When you’re ready for the delicious and distinctive flavor of food cooked outside yet your charcoal grill won’t light, it’s frustrating. While it’s true that lighting a charcoal grill is a more challenging and more manual process than with a gas grill, once you have the knowhow to have it not work is annoying.
On the upside, there are some common reasons why a charcoal grill doesn’t light. Getting savvy about them can get you back in the grilling game so you can use your best grill and serve up great food for family and friends.
Here, we’ve identified the issues that can prevent a charcoal grill from lighting or stop it getting hot along with the solutions to the problems.
7 reasons why your charcoal grill isn’t lighting
Charcoal needs to light and stay lit so you can grill. There are a host of issues that can mean you can’t light a charcoal grill in the first place, or once it is lit, it doesn’t stay that way which can include everything from a dirty grill to the state of the charcoal.
Our list will help you identify what might be going wrong with your charcoal grill so you can solve the problem and get back to the fun of cooking and eating.
1. Dirty grill
Neglected grill cleaning duties? Then this might be the reason a charcoal grill is failing to light. ‘Fire needs oxygen, and if enough ash builds up inside of the grill it can make it next to impossible to get the coals burning well, or to keep them lit,’ explains Dan Cooper, head grill master at Weber.
‘Always clean out left over ashes to help the coals burn better and keep the grill in great shape.’
Dan Cooper is the Head Grill Master at Weber and his role involves over-seeing all food related activities. He does everything from developing recipes for the website to training Grill Academy chefs on new courses, as well as working with hotel and restaurant partners. He has a passion for great tasting, uncomplicated barbecue food, and enjoys sharing tips, techniques and inspiration to ensure everyone's barbecues are legendary.
2. Lack of ventilation
An ash buildup in the grill can stop it lighting because fire requires oxygen and that’s the reason why a lack of ventilation is also a problem. Be sure to light the grill with the vents fully open to feed the fire – they can be adjusted later to create the correct temperature for what you’re grilling.
For the same reason, the lid should be open when you light a charcoal grill (as it should when lighting a gas grill too) and shouldn’t be closed before the charcoal is burning evenly.
3. Poor stacking
How’s your charcoal stacking technique? If it’s not up to scratch, it can mean the grill doesn’t stay lit. Stacking correctly in a pyramid allows spaces for the air that fuels the fire, so if charcoal is tightly packed or not stacked at all and instead spread across the bottom of the grill, this could be the cause of lighting problems.
4. Damp charcoal
If the charcoal you’re using on the grill has become damp, this might create a lighting issue. ‘Charcoal is surprisingly absorbent and if accidentally left out in the rain or not stored correctly it can absorb water on the ground or water vapor in the air resulting in charcoal that won’t catch light for your BBQ,’ says Andrew Lovell, product manager of Landmann.
‘But do not fear, charcoal is salvageable and if left in the sun on a hot day, it’s able to dehydrate within six hours and be saved to use at a future BBQ.
‘To avoid this mishap, store your charcoal in a well-sealed container and store in a cool dry place.’
5. Charcoal’s age
It might be the age of the charcoal you’re attempting to light that’s causing your grill lighting woes.
‘Charcoal can and should be re-used, however there are some things to note,’ says Weber’s Dan Cooper. ‘The more you use charcoal the smaller the pieces will get, which means a reduced airflow through the barbecue resulting in a lower cooking temperature. If you are looking for really high temperatures, it might be best to use new charcoal.’
6. Charcoal quality
Sometimes you can grab a bargain for your yard or home, but when you’re talking charcoal, it’s best to avoid low-cost buys as their quality level may bring lighting problems.
And if you’re wondering whether to opt for briquettes or lump charcoal the answer is that either, providing it’s of good quality, can be a sound choice, and both have their advocates.
7. Windy or humid weather
Windy conditions aren’t just a problem when it comes to why a gas grill isn’t lighting. Wind can make things difficult for charcoal grilling, too. Position a charcoal grill in your outdoor grill station so it is angled away from the wind to avoid starting the lighting process at a disadvantage.
High humidity can also be an issue for charcoal grilling as the charcoal can become damp enough that it doesn’t stay lit. You can’t change the conditions, but be sure the charcoal doesn’t start off damp (see above) and stack it in a pyramid and you should be able to swerve the problem and keep the charcoal lit.
How do you light stubborn charcoal?
If charcoal is proving stubborn to light, there may well be an issue with the airflow of your grill. Open the vents completely to allow oxygen to reach the charcoal for faster lighting.
It is worth investing in a chimney starter to avoid the problem of lighting stubborn charcoal. It makes the lighting process straightforward as the chimney shape stacks the charcoal and allows adequate ventilation. The Weber Rapidfire chimney starter on Amazon has a 5-star rating from thousands of reviewers.
Why is my grill not heating up charcoal?
If a grill isn’t heating up charcoal sufficiently, there are a few possibilities. Charcoal that is reused may not get hot enough. To ensure your charcoal grill is safe and ready to use, make sure, too, that the grill is clean and not clogged up with ash, and that the vents are open fully when you light it for maximum heat. The problem could be damp charcoal, so store it carefully to keep it dry.
One other issue that does arise for some grillers is that of altitude. Grill at above 5,000 feet and there’s less oxygen in the air so charcoal won’t burn as hot as it does lower down. There’s nothing you can do about the height, of course, so do make sure that the grill is clean and vents are fully opened for optimum air flow to the grill.
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Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor. Previously executive editor of Ideal Home, she’s specialized in interiors, property and gardens for over 20 years, and covers interior design, house design, gardens, and cleaning and organizing a home for H&G. She’s written for websites, including Houzz, Channel 4’s flagship website, 4Homes, and Future’s T3; national newspapers, including The Guardian; and magazines including Future’s Country Homes & Interiors, Homebuilding & Renovating, Period Living, and Style at Home, as well as House Beautiful, Good Homes, Grand Designs, Homes & Antiques, LandLove and The English Home among others. It’s no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house renovator.
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