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Expanding technology and homeowners' desire for sophisticated living continue to spark outdoor product trends, according to professionals who exhibited at a recent industry tradeshow.

Whether it's a ring of fire with a fountain in its center to top-down infrared searing grills for the back yard, today's homeowner has plenty of fun products from which to choose.

"Key economic and industry projections are indicating 2004 will be an excellent year for the hearth, patio and barbecue business," said Carter Keithley, Hearth Patio & Barbecue Association president and CEO, at the 2004 tradeshow in March. "Technology advances in both the grill and hearth appliance areas are providing homeowners with products that truly meet the needs of an evolving lifestyle. Enhanced performance and improved design enable the purchase of quality products at literally every price level and for any home, regardless of style."

Grills remain a staple in the backyard. Some 75 percent of households across the United States own at least one grill. Some of the grill highlights this year include:

  • High-end portables
  • More affordable stainless steel models
  • Higher quality charcoal grills
  • Super-premium all stainless units with every bell and whistle
  • High performance electric grills
  • Smokers
  • Electric and propane-fueled turkey/fish fryers
  • Kamado cookers

The hottest new breakthrough, however, is the introduction of infrared technology -- used for years in commercial applications -- to the backyard grill.

Top-down searing systems, grills with one infrared burner -- the searing station -- and others will all infrared burners are in stores everywhere.

The HPBA says of the $172 billion Americans invested in home renovation and remodeling last year, a good chunk was spent on outdoor living:

  • Nearly $3 million on barbecue grills and related equipment
  • $3 billion on outdoor furnishings
  • $21 billion on pools, spas and hot tubs
  • $40 billion on upgraded landscaping, hardscaping and gardens

Meanwhile, the experts at retail home improvement giant Lowe's say the line between indoor and outdoor living continues to blur.

"Driven by the need for peaceful respites to balance stressful lives, people are consciously carving out more time and creating sophisticated spaces for enjoying outdoor settings with family and friends," said Melissa Birdsong, Lowe's director of trend and design.

Homeowners increasingly want to entertain at all times of the year. In turn, manufacturers, Birdsong said, are offering products -- lighting, furnishings and fabric -- that can be used inside and out.

"Comfort and the desire for low maintenance also are important considerations behind these design evolutions," she said.

Outdoor rooms, Birdsong said, can be as elaborate or simple as the homeowner desires.

"We can look at an outdoor room as similar to an indoor room, but with walls formed by trees, hedges or fences connecting to the home's exterior walls," she said. "Outdoor flooring, in the most basic sense, can be as simple as grass, pebbles, or stepping stones, or as elaborate as a well-designed multilevel deck or slate tiles installed on a concrete pad."

And today's outdoor furniture is also an extension of the indoor living area, particularly in fair weather climates like Northern California.

"We furnish from the family room door to the back fence," California Backyard owner Buzz Homsy told the Sacramento Bee in an April 24 article. "Folks now look at their back yards as if they were adding a room (to the home) without actually building one."

Homsy said comfort is the most common request among his customers.

"We're always careful to ask the customer what furniture they've already had," Homsy said. "What were their likes and dislikes. Comfort and durability are the usual issues."

Meanwhile, Robyn Strangis, owner of Loring Interiors in Minneapolis, Minn., in an April 21 article written for the Star Tribune, suggests the following for easy ways to make the most of your outdoor space:

  • Use similar colors inside and out. Bring splashes of your interior color outdoors.
  • Freshen up your interior by bringing in some of your outdoor furnishings or accessories.
  • Create outdoor rooms by grouping furnishings or using plant or landscaping materials to carve out separate areas.
  • Add an outdoor structure, like an arbor, pergola, or gazebo to give a sense of enclosure.
  • Install a fire pit or free-standing fireplace. Hang candle chandeliers.
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