Pellet Grill Ran Out Of Pellets While Cooking!? (What To Do)


Hi, I’m Chris I started PelHeat.com back in 2007.

It’s easily done, you forgot to check the pellet hopper frequently enough and your pellet grill/smoker ran out of pellets. Your first response was likely to just fill up the hopper again in the hope all will be good. However, the fact that you’re reading this article means you probably tried that but it didn’t work and the pellet grill/smoker is displaying an error code. What I want to do with this article is explain what to do if your pellet grill ran out of pellets but also other associated issues (pellet hulling/tunneling/bridging). Let’s get into this…

Pellet Grill Ran Out Of Pellets While Cooking
If your pellet grill/smoker runs out of pellets mid-cook is it safe to just load up the hopper again? Potentially not: Image – Traeger.com

Introduction To Running Out Of Pellets While Cooking

There are a couple of scenarios that can lead to this issue, its not just forgetfulness on the part of the user. While yes, checking the pellet hopper frequently enough is a key cause there are other contributing factors.

For instance, you may have been using your pellet grill/smoker during the summer month and worked out how long a hopper full of pellets lasts. You then use the grill in the colder months of the year and forget to factor in the increased heat loss on the grill and increased pellet consumption.

There is another potential cause, there may very well be pellets still in the hopper but the pellets are not flowing into the auger. This issue is known by a couple of terms such as pellet hulling/tunneling or bridging. Later in the article, I’ll discuss how to address this issue and the root causes.

However, first, let’s get to the key issue at hand if the hopper is empty and you’re in the middle of a cook what to do. Well, as I’ll discuss below, first off it depends on how quickly you became aware of the issue.

Has The Pellet Grills Temperature Started To Drop?

Ok, so let’s say you’re in the middle of the cook and you check the hopper and oh no, its empty! However, there is no need to panic if the actual temperature in the pellet grill/smoker is still at or close to the set temperature.

What that means is you have caught the issue just in time. While the hopper is empty there are likely still a few pellets in the auger on their way to the fire. In this scenario, you should be fine to re-fill the hopper with pellets and continue on with the cook.

Yes, you will likely see a small drop in temperature due to there being a gap in the auger where there are no pellets. However, it will likely be a short enough period of time where the fire is maintained and not extinguished.

However, if you come to the pellet grill and you see an error message and the hopper is empty then more steps need to be taken than just filling the hopper with pellets and turning it on again, and I’ll explain why.

Is There An Error Code Or Has The Pellet Grill Shut Off?

If a sufficient period of time has passed where the fire in the pellet burn pot has gone out due to the pellet hopper being empty the following process needs to be carried out.

Now, as you’ll see below this situation is by no means ideal and the means to correct the situation may seem overly time-consuming. However, these steps are important as I’ll explain below.

  1. Remove the food to your oven to keep warm
  2. Allow the pellet grill/smoker to cool
  3. Remove the grates, grease tray and heat deflector
  4. Ensure the firepot is not full of pellets (if so clean them out)
  5. Turn on the grill to a High Heat or Prime mode
  6. Wait until pellets start to appear in the burn pot
  7. Turn off the pellet grill/smoker
  8. Replace the heat deflector, grease tray and grates
  9. Turn the pellet grill/smoker back on
  10. Set to the desired temperature and resume cooking
Z Grills Austraila I think has one of the best/most concise videos on how to address the situation of a hopper running out of pellets mid-cook: Video – ZGrills.com

It’s irrelevant if you own a Traeger, Pit Boss, Camp Chef, Weber or any other brand of pellet grill/smoker. The general process steps above on what to do after a shutdown if the hopper runs out of pellets is the same.

What may seem odd is why would you need to remove all of the grills components to check if the burn pot is full of pellets. If so to then clean out those pellets only to then prime the burn pot with pellets again!?

But also, why would there be a burn pot full of pellets? Surely the hopper is empty because all the pellets have been burnt? Well, potentially not…

Avoiding Smoke Explosions & Flameout Situations

The reason why you need to check burn pot is not full of pellets is because if it is and you just turn on the pellet grill again it could actually lead to a smoke explosion.

I’ve discussed smoke explosions previously in my article on how to use a pellet grill/smoker safely. My article on pellet grill flameouts is also applicable. However, I’ll briefly explain the issue here.

If the pellet grill/smoker was operating at a low temperature/small fire its more prone to being extinguished (large gust of wind for instance). Well, the control panel may not know the fire is out, and it tried to feed the fire (which has gone out).

The result could be the control panel empties the hopper of pellets into the burn pot where there is no fire. There is then a burn pot full of unburnt pellets along with an empty hopper.

Mark Graham over at Grilla Grills has produced this handy quick video on what a flameout is and its potential causes: Video – GrillaGrills.com

Let’s say you saw the hopper was empty so you just filled it with pellets and started the grill.

If the pellet burn pot is full of burnt pellets and the hot rod igniter comes on to try and start the fire an excessive amount of smoke is going to be produced. Well, that smoke will contain unburnt combustible gases as a flame is yet to be established (Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen).

Eventually, the hot rod will get a few pellets hot enough to ignite, at this point the pellet grill cooking chamber is full of smoke containing lots of Carbon Monoxide/Hydrogen which is also going to ignite, causing a small explosion.

The proper start-up procedure for a pellet grill/smoker is a small amount of pellets its entering the burn pot as the hot rod igniter is on. Hence, only a small amount of smoke is produced before a fire is established.

Pellet Hopper Hulling/Tunneling/Bridging

While the hopper running out of pellets may have happened purely from forgetting to fill it up in time, there is another potential cause of the fire going out while pellets are still in the hopper.

This issue goes by several different names, pellet hulling, tunneling or bridging. However, they all describe the same issue, where pellets have stopped sliding down the hopper and into the auger at the bottom.

What can cause this issue? Well, it can either be the pellets themselves or the design of the pellet hopper. The reality is its normally a combination of both factors.

Sieve Your Pellets Before Loading The Hopper

I’m sure I sound like a broken record to most people. However, I really do feel its vitally important to sieve your pellets before you load them into the hopper on a pellet grill/smoker.

There is likely dust/pellet fines within the bag which if you just tip the bag into your hopper you’re also loading dust in there too. Now, those small particles actually increase the resistance of how the pellets flow against each other and down through the hopper.

A quick video from Z Grills Australia on the benefits of sieving pellets before loading them into the hopper: Video – ZGrills.com

Not only can this wood dust be a factor in the pellet hulling/tunneling/bridging issue, but it can also be a cause of a burn back through the auger and into the pellet hopper.

I’ve seen some claim that some brands of pellets produce fewer fines/dust than others, mostly that’s nonsense. Most of the fines/dust are created through improper/rough handling of the bags during transportation/storage.

Hence, the pellets can leave the factory in the bags with very little dust. By the time you get to use those pellets, the bag will have fines/dust in the bottom. So please, whatever BBQ pellets you buy, sieve them.

Shallow Angled Pellet Hoppers

The other factor that can contribute to pellets not flowing properly through the hopper and into the auger is the interior walls of the hopper are too shallow. Hence, the pellets stop flowing down through the hopper.

There has been a couple of notable culprits over the years which have been prone to this issue, the hopper in the Traeger Tailgater being a classic example. However, the best example in recent years is the Gen 1 Weber SmokeFire.

When a pellet grill retailer in this case BBQGuys is having to advise customers to use their had to move pellets through the hopper (1 minute in) you know there is an issue with the hopper design: Video – BBQGuys.com

While Weber with the Gen 2 SmokeFire models has addressed the issue via an insert to increase the angle inside the hopper, it did come at the expense of reduced pellet hopper capacity.

Anyway, the point is, that pellets flow better through some pellet grill hoppers than others. Let’s say you have sieved your pellets and you’re still getting a pellet tunneling issue, then what?

Then I recommend cleaning the interior of the hopper from any pellet dust and wiping it down with a silicone spray to make the insides of the hopper as slippery as possible.

Pellet Grills With Pellet Hopper Sensors

Now, this whole issue of the hopper running out of pellets during a cook may make you think ‘I wish my pellet grill had a hopper sensor!‘. Well some do, you have Traeger models such as the Ironwood and Gen 1 Timberline and Gen 2 Timberline which all come with a pellet hopper sensor included.

Its also possible to upgrade a Traeger Pro Series Gen 2 with their pellet sensor. But its not just Traeger that offers the feature, other models such as the Weber SmokeFire grills come with it.

On a Traeger fitted with the pictured pellet sensor you can remotely monitor the level of pellets in your hopper via the WiFire app : Image – Amazon.com

However, they should never be solely depended on. Why? Well, if there is the pellet hulling/tunneling/bridging issue described above the sensor may state the hopper still has pellets. The reality may be, however, that pellets have stopped flowing to the auger.

My Final Thoughts On Running Out Of Pellets While Cooking…

Ok, let me wrap this up. Running out of pellets in the hopper mid-cook can be a real pain in the neck if you don’t spot it in time. However, as I’ve stated above, if the grill is stating an error message or has shut off you absolutely must follow the safe operating procedure stated above.

Yes, it takes extra time to remove the grill components and check the burn pot is clear of pellets etc. However, skipping that step could lead to a pretty dangerous scenario if the reason the fire went out was due to a flame out situation.

Also, please don’t be tempted to leave the hopper lid open to keep an eye on the pellet level. You get caught out with a rainstorm and you’re going to have a blocked auger from wet swollen pellets. Granted, that wouldn’t happen with 100% charcoal pellets, but you still don’t want water in the hopper.

That’s it! I hope you found the above information helpful on what to do if you find an empty hopper while the grill is still mid-cook. You can find my other articles by browsing my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide. 🙂

A to Z List of Pellet Grill/Smoker Brands

A to Z List of Pellet Grill/Smoker Brands

Back in 2007 when I first become aware of pellet grills and smokers the only brand I was really aware of was Traeger. Traeger is really where this whole concept of cooking with pellets started in the 1980s. It was a ‘slow burner’ (pardon the pun) but since the 2010s is really when pellet grills and smokers started to get mainstream awareness, discussed alongside gas and charcoal grills. There are now over 30 pellet grill/smoker brands that I’m aware of, and the link above goes to my A to Z list of brands article.

Now, you may already be aware of a few of the other brands such as Pit Boss, Camp Chef, Z Grills and I’m sure you are aware of Weber, though you may not have known they have entered the pellet grill game. However, they are now many, many more brands to look into. Some may be what are commonly referred to as ‘Traeger clones’, but many others are offering their own unique designs and features.

A to Z List of The Best BBQ Wood Pellets

A pellet grill/smoker is only as good as the BBQ pellets you put into it. The type/quality of the BBQ wood pellets you use will impact temperature performance and smoke flavour. There are many pellet flavours including Apple, Hickory, Mapel, Oak and Walnut to name but a few. However, some brands are hardwood blended pellets whereas others are 100% single wood species.

In this article, I provide details on over 20 brands of BBQ wood pellets, their range of flavours, whether they are 100% single wood species or hardwood blended pellets, their typical price and where they are available. I also provide tips on how to get the best deal when buying BBQ wood pellets and how to test pellet quality. Finally, I discuss the new kid on the block, charcoal pellets and their special attributes compared to all other hardwood BBQ pellets.

Chris - PelHeat.com

Hi, I’m Chris. I started PelHeat.com back in 2007. This website is intended to be an educational resource on BBQ pellets, pellet grills & smokers. I hope you find the information useful.

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