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The ultimate guide to outdoor entertaining

How to create a backyard retreat for fun with friends and family

Published: April 30, 2015 06:00 AM
Photo: Tom Marks/McKinney Group

 Once upon a time all you needed was a grill and a picnic table, but no one stops there anymore. “What home­owners are building outdoors rivals what they’re doing inside,” says Josh Kane of Kane Landscapes in Sterling, Va. “They’re making the outdoor space more functional, with lighting, a fire pit or fireplace, and comfortable furniture.”

You can start simply by lighting up the night with long-lasting LEDs and a portable fire pit to gather around. Under­foot, gravel walkways and patios are a European design style that’s becoming more popular as a lower-cost alternative to stone and concrete. Overhead, a ceiling fan keeps the breeze moving. Outdoor fireplaces, and especially fire pits, have become popular hot spots as homeowners look to make the most of the space.

You don’t have to do everything at once. Take a multiyear approach, advises Kane, because poor planning or working with inferior materials to save money are the biggest mistakes people make. This guide offers tips, buying advice, and Ratings of exterior paints, stains, and gas grills. And to liven up things, we’ve recommended speakers for outdoor use and have advice on using other electronics in your fabulous outdoor space.

Dress it up: Furniture, rugs, and lights

Photo: Derrick Louie/Vicaso

Comfortable seating is an invitation to relax. Make a big space cozier by creating several seating areas. Before you add or upgrade your furniture, measure the size of your space—no guessing—because patio furniture can be wide and bulky.

Furniture. When shopping consider upkeep, as recommended by the manufacturer. Inspect the furniture’s finish for consistency, and look for tight and well-fitted joints. Sit in the chairs. You’ll want ones that are roomy and have comfortable armrests. Cushions should fit well and be well-padded and water-resistant.

Rugs. Outdoor rugs define a space, add pattern, and smooth what’s beneath them. They’re also a quick fix for spots where nothing will grow. Lay a bedsheet on the area you want to cover to get a sense of the space, and note sheet dimensions so that you can use the info when shopping. If you’re putting the rug under a table, measure the width and length of the table and add at least 4 feet to each dimension. Want to use a rug on your deck? Make sure the deck manufacturer says it’s OK, otherwise moisture can get trapped underneath the rug and damage the deck—and possibly void the warranty. No matter the deck material, take up the rug every couple of months and clean under it. Remember, UV rays will lighten the deck area not covered by the rug.

Lights. Long-lasting LEDs designed for outdoor use are ideal for hard-to-reach spots, with bright task lights for the grill area and warm light for ambience. Walmart’s Great Value 90W PAR38 soft white nondimmable LED spotlight casts a bright, white light and can be used outdoors if it’s shielded from rain and snow; it’s a CR Best Buy at $22 and works with some motion sensors. For warm yellow light, two CR Best Buy LEDs replace 60-watt incandescents and can be used outdoors if they don’t get wet. They work in enclosed fixtures and with a motion sensor: Walmart’s Great Value 60W Soft White A19 dimmable LED, $10, and the Cree 9.5-Watt (60W) A19 warm white dimmable LED, $8.50.

For path lighting, low-voltage fixtures with LED lights are fairly easy to install. The wiring can be buried at 6 inches, not the 18 required with standard voltage.

Seating: How much should you spend?

New cushions, an umbrella, or a rug can breathe life into old patio sets and cost as little as a couple of hundred dollars. Refreshing metal furniture can be as easy as scraping off flaking finishes and repainting with a can or two of spray paint.


Spruce it up: Paints and stains

Photo: Tria Giovan/GAP Interiors

Cozy outdoor furniture and snazzy lighting will only make peeling house paint or a stained, flaking deck look worse. Start now so that your home looks its best all season long.

Deck check. After a tough winter, you’ll want to assess how much prep work is needed before painting and staining. Also walk over the deck and check for softness and give, especially in areas that tend to stay damp, and press on railings, banisters, and steps. The deck and stairs should look level without sagging. Look for rot and insect damage beneath the deck platform, and check that the ledger board, which connects the deck to the house, remains tight. Retighten loose screws and lag bolts and pound nails back down. Any doubts? Get a professional inspection. The North American Deck and Railing Association lists certified deck builders on its website.

Even if you want to tackle the deck rehab yourself, you need to take special care in two instances. A deck built before 2004 is probably made of chromated copper arsenate (CCA) lumber, which contains toxic arsenic. Consult a pro if you’re not sure. Regular refinishing helps seal in the arsenic. If the finish is flaking, call a pro equipped to safely remove the old finish, dust, and debris, and to apply new stain. And if your home was built before 1978, anyone you hire to repaint the exterior or interior must be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency and trained in lead-safe practices.

Flat and satin paints are what most people use on siding, and semigloss on trim. How much of your deck’s natural grain you want to see—and how often you want to refinish the deck—determines the type of stain you choose. Solids hide the grain in exchange for longer life, and clear finishes show it all but usually need to be reapplied every year. A semitransparent stain shows some of the grain and can still look good after two years. Check our wood stain Ratings for which did best at resisting mildew growth, important in humid, shaded areas.

Pressure prep. Use a scrub brush or a power washer to remove loose and chalky paint and dirt from your house and deck. A pressure washer costs $200 to $500, but renting one costs about $50 to $80. Read its instructions. Cover landscaping with plastic sheeting and wear long sleeves, long pants, and rubber gloves. The pressure needed for a deck is roughly 1,500 PSI. Use a wide-angle spray tip of 25 to 40 degrees for a wide spray that protects the wood. Angle the spray and keep it 6 to 12 inches away from wood surfaces. Scrape and sand where needed.

Paint: How much should you spend?

Buy a bucket. Need 5 gallons of paint or stain? Buy it in one 5-gallon bucket for more consistent color and savings of up to $30.


Use the right brush. Stick with synthetic brushes for latex paint because natural bristles are hollow and can go limp as they absorb water, making for a harder and possibly sloppier paint job.


Warm it up: Fire pits and fireplaces

Photo: Owen McGoldrick

Patio heaters, fire pits, and fireplaces all take the chill off. But patio heaters lack the warm glow of a flame emanating from a fire pit or fireplace. A fire encourages people to gather around and linger. Fire pits and fireplaces use wood, natural gas, or propane, and whether you buy one or have it custom built, consider these tips from Josh Kane of Kane Landscapes in Sterling, Va. and a member of the National Association of Landscape Professionals:

  • Think about how often you’ll use the fire pit and the number of people usually gathered around it. A fire pit takes up valuable space when set in the center of the patio, so a portable pit or one located near the patio edge might be better. That way you can place some chairs in the grass, allowing more open space on the patio.
  • Install the fire pit or fireplace away from any structure that smoke could stain. The same goes for anything that can burn—a distance of at least 10 feet. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that you not use a fire pit on a wood deck.
  • Check that the diameter of a wood-burning fire pit is big enough to fit good-sized logs for a fire that lasts.
  • Consult a pro if you’re considering a fireplace. It’s crucial that the firebox, throat, smoke shelf, and flue are properly constructed.

Fire effects: How much should you spend?

For several hundred dollars you can create a cozy gathering spot with a portable fire pit. Custom-built masonry wood fire pits start around $1,500 to $2,000; gas fire pits cost more. Prefab fireplaces are about $1,600 and more; custom-built models begin in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.


Serve it up: Gas grills

Photo: Charlie Simokaitis/Weber

Push a button and fire up. Grilling is that easy with a gas grill, and there’s no reason to stop as the weather cools. Most grills use propane, but some have a natural gas conversion kit for about $75 or come in a natural gas version.

With natural gas you’ll never run out of fuel and there’s no need to refill propane tanks, but the grill must stay put. Plus you’ll want to call a pro to run the gas line from your home to the grill.

Before picking your spot, find out which way the wind generally blows in your area during prime grilling months, at the website of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Keep the grill away from siding by at least several feet. The heat can warp vinyl and damage paint on wood siding.

“A lot of people make the mistake of putting it too close to the entertaining space. You don’t want smoke blowing into your party,” says Jason Craven of Southern Botanical in Dallas.

Here’s what to consider when shopping for a gas grill:

  • Estimate the number of people that you usually expect to feed, then check our gas grill Ratings for the size of the grill to match.
  • In the store, take into account how much space the grill will eat up at home.
  • Gently nudge it from several angles. The more stable, the better.
  • Grip the handle—your knuckles or fingers shouldn’t be too close to the lid.
  • A greater distance between the grates and burners usually means fewer sustained flare-ups.

Gas grills: How much should you spend?

Most gas grills sell for less than $300 and are used for three years, on average. Spending $400 to $600 can get you a midsized grill ($600 to $900 can get a large one) that delivers impressive or top performance, some mid­grade stainless steel, sturdy construction, stainless or cast-iron grates, an electronic igniter, and a side burner.


Liven it up: Wireless speakers

Photo: Tim Pannell/Corbis

In summertime, all the comforts of home migrate to the yard. That includes digital devices. But back yards present special challenges with audio-visual gear. Wireless audio systems allow you to set up a speaker (or a few of them) and stream music almost anywhere, but you’ll need one loud enough to stand up to the outdoors. And a digital projector can create a movie night under the stars, but you’ll have to add a screen and possibly speakers. Choose equipment that works for your needs and budget. Are you trying to add atmosphere to a family dinner on the patio or rev up a pool party? We’ll help you find the right gear for either event.

Speakers for a small gathering

A compact, battery-powered Bluetooth speaker can be placed right on a table when you’re dining with the family on the deck. And you can pick it up and take it with you as you move around the yard. The devices can play music from a tablet, laptop, or phone up to 30 feet away. The Bose SoundLink Color, $130, strikes a nice balance of size and power. At a trim 5.5x5x3.5 inches, it won’t hog the table, and it comes in five fun colors. In our tests, it ­delivered good sound quality, with a surprising amount of oomph for its size. If you’re worried that a sudden cloudburst will damage the speaker, consider a weather-resistant model such as the TDK Life on Record Trek Max (A34), $150, or the Jabra Solemate Max, $250. Both can use near field communication to pair with another NFC-­enabled Bluetooth device with just a touch.

Tip: You might find that the music drops out momentarily if someone walks between the Bluetooth speaker and the device with the music because that physically blocks the signal. Position your gear to minimize that possibility.

Music for the gang

When it’s your turn to host the party, you’ll want to pump up the volume. The Sony SRS-X7, $200 (above), which works on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, is louder than the Bose and TDK. You can also connect two or more SRS-X7s simultaneously via Wi-Fi to multiply the sound output as long as the music is stored on a computer. And the speaker is battery-­powered, so you can put it almost anywhere. The Sonos Play:1, $200, is another good option. You can use several of the Wi-Fi speakers (which require AC power) to play the same music, or mix it up with soft jazz near the diners and rock on the dance floor.

Tip: Wi-Fi range is affected by the distance and physical obstructions between the router, music source, and speakers. Under ideal conditions, you might get reception on a speaker that’s 200 or more feet from the router; 100 to 150 feet is more typical. The range could be less if walls or other obstructions block the signals from the router. Do a dry run and adjust as needed. Heavy network demands can also cause dropouts, so tell your Netflix watchers to stay offline during the party.

How to get the best sound

Readjust. Don’t expect sound quality outdoors to be as rich as it is in a room. Bass loses its punch, and treble tends to get lost. Turn up both settings, but not so much that the sound is distorted. Put the speaker near a wall to enhance bass.

Strategize. If you’re using a few speakers, space them to provide good coverage. Set them on a table so that they don’t get dirty, wet, or tripped over. If you use extension cords (be sure they’re rated for outdoor use), secure them and keep them away from foot traffic.

Set the mood. Use the mood or genre stations on a service such as Pandora or Spotify to stream hours of music.

Connect. Can’t get a steady stream of music no matter what you try? Plug in. Many speakers have an input to connect a device using a cable with a 3.5mm plug on each end, and some have a USB port for a thumb drive loaded with music.

Sonos Play

What to know about Wi-Fi speakers

When you’re shopping, you’ll come across terms such as Apple AirPlay, DLNA, DTS Play-Fi, Heos, and Sonos. Those are wireless standards that a speaker uses to access content on a Wi-Fi network. Many speakers can use more than one. The main things you need to know are:


1. Apple AirPlay can access content from any computer that has iTunes installed and from Apple mobile devices. With an Android device, you’ll have to use a third-party app. Also, to stream to multiple AirPlay speakers from an iPhone or iPad, you again need a third-party app; you don’t need it with a computer.

2. The other standards work with Apple and Android mobile devices and PCs, and some work with Mac computers.

3. If you want to send the same music to multiple speakers at once, you can mix and match brands as long as they use the same standard. In other words, you can’t have one speaker that uses only AirPlay and another that’s Play-Fi only.


Movies under the stars

An outdoor cinema can be an elaborate endeavor. You can take a maximalist approach, with a high-end digital projector and an outdoor screen with an inflatable frame, tent stakes, and tethers. Or you could do it more cheaply, like we did: We used a 1080p Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 2000 ($550 at Amazon) and a twin-size bedsheet for a screen, tied up with tarp clamps and paracord.

The Epson can play video from any Android device that supports the MHL format, or from an Apple iOS device through an HDMI adapter (we used an iPad mini). Our projector had a built-in speaker, but many don’t. With those models, you can use a wireless speaker with your phone or tablet. Our total cost was $630, and it took us just 10 minutes from unboxing to watching a movie. (Full disclosure: We did that when it was 30° F outside, so we stayed inside the atrium at our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. But we’ll try it outdoors soon.)

Did it work out perfectly? Not exactly. Our Epson was bright, at 1800 lumens, but light shining on and through the sheet washed out the images. (Hang it against a wall or play the movie after dark.) And be sure to iron the sheet—we forgot to—because wrinkles kill the experience.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.


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