How Does a Pellet Grill Work? A Detailed Introduction

March 16, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

Ok, so there are a lot of parts and processes with a pellet grill but let me give you a quick breakdown to get you started. The pellets are placed in the hopper and they move into the burn pot from here, through the auger. The pellets are then set alight with the help of the ignition rod and the fan. The control panel is what manages this process from start to finish.

I grew up using a pellet grill but I never really questioned how they worked. It was only when I began to take notes from pitmasters that I realized the importance of knowing the machine you are working with inside and out.

In this post, I will walk you through all the different parts and how they work together. Let's begin!

how does a pellet grill work

A Quick Summary: How Do Pellet Grills Work?

The first thing that I want to tell you is that all the information in this post is a bit generalized. This is because no two pellet grills work the same. However, I will give you insight into how most pellet grills function.

For one thing, each company and brand has its own patented design. Therefore, a pellet grill from Traeger Grills is going to work a bit differently from a model from Pit Boss.

To add to this, even the models within a brand can vary. For instance, basic pellet grills may function quite differently from more advanced and expensive models.

So, now that I have this out of the way, let me give you a brief overview of how a pellet grill functions.

A pellet grill does work off of electricity, a bit like an electric smoker. However, the electricity simply powers the pellet grill.

Unlike a gas grill or charcoal grill, the fuel source for pellet grills is wood pellets. It is wood pellets that produce heat and smoke to cook your food.

The wood pellets go into the hopper and then the pellet grill is plugged in. Once the pellet grill is powered on and primed, you use the control board or control panel to set the settings.

Then, the wood pellets in the hopper travel down to the burn pot by the way of the auger system.

Here, the wood pellets ignite and this produces the heat and smoke to cook your food.

Parts of a Pellet Grill

Before I can fully explain to you how wood pellet grills work, I have to give a rundown of the different parts of the pellet grill and their function.

So, here you go:

Pellet Hopper

Let's first begin with the pellet grill hopper. This is essentially a box or compartment where the wood pellets are stored. For many pellet grills, this compartment is adjacent to the grill. In some smaller, more portable models, though, the hopper may be on the inside - this is pretty rare though.

The capacity of the hopper is often linked to the size of the grill. In general, though, the bigger the compartment, the better. This is because then you can store a greater quantity of pellets and then grill or smoke food for longer, without needing to refill the compartment.

The Control Panel

Now, this is the part that is probably going to vary the most when it comes to the wood pellet grill.

The more basic, older, and cheaper wood pellet grills are going to have a very simplistic panel. It likely consists of the power on and off button, followed by a temperature control dial. There may or may not be a digital display where you can see the cooking temperature that you have chosen.

Then you have the newer electronic control panel designs. With these, you typically have more options for settings on your pellet grill. In addition to choosing the smoking or cooking temperature, you may also be able to monitor the ambient temperature inside the cooking chamber.

If the wood pellet grill comes with one or more meat probes, then you will also be able to see the internal cooking temperatures too.

There may also be timers and additional temperature settings as well.

Man Grills Sausages on an Outdoor Grill

PID controllers

One of the biggest upgrades that the new control panels have is the PID controller. This offers more precise temperature control.

See, the older pellet grills were based on a timed design. This meant that the auger and the fan were turned on and off at intervals. This is what controlled the temperature inside the cooking chamber.

Unfortunately, this setup wasn't very reliable. Due to this, the temperature inside the chamber could vary as much as 25 F. As you can imagine, this was far from ideal.

This is when the PID design was invented.

Here, the controller constantly checks the temperature inside the chamber with the set, desired temperature of the control panel. The panel will then adjust the working of the auger and fan to meet that set temperature accordingly.

This results in more accurate temperature control where the fluctuations are only around 5 F or so.

This is one of the top reasons that the pellet grill tends to be preferred over the more primitive charcoal grill. With pellet grilling, you can simply set it and forget it!

The Auger

The auger is a big screw-like component that moves the wood pellets from the hopper to the burn pot.

The auger is powered by an electric motor. The motor, in turn, is powered by the control panel. It is the control panel that will determine if the motor will start, slow, or stop. In turn, the auger will perform these functions accordingly.

The auger is meant to move the wood pellets from the hopper to the burn pot. Your settings will decide the rate at which this happens. And, this is also what helps to maintain, increase, or reduce the temperature of the pellet grill.

The Fan

As you are aware, you can't have a fire without oxygen. However, many of the components of pellet grills are within a steel compartment. And, so, the wood pellets inside the burn pot don't have enough access to air.

This is where the fan comes in. The fan blows air into the burn pot and allows the wood pellets to ignite.

Now, as with the auger, the power and flow rate of the fan is determined by the controller.

The Burn Pot

The burn pot is also sometimes referred to as the fire pot. It is a container just beneath the grill grates.

The fire pot is where the wood pellets are ignited, the flames boosted by the fan.

Of course, no two burn pots are alike. They can differ in location, construction material, and more. This means that each burn pot can also produce a different kind of performance as well.

The Hot Rod Ignitor

This feature is also known as an ignition rod. And, as the name suggests, it produces the spark that lights the pellets on fire.

The air produced by the fan flames thus produces more heat and smoke.

Meat Grilling on the Outdoor Grill

How a Pellet Grill Works? A Detailed Guide

Here is a breakdown of how pellet grills function:

Step 1: Fueling the Grill

You start by adding fuel to the hopper. The number of pellets that you will pour into the compartment will depend on your cook.

Are you grilling food? If so, pellet grills use up about 4 lbs of pellets an hour. In case you are smoking food, a pellet grill use about 1 to 2 lbs of pellets an hour.

You should also consider the food that you are cooking. Steaks will cook in a matter of minutes, while ribs can take up to 6 hours.

If you are cooking pork butt, pork shoulder, or brisket, it is not unusual for the cook to go up to 12 hours or longer.

Step 2: Powering Up the Pellet Grill

You plug the pellet grill into an electrical outlet. Then, you turn the pellet grill on. If this is the first time you are using the grill, then you will need to prime the machine first.

Otherwise, you can go ahead and preheat the grill. For the most part, this simply requires you to set your desired temperature and close the lid and wait for 10 to 15 minutes.

Some pellet grills or pellet smokers may have specific preheating procedures though. In this case, you will need to follow the manufacturer's instructions.

As you do this, the pellets will go from the hopper via the auger to the burn pot. Once the pellets are in the burn pot, the ignition rod will set the pellets on fire and the fan will flame them.

Step 3: Creating Smoke

While pellet grills offer a more consistent temperature, the smoky flavor is not the same as what you get with wood chips, wood fired, or charcoal grills. This is especially true for pellet grills with PID controllers.

This is why there are some pellet grills that have a Super Smoke function. With this kind of pellet smoker, the auger and fan are deliberately time based for some parts of the cook. This results in more smoke.

Step 4: Maintaining the Temperature

Throughout the cook, the control panel will send instructions to the auger and the fan to manage the temperature inside the cooking chamber.

If you want to increase the temperature, the auger will work more often and the fan will blow more air. In case you want to maintain the temperature, then the auger and the fan will slow down.

If you are lowering the temperature, then the auger and the fan may stop for a while.

Step 5: Powering Down the Grill

Once you are done smoking or grilling, then the grill needs to go through the shutdown cycle. This process can also differ depending on the brand and model.

In general, though, the last of the pellets are burned off, sometimes the burn pot is refilled, and then the grill is shut off.

Man Flipping Burgers on the Grill

Understanding the Wood Pellets

Now, I can't describe how a pellet grill works and not tell you about the hardwood pellets that fuel the machine!

So, what are wood pellets anyways? Well, as the name says, natural hardwood pellets are made from wood. Here, though, the wood is dried and chipped before being turned into sawdust.

After this, the sawdust is then compressed into the natural hardwood pellets that are used as fuel for your pellet grills.

Hardwood pellets can come in all different flavors. This includes oak, hickory, apple, cherry, and a whole lot more!

Wrapping It Up

Well, there you go - you know how pellet grills function! Now that you are armed with this information, you may find it a lot easier to get a handle on your grill.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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