Are fire pits and outdoor heaters bad for the environment?

By Brick Underground  | November 30, 2020 - 9:30AM

The occasional use of fire pits is not seen has having a detrimental impact on the environment. The bigger problem in NYC is that they can be annoying to your neighbors.


You might get a nagging feeling when you’re outdoors and using some kind of heater—either a fire pit or electric version—to stay warm on a New York City balcony or patio. Although it might seem cozy—decadent even—to be toasty warm while you’re outdoors in winter—you may also be wondering: Isn’t heating the outdoors an awful waste of energy and money?

That’s why it was a reassuring to read The New York Times’s recent article on outdoor heaters and climate change. The piece cites Rob Bailis, a senior scientist at the United States branch of the Stockholm Environment Institute, a nonprofit research organization, who says that fire pits give off carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon as the wood burns, but there are steps you can take to reduce your impact on the environment. He suggests:

  • using salvaged firewood from landscaping or tree maintenance companies
  • making sure the wood has had at least six months to dry to reduce aerosols and greenhouse gases
  • chopping the wood into smaller piece to burn more efficiently

If you don’t want to deal with a fire, the article also advises that an electric patio heater is “probably your most environmentally friendly choice” if you get your electricity from renewable sources. If not, it says—go with a propane heater.

While propane heaters do emit some harmful emissions over time—it’s problematic only if you have several of them running all winter—like a restaurant. For limited, occasional residential use, Dr. Balis says, it is not a major source of climate damage.

Perhaps the bigger issue with fire pits is that they are illegal in New York City, according to the New York City Fire Code. And they can be a nuisance to your neighbors.

A reader recently complained to Brick Underground about a neighbor’s fire pit on a nearby balcony creating smoke that blows directly into her apartment, giving her and her children terrible headaches and breathing problems. This is considered a breach of the Warranty of Habitability that protects a tenant’s right to a safe and livable home. Brick Underground’s experts had a few suggestions to combat the problem, including filing a complaint to the FDNY, and reporting the issue to 311. 

If you must snuggle up outside in winter, maybe just use an electric or battery-powered heated blanket outdoors and skip the appliances or fires altogether? Some battery-powered outdoor blankets use rechargeable batteries or USB power cords.

Or you could just put on an extra layer or two.


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