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How do Pellet Grills Work?

While pellet grills have been around for decades now their popularity has skyrocketed in the last few years. This popularity has pushed pellet grills into the mainstream.

These days we get a lot of questions from customers about how exactly these grills work. Most commonly we get asked if these grills have either a gas or electric element to provide heat. The answer is no. So how do they create heat and smoke?

First, the Fuel


Wood Pellets for Pellet Grills

Like gas grills or charcoal grills, pellet grills get their name from their fuel source which is a compressed wood pellet. Compressed wood pellets are created from wood waste, essentially the pure sawdust from lumber mills, and compressed with force into shape without the use of binders or glue. This lack of synthetic chemicals is what makes them safe for use in a grill where the pellet is providing smoke and heat for your food.

The Cook System


Modern pellet grills owe a great deal of thanks to the research and development of both Robert Bowling and Jerry Whitfield (see sidebar).

Pellet grills hold hardwood pellets in a hopper, and when the grill is powered on, and started, an auger begins to pull pellets from the hopper down into a firepot. In the firepot an ignition rod will heat the pellets up while a fan forces air across the fire pot (sometimes called a burn pot) to start ignition.

Once the pellets are burning the ignition rod will shut off and the pellets will continue to burn creating the heat necessary to grill, smoke and bake foods. The pellets are able to continue burning with the help of your pellet grills fan (or fans depending on the make and model).

The fan circulates heat and smoke in the cooking chamber while at the same time providing oxygen to the pellets.

Yoder Smokers YS640S Pellet Grill Cutout

Yoder Smokers YS640S Pellet Grill

Digital Controllers


Early wood pellet grills lacked intelligent digital control systems and simply ran the auger at a predetermined speed to feed pellets to keep the fire burning. The slower the speed the lower the temperature and vice versa. This didn’t allow for the temperature controlled environment we’re used to today.

Yoder Smokers YS640S Digital Controller

These days pellet grills such as the Yoder Smokers YS640S utilize highly intelligent control systems that use thermocouples to read the temperature in the grill. This then relays that information to a control system which then makes adjustments of feed rate and other parameters to control the temperature of the grill. This allows for precise control of the grill that just wasn’t possible in decades past.

It’s Only Getting Better


Yoder Smokers Fireboard App

Modern computer chips are getting smaller and more powerful every year. This has led to pellet grills adding features such as WIFI control, real-time cook monitoring in the form of mobile and web-based apps, and the ability to monitor multiple food probes has become commonplace.

All of this underlies the entire reason wood pellets were invented in the first place. Convenience and efficiency. Pellet grills very simple to run allowing you to spend more time cooking and less time worrying about managing your fire. Simply set your temperature, place your food on the grates, and monitor your cook until everything hits your desired doneness.

All while your meals benefit from the flavor that only wood can give you.

A Brief History
of Pellet Grills


The process of binding together lumber mill waste into usable fuel is not new. In fact, it was in the early 1930s that Robert Bowling, a researcher at the Potlatch Lumber Mill in Potlatch, Idaho created the process for binding sawdust and other green waste from the mill into Pres-to-logs.

Robert T. (Bob) Bowling

Robert T. "Bob" Bowling

Photo: Potlatch Corp. Historical Archives

These logs were roughly thirteen inches long and four inches in diameter, and burned more consistently, and for longer, than traditional logs in wood stoves and furnaces. Over the years other mills and companies got in on the act and today you can buy pressed logs, which can be organic or synthetic depending on the product, at just about any home improvement store.

During the 1970s oil crisis the need for a new fuel source for heating homes was realized and biomass engineers began experimenting with this new smaller pellet technology. Jerry Whitfield, an engineer with Boeing in Washington state, learned about wood pellets while in Europe and began experimenting with pellets as a fuel source for a new stove for his home.

Dr. Jerry Whitfield

Dr. Jerry Whitfield

Photo: Orcas Power & Light Co-op

This stove had the look of a traditional wood stove but utilized an auger to feed the pellets to the burn area and a fan to help it burn evenly with as little smoke emissions as possible. By 1984 Whitfield had launched his pellet stove under the name Whitfield Pellet Stoves (which was later sold to Lennox Hearth Products).

Whitfield’s stoves became a popular way of heating homes in areas where traditional stove heating had been used since these wood pellets were cheaper, and more efficient, than buying and burning through cords of split wood. Three years after Whitfield launched his pellet stoves the Traeger Grill company. Founded by a family that owned a heating company in Oregon, utilized the same fan and auger system found in Whitfield’s stoves to create the first commercially available pellet grills.

Pellet Grill Pellets
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