevin Doud, CEO of manufacturer Grand Effects in Irvine, Calif. “And we feel it’s very prone to maintenance issues, with having the electronics in the water.”
Some have tried using manually lit systems to create the effect. However, it becomes challenging to find submersible fire rings, and you have to consider how to manage the combustion byproducts and unburned gas residue that get trapped in the water. “We try to steer [designers] toward having the burner dry. In addition, we encourage housing all the electronics in a container to keep them dry, and hiding the mechanisms so it looks like you’re having fire come out of the water,” Doud says.
Most fire and water designs follow a relatively simple template. “[Many people] want an outer decorative bowl, which is filled with water and then overflows,” Doud says. “Then they want fire to be in the middle of the water.”
Some companies offer pre-manufactured fire bowls and custom-made fire troughs that do exactly that. In some cases, the water doesn’t even well up in the bowl, but is fed directly via pipe to a sheet fall manifold that spills out of the bowl.
When builder Joe Vassallo developed his trademarked WetFlame fire bowl, his first concern was separating the two elements, especially since his containers well up with water before spilling over. The president of Las Vegas-based Paragon Pools creates a spout in the rim of the container which allows the water to pour out long before it reaches the top. Then he places the fire ring at the rim, so it sits above the water exiting at the spout.
For larger features, the same principle of separation applies. For instance, if you want to install a fire trough in front of a water wall, you should create different receptacles for the fire bars and the spillover from the wall, says Bob Roman, president of Fire by Design, a Henderson, Nev.-based manufacturer of fire and water features.
It’s also a good idea to drill drainage holes in the container that holds the fire hardware. This way, rainwater won’t submerge the remote modules or pilots inside. Roman recommends that troughs be built above deck level — as part of a raised bond beam for example. Building these containers on-ground doesn’t provide a place for proper drainage.
- Use the right hardware
When working outdoors, always use stainless steel fire rings and bars. Black steel will rust fairly quickly, causing the outlet holes to clog. Roman estimates that, if you choose the less-expensive black steel, you’ll need to replace it every year or two. Install the ring or bar with the small holes pointed downward. These openings release gas to create the flame, and if water gets into them, it will impede the ring’s ability to light. Placing it upside down helps keep the area dry.
Choose a container that can withstand heat. Vassallo works mostly with concrete bowls, although he’s also had them custom-made using stainless steel with a copper coating. To keep the container relatively cool during use, Roman recommends leaving 6 inches between the fire ring or bar and the edge of the pot or trough.
Also keep in mind that the red and yellow flames that are common in backyard applications tend to leave soot behind, which can stain other materials. For this reason, consider darker colors and surfaces around the fire that will be easier to clean.
You’ll need a filler of some type to help conceal the fire ring and other hardware that you place in the container. This way, the installation looks great both day and night. The ideal material is something large enough to leave voids for air to get through. Leave the material clear of the pilot, Doud says. Roman advises against using sand in remote-controlled systems because it will smother the flame sensor.
The only type of rock known to be completely safe is lava. Other kinds of stone can explode or pop out of the receptacle when it gets hot. Crushed glass can be effective, as long as it’s tempered. To keep it away from the pilot, Doud suggests placing stainless steel mesh over the burner assembly before laying down the glass. The openings should measure about 1/4 inch to prevent the glass from falling through. Be warned that if used in a fire pot, smaller pieces of glass can spill over the spout into the pool water, Vassallo says.
- Run the lines for efficiency
When it comes to running the gas lines, think like a plumber. Minimize the run lengths and number of elbows as much as possible, Doud says. Avoid flex gas lines. You may also need to use manifolds. If you’re creating an especially long trough of fire, you may need to have two bars laid end to end. “The challenge with burner bars over 8 feet long is maintaining a constant flame height from one end to the other,” Roman says. When his clients need their flame to be longer than that, he advises that they use two fire bars of equal length, and connect them with a manifold. Like a plumbing manifold, this will ensure equal flow to each bar.
The low-voltage electric lines on remote-controlled systems deserve the same kind of attention when you repeat the fire throughout the yard. If, for instance, you have two or more fire bowls in a line — say, along the top of a wall — you’ll probably want to operate them all at the same time.
You can hook them up to the same control button. Run the low-voltage line from one bowl to the other and connect them to the same control, Roman says. If, on the other hand, you have a few fire and water features scattered throughout the yard, the homeowner will probably want to light them at different times. In that case, hook each unit up to its own button on the control pad.
- Follow the rules for remote-controlled fire
Check local electrical codes to see if low-voltage power can be installed adjacent to the pool. Some municipalities won’t permit it within 10 feet. Be sure to allow enough space in the container for the fire unit, Roman says. For instance, if you’re placing remote-controlled fire among artificial rocks, you will need a space measuring at least 10 inches in diameter and 10 inches deep for the fire and remote module.
Even though it will be powered by the push of a button, many codes require that you install a manual shutoff valve if the remote uses electronic ignition. Electronic controlled gas valves can stick open, while the manual shutoff provides a backup. Additionally, this allows the homeowner to adjust the flame to the desired size.