In 2010, I purchased my first pellet grill, a Traeger Lil Tex. I was already doing quite a bit of BBQ on a Weber charcoal kettle, and a couple of years later, I added a charcoal kamado grill to the family.
However, the more I cooked on the Traeger, the less I wanted to play with charcoal. In 2014, I bought a second pellet grill, a GMG Davy Crockett; this was a much smaller grill, suitable for daily use. It was also just portable enough to go in the car, and would run off 12V. Between the two, I felt I could cook anything, and both the Weber and kamado went on to other appreciative homes.
The newer Davy Crockett has a quite sophisticated controller, which also allows control via WiFi and a dedicated app. The Traeger was more ancient; although newer models have similar features to the DC, mine had just 3 very manual settings – slow, medium and high.
Eventually that Traeger Controller broke, and I was faced with the difficulty of replacing it, when the majority of similar machines were wired for American 110V, while mine was British 240V. It was possible, but would have cost almost as much as I paid for the grill. So I looked for alternatives.
There isn’t actually much to control. Power to the whole grill – that a simple on off switch. There are then 3 main components:
- Auger Motor
Fan: The Fan is easy. This does two things – it provided a steady stream of air to keep things burning, and it stops the fire from working back along the Auger (the tube which the pellets come down) to the hopper, which would cause a fire. You don’t want that. So with an improvement to the original design, I have bypassed the power switch, so that this is now ON for as long as the grill is powered. A feature of the more modern grills is a “fan only” mode at the end of a cook, to ensure that any remaining fuel is consumed, and the burn-pot is definitely out.
Auger: This is the helical screw that drives the pellets down into the burn-pot. With the original controlled removed, it is now ON whenever the grill is powered and the switch is turned to ON. However, I fitted an electrical relay in the circuit, to allow me to easily control the grill with electronics external to the grill. Without anything attached, the Auger is simply full ON, which is fine if you want to use the grill as an oven. When 5V is passed over the relay it turns it off, for as long as the 5V is supplied. This lets my own electrics turn the pellet feed on and off, and control the temperature of the grill. As that is simply on the end of a flying (low voltage) cable coming out of the grill, my controller can be anything – more on that in a while.
Igniter: This lights the pellets, and needs to be on for 3-4 minutes at the start of a cook. At the moment, it is wired to a momentary push-switch, connected to the ON switch of the grill. So you need to power the grill (fan then working), switch the grill on (auger then working), then hold the push switch until the burn-pot ignites and you smell smoke.
Now for my controlling mechanism(s). The new elegant controllers do this by monitoring a temperature probe in the grill, and with some clever algorithms, turn the Auger Motor on and off to keep the temperature exactly where you want it – or, at least, to about 5°, which is more accurate than the average domestic oven. The old controllers do this completely by time. “High” – top temperature of about 350-400°F is the Auger working all the time. “Medium” is it switching on and off in 5 minute cycles. “Smoke is more like 25% on, 75% off.
I originally planned to emulated the new controllers; I thought I would write something to run on an Arduino. I made several attempts, but it turned out to be note quite as easy as I thought. It would work sometimes, and at other times I got massive swings of temperature.
So now I use a very simple electronic loop timer, with two buttons and an LCD that I can set it by. This runs just like the old original controller, except I tend to use a 60 second cycle, which I find maintains temperatures better. I also have more options than just 3 settings. If I find that “Smoke” isn’t quite hot enough, I just tweak the timings. It is easy to do, and works well.
Surprisingly (to me as well), that has been in place since 2015; half the time I have been cooking on the grill. It certainly hasn’t held me back. But every year new models come out with new features, and although Pellet Grills are not exactly common in the UK, there are more different types on the market than ever before.
A friend recently bought a new grill, and I probably got pellet envy. It set me looking again, and I was amazed with what was out there now. And so I have made a purchase.
The Traeger isn’t ending up on the scrap-pile, though. It is fairly sound in itself, and I know someone with far greater electronics (and fabrication) skills than me. So I have offered it to them, to play with. I’ve had my fun out of it.