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Outdoor Fireplaces

Outdoor fireplacesOutdoor living seems to be the catchphrase on all the home and garden tv shows these days – that, and “Staycation” – but this isn’t such a new concept – Family BBQ’s, a new pool, or a couple of loungers on the unmowed grass have been part of most people’s summer plans for a lot longer than HGTV producers would have us believe.

Fire, however, has made some strides in the last couple of years. We had a chiminea – that wonderful Mexican clay fireplace – 25 years ago on our first apartment’s deck (wood framed building, trees overhanging the deck, lots of young people and too much wine; what could go wrong?) We’ve also had wood burning fire rings and propane fire bowls. But an actual fireplace in the yard always seemed like something only the wealthy had.

That’s changing, though, with the popularity of home improvement and landscaping shows on TV. It seems everyone wants to get in on the backyard fireplace craze. 20 years ago, the only way to do this was to build it yourself, or hire a mason.

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custom built fireplaces can cost tens of thousands

If you were handy enough, this was simply a few days work, but if you weren’t, you had to hire a masonry contractor. These days, a mason will build you a fireplace for somewhere around $8,000.00 to $10,000.00. If you have a high-end home, that’s not an issue, but what if you’re looking to significantly upgrade your suburban backyard, and don’t want to blow your entire budget on just one part of the project?

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small steel firebowl


Fortunately, there are now a number of options when it comes to fire in the back yard. Unfortunately, plenty of these options are being banned in many BC areas – in fact, throughout most of North America, burning wood in an open container is rapidly becoming illegal. Gone are the days in most cities – and in many rural areas – that the old steel drum can be used for burning leaves and branches after a good yard clean up. A spot on the gravel in the backyard, open fire pits, my old friend, the chiminea – burning any kind of wood without a grate over top of the fire is slowly disappearing. Even provincial and state parks have, to some degree, severely limited open fires.

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Steel chiminea

But, back to the “fortunately” part – there are a number of good options open to those of us who still want a fire in our back yards. Fire pits, fire rings and the like – whether they burn natural gas or propane, or you can use firewood – are a great, small, and inexpensive way to bring a little firelight into your back yard.

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small and portable, but some are hot to the touch

But if you are interested in something a little bigger – a real feature for your back yard landscape – maybe you are considering a fireplace. There are quite a few ready-made fireplaces on the market these days, ranging from the simple upright steel units – reminiscent of chimineas – to the indoor style; something that looks like it was taken out of grandma’s house. Prices on these tend to be around $300.00. There are less expensive models (about $100.00) – you get what you pay for – and more elaborate models (in the $700.00+ range) that come with pilot lights (for the gas models) and remote controls.

There are also a number of precast concrete “kits” – a series of concrete pieces that either pin or mortar together, or interlock to form a finished fireplace. Solid and substantial, these fireplaces will cost between $1,500.00 and $3,000.00, and are usually quite a bit larger than some of the Big Box retail store models – more like a real fireplace, as opposed to a firepit with a cover or doors.

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Mirage Stone precast concrete fireplace by Sanderson Concrete

Four years ago, I wanted to make an outdoor fireplace for my family’s cabin down in Birch Bay, Washington. As a precaster, I thought that by making my own, I could get exactly what I wanted, and we would then have a new product line. I spent a fair amount of time online, researching designs, so that I could make some moulds and precast a fireplace in sections that we could assemble onsite.

My first thought was to make a shell that could then be clad in stone. I could line the inside with fire brick, or cast the concrete using a fire-resistant mix; using refractory cement, along with lightweight aggregates which would allow the heat to dissipate without cracking the concrete when we had a decent sized fire going.

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Wall block kits come in many sizes and styles

There were also a number of precast concrete fireplaces available – some were quite nice, but large, heavy, and no word on whether they used refractory cement in their mix design.

The problem with heat and concrete, is that when you heat concrete up and let it cool, small pieces of the concrete tend to spall off the surface. Spalling is when small pieces of a larger material split off the surface. Sometimes, with concrete, explosive spalling can happen – that’s when the pieces violently spit off the surface. Usually, this is a small spitting or popping, however, it can actually be in much larger sections and can be quite dangerous. Not something that typically happens with a concrete firepit or fireplace, but, much like salt damage – which is a whole other story – over time, concrete + heat + cooling = rubble.

In some cases – such as a firebowl or firepit, where extreme heat is not up against the surface of the concrete, using polypropylene fibres (a common concrete reinforcement) can help. The plastic fibres melt in the concrete, creating small vents for the heat to dissipate, much like lightweight aggregates such as expanded shale and pumice do in a refractory cement mix design.

While scouring the net for images of concrete outdoor fireplaces, Mirage Stone came up more than once. I visited their website, and the design – simple, linear, easy to put together – made me think that I could probably make something very similar here.

I then started researching refractory cement and mix designs. Simple enough, but there was a learning curve. It was clear that after I came up with a design, I would still have to make a couple of units, let them properly cure, and then heat them up to see if they would crack. At best, I was in for some experimentation and a couple of thousand dollars – but then I’d have a new product line, plus my own fireplace.

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taken the same day I brought the fireplace home

Then I started looking at how I was going to put this whole thing together. If I used fasteners, they had to be stainless steel or they would rust.  If I used mortar, it would have to be refractory mortar. I spoke with some masons and discovered that there was a steep learning curved here as well – at least for a layman who knows concrete, not masonry. If I was going to get it right, there would be some luck involved, but if I was going to sell this to customers, there couldn’t be any luck involved, it had to work. There were some heat resistant epoxies available, but they weren’t perfect, they were messy, and if I ever wanted to take the thing apart and move it, it would be as easy as moving the chimney on my house.

So I figured, “Why reinvent the wheel?” – and I decided to buy a Mirage Stone fireplace. I called Mirage Stone, and talked for quite a while with the owner, Jim. The more I spoke with him, the more I realized that he had really done his homework. Precast concrete fireplace kits were gaining ground in the United States, but Jim had figured out how to make one that solved a number of problems:

  • He used refractory cement – his fireplace take the heat; light a fire in the winter and they simply won’t crack or spall like regular concrete.
  • He created an airspace inside the fireplace between the fire chamber and the outside – they don’t get too hot on the outside. (mine was too close to my cedars the first year – they survived; so did my marriage)
  • He made it so the parts interlock – no mortar, fasteners or glue. Anyone can assemble it. and if you want to move it later, simply take it apart and put it together again in the new location.
  • He kept the parts manageable – the concrete pieces are not so big that you have to hire a contractor.
  • He used lightweight materials – the fireplaces weigh less, cost less to ship and can be installed by two people in 45 minutes (I did one by myself just to prove it could be done by one person)
  • He added a spark arrestor in the chimney – with virtually no sparks, another fire hazard is eliminated.
  • He added an oven rack and a series of slots to adjust the height of the rack – you can cook in this, technically allowing it to be called a BBQ (some cities allow wood fires in cooking appliances only)
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    cooking rack

  • He found propane and natural gas kits that can be added later – if you change your mind (or your city changes it for you) and you want gas – drill two holes in the concrete (or order the fireplace with the holes pre-drilled) and install the kit. CSA and UL approved with pilot light.
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    propane fire log kit

Mirage Stone makes one product – an outdoor fireplace – and they do it well. I was so impressed with what Jim had told me during our conversation that I flew to Arizona and visited the plant – I saw an entire production run, minus the adding of a “secret ingredient” – not really secret – it was Portland Type 10 cement – but the exact amount and time it was added is what makes Jim’s incredible mix kick off really quick; they can pour a form twice a day without accelerators or steam, and the resulting concrete is not only refractory – heat resistant – but it is incredibly strong, allowing for thinner walls that do not crack as easily as regular concrete. He won’t share this mix design, and I don’t blame him. It’s some kind of voodoo magic.

292514_10150917305994507_1856797156_nI left Arizona as a new Mirage stone dealer. I bought my first semi-trailer load of fireplaces – one was for me – and I have never regretted becoming Western Canada’s sole distributor of Mirage stone outdoor fireplaces. I now have two of them, one at the cabin, one at home, and we use them a lot.

I have sold quite a few truckloads since that day. I’ve got more if you want one – and I keep bringing them up from Arizona – but even if you don’t, good luck with your fireplace. Ours have really added to our enjoyment of our outdoor living spaces.

Shameless plug: see our Mirage Stone Outdoor Fireplace Website (www.outdoorfireplacesbc.com) for more details, including our FAQ page for sizes and weights.

Sanderson Concrete’s got balls!

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Spheres waiting for sandblasting prior to shipment to Guildford Town Centre

 

About 20 years ago, for some reason, decorative concrete spheres became very popular in the Vancouver area. For a couple of years, we cast spheres into post caps, for public art works in local parks and as bollards to stop vehicular traffic from entering into pedestrian areas.

The largest sphere we made was installed at the old Oakalla prison site, which was turned into a townhouse complex after the prison was shut down. At 71″ in diameter, this large concrete ball weighed in at a whopping 16,800 lbs.

I don’t know if that sphere is still there, but I imagine that if they ever had to remove it, there would have been some nervous crane operators wondering what would happen if it got away from them. With the site being on a hill in Burnaby, I remember our truck driver, Dan Whalley, commenting that if the thing got away from him going up the hill, he would “Take the tags off the truck and head for the border!” We had a good laugh – and I then nervously checked his straps for the third time, hoping that he was just kidding. We did make it to site with the big ball – and many others of varying sizes, but this one made me nervous.

We actually did have a sphere come off a truck once. Fortunately, it was a lot smaller, though. However, at 18″ in diameter, it still weighed in at 275 lbs, and the homeowner whose garage it went into wasn’t too happy.

20 year old concrete spheres at Andy Livingstone Park, Vancouver, BC

20 year old concrete spheres at Andy Livingstone Park, Vancouver, BC (still round!)

We had made one too many spheres for Andy Livingstone Park in Vancouver – adjacent to Rogers Arena – and so the extra ball went into our waste pile. One of the local excavating contractors was looking for some free fill and we happily obliged by giving him our waste concrete, and sand from our sandblasting pit. It was fairly clean fill, but with the odd broken chunk of concrete in it, we couldn’t normally hand it off as fill. In this case, it wouldn’t matter – why? I’m not sure; maybe 20 years ago junk fill was okay?

Any way, our intrepid excavating contractor picked up a few loads of the free fill and off he went up the hill in West Vancouver (we still had our plant in North Van at the time)

Bumping along his way into the British Properties, the nearly 300 lb concrete ball with a nine inch piece of rebar sticking out of it, rolled off the truck and downhill into someone’s garage. It made quite a mess.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt, however, this served a very good lesson to us. We no longer give away our waste as one big pile – sand here, and concrete over there!

We also try to make sure that our balls are secured when they leave the yard.

Shameless plug of the day: About Custom Precast Concrete at Sanderson Concrete

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Planters need more than just dirt!

Picture 005Container gardening in concrete planters is a wonderful way to add texture and colour to your garden. Whether used for pedestrian and vehicular control on a busy street in downtown Vancouver or a small deck or garden in the suburbs, concrete planters from Sanderson Concrete come in enough shapes, sizes, finishes and colours to satisfy any gardener’s needs.

We are often asked by our customers for recommendations for  properly planting their new precast concrete planters, so today, I thought I’d share some time tested tips for getting the most out of your concrete pots.

Like their plastic and clay cousins, concrete planters require a little prep before planting. Both the plants and the planters like good drainage – the plants, because they are not too fond of having their roots sit in mud for days on end. The planters because of ice.

RRT5P (2)With improper drainage, your root balls may rot, and your plants will die. This gets a bit expensive. I know this, because the one and only time I was allowed by my wife – the gardener in the family – to take care of her plants for a summer, they did not fare so well. As punishment, I was treated to a day at the garden center, picking out new – and expensive – replacement plants for the overwatered perennials I had massacred. This took all day, and while she was enjoying all the new plants and their Latin names, along with their ability to withstand certain amounts of easterly and westerly exposures and time in the sun without sunscreen, I was wistfully wishing I was in the dentist chair – a much less painful way of spending the day. Is it just me, or shouldn’t garden centers have a beer garden?

Your planters also like proper drainage. This is more important in southern British Columbia, where we live, than areas with freezing winters – but not a lot of moisture.  It’s not such a bad thing if you don’t over water or it doesn’t rain a lot, but not great if you have any chance of pooling water.

la2 on standYou see, concrete, ceramic, clay – and even plastic – pots that fill with too much water (my rule of thumb is anything more than about an inch and a half) and then freeze, are likely to crack. Ice expands with an incredible force, and if it has nowhere to go, much like a two year old chasing a puppy, it’ll go there anyway. Unlike harder materials, such as concrete and clay, some plastic pots have a bit of give – but when they are cold, they become brittle and will crack as well. Clay pots can really be a problem, as some clay absorbs the water more readily, making it weaker – ceramic and concrete pots less so, but they still require proper drainage if they are going to withstand winter’s ravages.

With a little forethought, though, you can avoid this costly problem in all of your outdoor pots. I am so confident in this method, that when asked about the possibility of cracking in our concrete planters, I offer this unconditional guarantee to our customers: If you follow these basic instructions, your pots will not crack because of freezing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you have a cracked pot, that you bought from us, bring it back and we’ll replace it. No proof of sale, time limit, partial credit – just bring it back and we’ll replace it. Of course, we’ll want to see it – tire marks or paint from your teenager’s car, when she smacked into it while you were foolishly teaching her how to drive, will likely void our warranty, and we’ll want to see that you did actually put proper drainage in the planter. But if the planter is cracked and it was properly drained – then it’s our fault. So we’ll replace it. Sometimes there are flaws in concrete planters. Sometimes they take a while to show up. If they do, and it affects the planter – we replace it, regardless of how old it is. Period.

So, what is this magic trick, and more importantly, how much does it cost? (very little)

You will need a little drain rock or pea gravel, some filter cloth (or any porous material that will let water flow through it, but stop the soil – I’ve used a chunk of old blue jeans that  got so full of holes, I wasn’t allowed to wear them in public with my wife) and a couple of larger stones or old pot shards.

The bottom of your planter will have a drain hole. While it is highly unlikely that there is not a drain hole, if it doesn’t have one, you will need to make one in the pot. Be careful drilling if your pot does not have one – you may crack it, especially clay and ceramic pots. We put drain holes in all of our concrete planters unless they are specially ordered without. If the hole is not visible, it is because we pour them upside down and place pins in the wet concrete that are removed when the concrete is cured. Sometimes, the very bottom of the hole has a thin skin of concrete that just needs to be tapped to fall out – and we do that when finishing the planters.

Okay, back to proper planter drainage 101!

54Place a couple of larger stones or pot shards over the drain hole. This will create an air pocket so that loose soil does not plug up your drain hole.

 

 

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21You will then drop a piece of filter cloth over the stones or shards, and then a couple of inches of drain rock or pea gravel on top of the filter and then a couple of inches of drain rock or pea gravel on top of the filter cloth. Then place a final layer of filter cloth on top of your drain rock, and fill the planter with soil. 2”-3” is recommended for larger planters, but really small pots can have as little as 1” of drain rock.

What you have done here is create a filter system and protection for your drain holes. While there will be a small bit of soil in the water that will filter though this into your drain hole, it will be extremely fine and much less likely to plug up the hole and turn your lovely container garden into the dead sea. You also get the added bonus of virtually assuring that your planter will not crack because of the miniature ice rink that forms on some poorly drained planters.

It rains a little in Vancouver. And in the winter, it gets a little cold. Sometimes, the two get together and beat the heck out of our container gardens. But if you have proper drainage in your planters, they won’t crack, and all you’ll have to worry about is whether your garden center actually has a beer garden.

Shameless plug of the day: Our precast concrete planters

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Get a load of this!

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Our General Manager, Jamie, with one of our toys

We recently purchased two Cartaway Concrete rental trailers. After looking at them time and again at the World of Concrete show in Las Vegas , we finally decided to buy a couple of them this year.

Jamie and I go to the World of Concrete every couple of years, sometimes to see what is new in the “World of Concrete”, sometimes to try and find something specific for our business, and – lets be honest – always for the food, shows and a bit of gaming.

For the last couple of years, we have looked at picking up a couple of the Cartaway concrete trailers. They are such a good fit with what we do. We batch concrete all day long for our own products, we have a modern batch plant with the capability of producing quick loads of concrete to any specification and we deal with a lot of contractors who do small jobs and often need just a little concrete. Rather than buying the minimum load from ready mix companies – 3 cubic metres is usually the smallest load you can buy – they now have an alternative.

Cities and parks boards are also often forced to buy more concrete than is needed for a small repair, and we have seen some real positive feedback on these machines.

We have a 1 yard trailer and a 1-3/4 yard trailer. All that is required is a full sized pick up truck. The customer comes to our plant, and we hook up the trailer which we supply filled with ready mixed concrete. Admixtures ensure the proper strength, air entrainment and workability.

The trailers are straightforward and simple to operate – as they are towed to the jobsite, they spin, powered by a gas motor, keeping the concrete mixing just like a ready mix truck.

At the jobsite, the trailer is maneuvered into pouring position and a small wheel is turned on the gearbox. This wheel slows the barrel down to neutral and then reverses the mixer. Internal blades that mixed the concrete and pushed it into the barrel during travel, are now turning in the opposite direction, pushing the wet concrete out towards the mouth of the barrel. A hydraulic lever tilts the barrel so that the concrete can come out – as fast or slow as required to place the concrete.

Unlike traditional rental carts, these Cartaway concrete carts continually mix the concrete on the way to the jobsite so it doesn’t settle and consolidate – so the ability to travel farther of sit longer is greatly increased.

At our first pour, we brought three loads to the home of one of our employees, James, our steel fabricator. James had prepared the formwork for his pad, on which he is building a workshop. The pour went very well, and – aside from James’ lawn, which we kind of chewed up when we drove over it with a couple of tons of concrete and truck – everything went off without a hitch.

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James, our fabulous fabricator, getting in on the action

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