I’m an advocate and long time enthusiast of pellet grills/smokers. As such, while I encourage my readers into the world of cooking with pellets I obviously only want them to do so safely and under the right conditions/precautions. As such, I’m writing a comprehensive and long overdue article on how to safely use a pellet grill/smoker. Please supplement my comments below with relevant professional advice around fire safety and pellet grill/smoker manufacturer’s guidelines. With that said, let’s begin…
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Table of Contents
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Are Pellet Grills/Smokers A Fire Risk? (Yes)
I think many people are attracted to the world of pellet grills/smokers due to their automated nature and low effort/maintenance with additional features such as WiFi/App support.
However, it’s always important to remember we are dealing with a real fire here.
As such, there are risks not only associated with the heat produced by the pellet grill/smoker but also the risk of combustion gases/smoke particles, notably carbon monoxide, which is not only a poisonous gas but also highly explosive.
There are also potential safety risks, and complications should the pellet grill not be properly maintained or operated properly.
Such as fire travelling back into the pellet hopper or excessive smoke build up on start-up leading to a small explosion. There is also the potential of a grease fire.
Hence, as pellet grills/smokers (like most other BBQs) are a potential fire/safety risk their use should only take place where its safe to do so. I’ll discuss some examples of safe and unsafe scenarios below.
As a general rule though for any pellet grill/smoker whether its made by Traeger, Pit Boss, Weber, Camp Chef etc it should only be used in a well-ventilated area outside and at a suitable distance away from combustible surfaces both to the sides and above the pellet grill/smoker.
Can You Use A Pellet Smoker/Grill In Your Garage? (Nope)
Probably the most common question I’ve seen on location questions for pellet grills/smokers is about using a pellet grill/smoker in a garage.
I get it, many people likely store their pellet grill in their garage. They want to use it but the weather outside is either really cold, and they want to use their pellet grill in winter, or its raining or windy.
I’ll see arguments such as ‘but its well ventilated, I’ve got the garage door open!‘ as a reason why they feel it should be safe to use their pellet grill/smoke in their garage.
While they may feel the ventilation is sufficient to deal with the smoke/carbon monoxide that only addresses part of the potential risks. The pellet grill/smoker is still obviously a safety risk when it comes to fire.
Many people’s garages are part of their home, hence any potential fire within the garage would create risks to your wider property as a whole.
Therefore, I put people off the idea of using their pellet grill/smoker within their garage.
But Can You Use A Pellet Grill In Rain?
I have a separate article on can you use a pellet grill in the rain, quickly though its not something I encourage either, but it can be done if properly prepared.
While pellet grills are weather resistant to a degree, pellet grills still contain a lot of electrical components, hence why I don’t recommend pellet grills are left outside.
What I would add is if you are concerned about pellets getting wet in the rain then opt for 100% charcoal pellets as they will not expand when in contact with water.
Can You Use A Pellet Grill On An Apartment Balcony? (Maybe)
This is an example of where I’ve heard similar arguments about the use of a pellet grill within a garage.
Some proclaim its safe to use a pellet grill/smoker on an apartment balcony as its ‘outside’ and there being sufficient ventilation.
Well, my argument is similar to that above, sufficient ventilation does not address the fire risk.
However, when it comes to an apartment you are not even just putting your own property/life at risk but potentially that of every other person within the building.
I have seen those who argue that pellet grills/smokers are classified as ‘controlled cooking devices‘ and therefore can be used on an apartment balcony as its not an ‘uncontrolled open flame‘.
These comments on uncontrolled flames refer to the terms and conditions on some lease/purchase agreements/contracts for apartments, where in some instances its apparently authorised to use gas grills for instance.
Well, a pellet fire is not a gas flame. On a gas grill if you got a grease fire its normally possible to pretty quickly isolate/shut off the gas and the grease fire should calm down pretty quickly.
On a pellet grill even if the flow of new pellets into the firepot is halted a full fire pot of pellets is still going to burn for at least several minutes.
Hence, if there was a significant grease build-up due to insufficient cleaning, that grease fire is going to go on for longer than it would on a gas grill.
Even if you checked and found out you can lawfully use a pellet grill/smoker on your apartment balcony I would still not recommend the use of a freestanding pellet grill/smoker due to potential fire risks.
However, a tabletop pellet grill/smoker due to its small scale would carry a reduced fire risk.
Live In An Apartment? Then Arden Maybe For You
Following my comments above, even when lawful to do so, I don’t encourage the use of a conventional pellet grill/smoker on an apartment balcony.
However, I’ve been following the development of the Arden Indoor Pellet Smoker, which may be a better option.
As I discuss in my article linked above, I still struggle a bit with how an indoor pellet smoker works (the manufacturer won’t tell me).
However, if/once the Arden Indoor Pellet Smoker is available for purchase on the wider market it will serve as the best option for smoking food if you live in an apartment.
Is It Safe To Use A Pellet Grill/Smoker On A Wood Deck? (Yes)
Within the manufacturer’s instructions for every pellet grill/smoker, there will be requirements for using the appliance at a safe distance from combustible materials.
Therefore, this has brought up the question for some about using a pellet grill/smoker on a wood deck.
Yes, it is safe to use a pellet grill/smoker on your external wood deck. But why is that, wood is obviously a combustible!?
Well yes, but the legs/stand/cabinet of the pellet grill smoker provide a sufficiently safe clearance from the wooden combustible surface below.
However, I will note you should still keep the pellet grill/smoker and especially its smokestack/rear vent away from any wooden handrailing/furniture which may be a part of the deck.
Furthermore, if its a covered deck and its attached to your house pay special attention to proper clearances.
If you are still concerned about any ash or embers from the pellet fire ending up on the deck, the easiest solution will be to place the pellet grill/smoker on a suitably sized grill mat/pad.
Pellet Grill/Smoker Explosions (What To Know & How To Avoid)
From time to time I’ve come across reports of pellet grill/smoker owners stating they had an explosion when starting them up.
This is obviously a dangerous situation to be in, but are explosions the fault of the pellets, the pellet grill/smoker or the user?
Well, its user error, or more specifically its the user not really understanding how a pellet grill/smoker works and the vital importance of turning the grill off via its own off/shut down button as opposed to just pulling the power cord out of the all.
All pellet grills/smokers are electric, and electrical components (fans, augers, control panels) are vital to not only start and manage the fire but to also safely extinguish the fire.
In 2018 there was a well-published case of a Traeger owner experiencing an explosion. I’ll briefly explain below why this issue was created through user error and by not reading the manual.
However, the excellent video below John Bazyk saves my typing fingers by explaining why it happened.
I’ll briefly explain the scenario that John covers in the video above. If a pellet grill/smoker is not properly shut down or it has experienced a flameout there will be a lot of unburnt pellets in the firepot.
This issue is also applicable if a pellet grill hopper runs out of pellets mid-cook.
On the next startup, the pellet grill/smoker will feed even more pellets while at the same time heating up the hot rod igniter.
This means far more fuel (pellets) are smoking than under normal conditions, creating far more smoke than normal.
As I’ve discussed above, wood smoke contains carbon monoxide which is not only poisonous to breath its highly explosive (there is also some hydrogen present too).
So lots of smoke means lots of combustible gas but no flame has yet been established.
Once the hot rod igniter finally gets some of the fuel hot enough to ignite then that excessive build-up of combustible gases within the smoke will also combust, the result, BANG!
When a pellet grill/smoker is allowed to go through its proper shutdown procedure the auger will stop feeding pellets, but the fan will continue to run for typically around 20 minutes to burn up the rest of the fuel in the firepot.
Hence, the burn pot will be empty of fuel for the next start-up.
Pellet Grill/Smoker Hopper Fires (What To Know & How To Avoid)
On many freestanding pellet grills the hopper when full will hold typically around 18 to 20 lbs of pellets. However, quite a few modern pellet grills/smokers have significantly larger hoppers of 30 lbs or even significantly more.
The point being, that’s a lot of fuel, you obviously don’t want a fire to take place in the hopper for a wide range of reasons. Now, pellet grill hopper fires are pretty rare.
However, what is more common is seeing smoke coming up through the hopper which could potentially lead to a fire in the hopper.
So let’s discuss how to stop smoke from the pellet burn pot or even fire tracking back up the auger and into the hopper.
There are a couple of potential causes, the first is wood dust being in the base of the hopper and the second is going from a high heat setting to shutting down in one go.
The most concise but competent description of how to avoid a hopper fire or smoke coming up through the hopper is actually by the Australian branch of the budget pellet grill brand Z Grills.
In my Traeger accessories article, I emphasise the importance of sieving BBQ pellets before they are loaded into the hopper.
During transportation, as you can imagine, the bags of pellets can be roughly handled. Well, that causes small pieces to break off the pellets, known as pellet dust or fines.
If an excessive amount of pellet dust/fines enters the hopper this can be a cause of a burn back through the auger from the burn pot to the hopper.
Wood dust is highly flammable, hence with excessive pellet dust in the hopper it can be a root cause of hopper smoke or a full-on hopper fire.
A potential contributing factor is going from the highest heat setting on a pellet grill with a ranging fire straight into shutdown mode, as discussed in the video above.
Another scenario I’m aware of is when some pellet grill/smoker owners try and block smoke leaving the unit to ‘increase smoke flavour‘.
Well, in doing that they are also choking the fire and potentially creating a back-draught situation. Hence another potential cause of smoke coming up through the hopper.
Pellet Grills/Smokers Which Avoid Hopper Smoke/Fires
While with proper user knowledge and awareness of what can lead to smoke coming up through a pellet hopper, pellet hopper fires can be avoided with any make or model of pellet grill/smoker.
However, some manufacturers have chosen to adopt burn pot designs which means its not really possible for a fire to track back long the auger.
Most pellet grills have a bottom-fed burn pot where the auger exits at the bottom of the burn pot.
There are several manufacturers which use a drop-down burn pot design, where the auger exits above the fire at an upward included angle.
As a result, with a drop-down pellet burn pot design, its significantly harder for any smoke/fire to track back along the auger into the hopper.
Pellet Grill/Smoker Grease Fires (What To Know & How To Avoid)
The final safety issue I want to discuss is grease fires. Now, all BBQs/grills are prone to grease fires under certain conditions.
However, as I’ve eluded to above, its easier to quash a grease fire on say a gas grill compared to a pellet grill as its quicker to stop the source of fuel.
First, let’s discuss the scenario which can lead to a grease fire and how some pellets are more prone to the issue than others.
As pellet grills/smokers are first and foremost indirect heat BBQs they are particularly good at long slow cooks/smoking sessions (going low & slow).
Well, going low and slow usually involves fatty meats, hence during the cook some of that fat is running off the meat down onto the grease tray/into the bottom of the grill.
If not cleaned frequently enough after a lot of low and slow cooking a layer of grease could build up.
Let’s say we have a pellet grill/smoker that has not been cleaned frequently enough and there is a build-up of grease in the bottom.
Now let’s presume the user has set the pellet grill to its highest heat setting. Well, this is when there is the potential for a grease fire.
However, the risk of a grease fire is not equal on all types/designs of pellet grills.
As a quick general rule, you’re more likely to find a Pit Boss grill experiencing a grease fire compared to a Traeger, but why is that?
The Pros and Cons of Direct-Flame Access
Some pellet grills have what’s called direct-flame access, it basically means the flames from the pellet fire can reach the cooking grate. You will typically find this feature on Pit Boss and Weber pellet grills.
Direct-flame access is a great feature to have to improve searing/grilling performance.
However, as fire is able to pass through the grease tray, if there was an excessive build-up of grease on the tray, you can see where this is going.
Traeger’s on the other hand and several other manufacturers only fit solid grease trays, hence no direct-flame access.
Hence, a grease fire on a Traeger is far less likely, but as a result, Traeger pellet grills don’t have the best reputation when it comes to grilling/searing.
The general point is, with a pellet grill with direct flame access clean it frequently to avoid the potential risk of a grease fire.
My Final Comments On Pellet Grill/Smoker Safe Use…
While I’m a strong advocate of pellet grills/smokers for their convenience and simplicity to use it has to be acknowledged that they produce a real fire, and fire along with its by-products needs to be respected.
Hence, if you do own or are looking to own a pellet grill/smoker in the future, please take my points above on board with regards to safe operation along with the manufacturer’s guidelines.
That’s it! Thanks for reading, I hope you above has given you a greater understanding of how to safely use a pellet grill/smoker.
If you would like to learn more check out the articles in my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide. 🙂
Research/compare over 240 pellet grills/smokers on sale today