Keep The Party Outdoors With Propane and Innovation

(February 13, 2020) — As propane grills have become commonly used for outdoor cooking, other new products have been added in recent years to make outdoor living a much easier and more enjoyable experience on the deck or patio. “Just like indoor gas fireplaces, people like the convenience of gas grills, gas fire tables, and conversation pits on the deck and in the backyard,” says Eric Hawkinson, vice president of operations with The Outdoor GreatRoom Co., based in Minneapolis. “They haven’t always enjoyed just hanging out around the gas grill, so we’ve come up with products that are more like an open fire to sit around and enjoy.”
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Hawkinson believes the ease, convenience, and safety of these products are what make them so popular. The unique, upscale units are designed with appeal for outdoor living and include gas fire pit tables, gas fire burners, pergolas, outdoor kitchen islands, outdoor gas fireplaces, outdoor patio furniture, and other custom products for residential and commercial applications. He notes that 85% of the products sold are designed to run on propane.

The company believes that homeowners gain further benefits from being able to take advantage of their ability to have an outdoor entertaining area. “It’s fun to have an outdoor area that attracts friends and neighbors,” Hawkinson said. “We are trying to lengthen the season with the warmth of fire.”

In 2010, Hawkinson left his job at Hearth and Home, doing $600 million in annual sales, to join The Outdoor GreatRoom Co., which was doing $3 million in annual sales. Hearth and Home was, and continues to be, focused on direct vent indoor fireplaces and stoves marketed through retail store channels. “[But] I believed in the trend of outdoor living products and the unlimited market share that could be added,” Hawkinson said. In the past 10 years, the firm has enjoyed tremendous growth, expanding to serve a worldwide market.
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Hawkinson describes the market served by The Outdoor GreatRoom Co. as middle-of-the-road to upper end. “Our products run largely on 20-lb cylinders, but many use propane or natural gas directly from a hard-plumbed pipe.” He noted that running the outdoor living products on 20-lb cylinders works best at his home because his wife likes to rearrange the outdoor furniture and appliances quite often. “It’s a lot easier to use portable 20-lb cylinders than to replumb the pipes every time.”

While company products have always been safe, new American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards are further raising the bar on safety regulation. Hawkinson’s years as a leader in safety and standards makes him a highly sought speaker at industry events such as the March 2020 Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo in New Orleans where he will speak on new manufacturing standards. Hawkinson has served on several ANSI committees that design and review various product standards. “New ANSI standards are requiring new outdoor living products to pass more thorough tests,” Hawkinson said. “There is a new rain test and a new wind test. Original standards required products to be able to properly light and start up after sustaining rain as well as 30 mph winds. Now products must be able to either shut off on their own or continue running properly while sustaining rain in one test and 30 mph winds in another test.”

“While companies can no longer manufacture products that just meet the original standards, they can still sell inventory that they have,” Hawkinson said. “This is like airbags being introduced to the automotive industry. The cars without airbags were not taken off the road. The products meeting the original standards are still considered very safe. This new standard just takes it up another notch.”
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With many outdoor living products being new to the marketplace, they did not have their own official ANSI standards until 2014 with the introduction of Z21.97 standards. “Previously, outdoor living products were only affected by segments of various standards in other categories,” Hawkinson explained. “The newer standards involving more stringent rain and wind tests mark the first revision to standards Z21.97, which were introduced in 2017, but due to factors including time needed to conform, the production standards were not required to be in effect until January 2020.” Hawkinson noted that ANSI standards for products outside the outdoor living category have sometimes been changed and taken effect immediately due to very urgent safety concerns.

One of the key topics Hawkinson plans to discuss regarding changes to ANSI Z21.97 is selling “listed” versus “unlisted” outdoor living products. The “listed” products are those that have been tested by a third-party reviewer such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Being listed simply means the product has been tested by an authorized third-party reviewer and passed the test. “There is no A, B, C, D, F grading by UL. You either pass or fail,” he said. “To have our products listed, our company tests its products and then pays to have UL test them once we feel certain they will pass the tests.” Hawkinson explained that the concept of UL listing is designed to give regulators, resellers, and customers peace of mind.

“People will be more trusting of a product that they know has passed tests performed by a third party with the reputation of UL, which has been around for over 100 years,” he said. “Not only are customers gaining peace of mind, local regulatory officials will be much more comfortable with permitting listed products than unlisted products. ANSI itself is made up of committees with a wide variety of people from different safety backgrounds that work together to provide the best possible standards. They do not perform third-party testing of the products, though. Organizations like UL, which is accredited by ANSI, can provide the unbiased third-party testing.”
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Retail propane companies that sell outdoor living products, or those considering doing so, are encouraged by Hawkinson to only sell listed products. “The dangers and liabilities with selling unlisted products are too great,” Hawkinson said.

Hawkinson believes there remains tremendous potential for growth in the outdoor living market, which he feels will also continue to benefit those in the retail propane world. “Homebuilders are just now starting to really put an emphasis on their abilities to add outdoor living features onto the homes they build,” he said. “They are starting to realize these features can set them apart from the many builders who do not promote such features.” He noted that requests for custom products are also on the rise. “We recently designed and built custom tables for the Detroit Red Wings for use at their stadium,” he said. “One is a 16-ft bar height table with fire pit built in and ready to go. The other two are round fire tables also at bar height. These are also designed to be portable and run on propane.”

“The marketplace for outdoor living continues to feel like there is still tremendous room for further growth,” Hawkinson said. “We continue to enjoy innovating to further meet customers’ needs.” He noted that many types of businesses are dealers and distributors for the company’s product offerings, and retail propane marketers are among them. “For those who are in retail propane, this does offer one more way to add long-term propane sales. A showroom of hearth appliances may also include outdoor living products.” —Pat Thornton