It’s about time I wrote this article. I’ve been writing about pellet grills for over a decade and never got around to it. So what I want to do with this article is to explain to you in the simplest terms how pellet grills/smokers work, but then go into much more detail. You see, not every pellet grill/smoker works in the same way, and if you are in the market to purchase one, there are certain features you want to look out for if your budget will allow. This includes features such as a PID temperature controller, pellet hopper emptying chutes, direct flame access and stainless steel construction. So let’s get into this.
Disclaimer: Hey! By the way… any links on this page that lead to products on Amazon or other sites are affiliate links, and I earn a commission if you make a purchase.
Table of Contents
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The Fuel: What Exactly Are Wood Pellets?
My background is actually in marketing wood pellet manufacturing equipment. It’s how I got into pellet grills/smokers in the first place.
Wood pellets are simply a compressed form of real wood residues. In the simplest terms, you take real wood, chip it, dry it, turn it into sawdust, and then process it through a pellet mill/press to compress the wood into pellets.
Most people are familiar with animal feed pellets. Well, the process is (almost) exactly the same, its just the raw material that is different.
I have another post on how Traeger wood pellets are made, but I’ve also included the video from Traeger below, which shows the process.
BBQ wood pellets are not just made of one type of wood. Lots of different wood species are used.
The ‘backbone’ material for making wood pellets for grills/smokers is oak, though there are lots of other hardwood species used to provide different flavours, including apple, cherry, hickory etc. There are now even charcoal pellets available.
Softwood pellets are not used in pellet grills and smokers. Softwood pellets are used in pellet stoves/boilers for heating purposes.
Its not that softwood pellets won’t burn in a pellet grill, but they are not graded as ‘food safe’, and they also don’t produce a smoke taste in the food, which is anywhere near as appealing.
How Does A Pellet Grill/Smoker Work? (Basic Guide)
At the start of this post, I gave a very simple explanation of how a pellet grill/smoker works (image above).
This section provides a bit more detail, but its still a basic guide compared to what I’ll discuss later in this article.
Now, you’ll notice I’m referencing Traeger quite a bit here. Its not because Traeger is the only brand of pellet grills/smokers, far from it. There are now over 30 brands of pellet grills/smokers.
However, Traeger is where the concept of pellet grills started in the 1980s, and they are still the most popular brand to this day (here’s proof).
Now, not every pellet grill works in exactly the same way as Traeger’s pellet grills (and I’ll discuss that more below). Heck, not even every Traeger pellet grill works in the same way.
However, the general core principles of how every pellet grill/smoker works remain the same.
So as shown in the image at the top of this article and in the video above, there are a couple of key components to a pellet grill/smoker, whether its made by Traeger or any other brand.
They include the pellet hopper, auger motor, combustion/induction fan, burn pot with hot rod igniter and control panel. Let’s look at each component in a bit more detail.
The Hopper (Where The Pellets Go)
Whether you looking at a dedicated vertical pellet smoker or a combined horizontal pellet grill/smoker, there will be a hopper for the pellets.
Now the size of that hopper varies quite a lot. For instance, some portable pellet grills have a hopper of just a few lbs.
Then when you get up to large pellet grills/smokers, the hopper capacity can be in excess of 20+ lbs.
As you would expect, the larger the hopper, the longer the pellet grill/smoker can run unattended. How long for?
Well, that depends on lots of different factors, such as the temperature you set and the outside temperature.
However, as a general (basic) rule, will you use 1-2lbs of pellets per hour going ‘low and slow’ while smoking.
If you turn up the heat, you will obviously consume more pellets per hour, 4lbs per hour, potentially more.
In some cases, its possible to get a pellet hopper extension to increase the pellet storage/run time of the pellet grill/smoker: Image – Amazon.com
The Auger (Its Just A Big Screw)
The wood pellets flow through the hopper and into an auger (a screw) which is powered by an electric motor that is connected to the control panel.
When the pellet grill/smoker is first started, the auger motor will feed quite a few pellets into the burn pot to get the fire going.
However, once the fire is up to temperature (measured by an internal thermostat within the grill), the control panel will tell the auger to slow/stop the feed of pellets.
Now, depending on the type of control panel fitted to the pellet grill, how the auger motor works does vary. More about this in the advanced guide below.
A very low geared auger motor (less than 2 RPM) turns the auger/screw to feed pellets from the hopper and into the burn pot: Image – Amazon.com
The Fan (To Feed The Fire/Aid Cooking Performance)
So the auger provides the pellet fuel to the burn pot. However, you also need a sufficient amount of air (specifically oxygen) for efficient combustion to take place.
The combustion/induction fan also plays an important role in aiding the cooking and smoking performance of pellet grills/smokers.
The fan helps to distribute heat/smoke around the cooking chamber, so the food cooks/smokes more evenly.
The fan, like the auger, is controlled automatically through the control panel (you don’t set the fan speed independently).
However, just like with the auger motor, how intelligently the fan on a pellet smoker/grill operates, therefore, ultimately depends on the type of control panel fitted (more about this in the advanced guide below).
This is a typical induction/combustion fan fitted to many Traeger/Pit Boss (and more) pellet grills/smokers: Image – Amazon.com
Burn Pot & Hot Rod Igniter (Light My Fire!)
Obviously, a little reference to The Doors song there. Anyway, its pretty obvious what the burn pot is for, its so the pellets and air can meet, and the hot rod igniter does its thing, and you have fire!
Nice and simple. Well, yes, butttt, the location of the burn pot in a pellet grill/smoker can impact performance and hot spots.
For instance, is it in the middle or off-centre? Furthermore, is it made from stainless steel or carbon steel? Because if its just carbon steel, its not going to last forever.
Also, the type of hot rod igniter used can make a difference. For instance, several premium pellet grills now use ceramic igniters as they ignite the fire more quickly and last longer.
Typical carbon (not stainless) steel burn pot fitted in previous generation Traeger/Pit Boss pellet grills/smokers: Image – Amazon.com
The Control Panel (Where The Magic Happens!)
Ok, so every pellet grill/smoker features a control panel. It provides the user with a simple means to turn the pellet grill/smoker on/off and to set the desired temperature.
The control panel manages the auger motor, fan and hot rod igniter.
However, how hot the pellet grill can get (maximum temp setting) and how accurately it can maintain that temperature ultimately all comes down to the control panel. Just how smart is it?
Well, on older/cheaper pellet grills, you will typically be limited to a maximum temperature of 450 degrees and a 25-degree temperature accuracy.
However, on more modern/expensive pellet grills, you will get higher maximum temperature settings over 500 degrees and 5-degree temperature accuracy.
Why? Well, I will explain more in the advanced section below.
This type of analogue/time-based pellet grill/smoker control panel perform ‘ok’. However, they are previous generation/budget technology: Image – Amazon.com
How Does A Pellet Grill/Smoker Work? (Advanced Guide)
Ok, above I’ve covered the basics above on how pellets grills work.
However, now let’s discuss what should you really want to know when purchasing a pellet grill/smoker to get something that will best suit your needs and your budget.
Now, some of the topics below, such as PID controllers, WiFi functionality and direct flame access, are commonly found on more expensive pellet grills/smokers.
However, that’s not always the case, and advanced features such as PID controllers/WiFi functionality are becoming more common, even on budget pellet grills.
I have three articles if you are limited to a set budget for the best pellet grills/smokers under $500, under $1,000 and under $2,000. But for now, let’s look at how modern/premium pellet grills work.
The Different Types of Pellet Grill/Smoker Control Panels
On early-generation Traeger wood pellet grills/smokers, you would have found a control panel that looks very similar to the image above.
However, the current generation Traeger control panels built on the D2 Direct Drive platform are very different, and I’m not just talking about how they look. I’m talking about how they actually function.
I’ve covered this previously in my Traeger Pro Series Gen 1 vs Gen 2 article. The previous generation Traeger control panels were time-based.
In other words, to achieve and maintain a set temperature, the control panel would turn the auger/fan on and off for a certain amount of time.
It does work, however, using this time-based method, the actual temperature can fluctuate typically around 25 degrees from the set temperature, sometimes more.
The current Traeger Pro Series, Ironwood and Timberline models all feature similar versions of the above control panel, which function on what’s called a PID (Proportional, Integral, Derivative) algorithm.
With a PID control panel, its constantly comparing the actual temperature inside the cooking chamber to the set temperature.
A PID controller is making constant adjustments to the auger and fan speed. The result is much more accurate temperature control.
Therefore, a PID controller will typically maintain the temperature to within 5 degrees of the set temperature. Hence, much more accurate than the previous generation of time-based controllers.
Is It Only Traeger Who Uses PID Control Panels?
Not by any means. In fact, Traeger wasn’t actually the first brand of pellet grills/smokers to offer PID control panels.
Which Brands Are Not Currently Fitting PID Control Panels?
Even Traeger still fits time-based controllers to some of its pellet grills, such as the Traeger Scout. However, within the coming years, you should expect to see PID pellet grill controllers become the norm.
But Do PID Controllers Produce As Much Smoke?
Now, some have reported within the pellet grill/smoker community that PID controllers don’t produce as much smoke as time-based controllers, which obviously doesn’t sound great for a ‘smoker’.
There is actually some truth to this, but the results depend on the specific control panel. What a PID controller is doing is more precisely controlling the feed of fuel (pellets) and air (from the fan).
Hence, you get a more efficient/controlled burn and tighter temperature control. However, with more efficient combustion, you get less smoke. So what’s the solution?
As a result, the grill’s temperature control will be slightly less accurate, but you’ll get more smoke.
Unfortunately, that Super Smoke feature is not found across the whole Traeger range. Camp Chef, on the other hand, has introduced a 1 to 10 smoke selection feature standard across their whole range.
Hence, you switch between the two to achieve either more accurate temperature control or more smoke. I have a dedicated article on pellet grill/smoker Smoke Settings if you would like to learn more.
Not All Pellet Grills Achieve The Same Maximum Temperatures
As I’ve referenced above previously, typically, pellet grills with time-based control panels will not achieve the same maximum temperature as PID control panels.
As a PID controller achieves more efficient combustion, temperatures can exceed 500 degrees (much more in some cases).
Whereas time-based pellet grill controllers will typically only be able to achieve a maximum temperature of 450 degrees, if that. I have a separate post on which pellet grills get the hottest.
However, its not purely down to the control panel. Some pellet grills will achieve higher cooking temps, particularly for grilling/searing, due to direct flame access.
Pit Boss have established a strong reputation in the pellet grill community for their grilling/searing performance due to the fact that direct-flame access is pretty universal across their entire pellet grill range.
However, its not only Pit Boss that offers direct flame access. Camp Chef, Green Mountain Grills, ZGrills (in a few cases), Oklahoma Joe’s and all of the luxury pellet grill brands offer direct-flame access.
You may be wondering why not every pellet grill brand (including Traeger) currently offers direct flame access?
Well, the reason is its not risk-free, as flare-ups/grease fires are more of a risk on a pellet grill than a gas grill, for instance.
The reason is you can pretty much instantly turn off a gas grill if a grease fire occurs, but not a pellet grill.
On a pellet grill, there is a small pellet fire going on. Hence, you can turn off the grill, but its going to take several minutes before that burn pot is empty of fuel.
Which Pellet Grills/Smokers Work Via WiFi/Apps? – Do You Really Need It?
Now, some regard WiFi/App functionality as a gimmick and not something people actually need.
Well, I’m not one of those people, though I don’t think anyone should choose a pellet grill primarily on its WiFi/App functionality. I discuss this more in my post on the best WiFi enabled pellet grills.
I do want to quickly point out is some pellet grills come with purely Bluetooth connectivity and not WiFi. This is a big difference and you need to pay attention to it, as I discuss in my article linked above.
Anyway, back to the topic in hand and the question do you really need a pellet grill that works via WiFi and an App on your phone?
Well, really, it depends on how you will be using the pellet grill/smoker and how busy you are.
If you only intend to use the pellet grill/smoker on a lazy weekend afternoon where you’re sat in your yard/garden two feet away from the grill at pretty much all times, no, WiFi is redundant.
However, if you’re a busy person and you want to use your pellet grill/smoker as much as possible to make amazing ‘low and slow’ delicious foods, yeah, WiFi comes in very handy.
So whether WiFi/App functionality is important to you is a very personal preference. However, it should not be instantly dismissed.
Being able to monitor and adjust a cook while you are down the shops etc, can be a game-changer for many people.
So which brands are currently including WiFi/App functionality? Well, you have Traeger with their WiFire setup and Camp Chef with their Connect App. REC TEC, Green Mountain Grills and Weber all have WiFi/App functionality.
Grilla Grills will be adding WiFi soon, both on new models and as a retrofit option. Camp Chef was the first to offer a WiFi control panel retrofit option with their Gen 2 PID/WiFi panel. Though there is now also the Pit Boss SmokeIT upgrade option.
Conclusions On How Pellet Grills/Smokers Work
I hope the above article has given you both a basic and a more detailed understanding of how pellet grills/smokers work.
While they all work on the same basic principle of the pellets flowing from the hopper through an auger to a burn pot where a hot rod/fan aids combustion, there is more to it.
The type of control panel fitted (time-based or PID) makes a big difference.
Furthermore, whether the pellet grill offers direct-flame access or not can impact grilling/searing performance, but it also comes with the increased risk of flare-ups.
WiFi/App functionality is also worth considering, but not potentially an essential feature for everyone. However, it should also not be instantly dismissed as a gimmick either.
That’s it! Thanks for reading, I hope this article on how pellet grills/smokers work taught you something new, and it was an interesting read.
If you would like to learn more (and there’s lots to learn), please check out my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide. 🙂
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