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Unread 04-18-2010, 08:26 PM   #1
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Default Help - Temp Control Problems on a WSM (Yes it is possible)

So being a newbie to BBQ, i decided to get the "easiest' non electric smoker to control. The WSM! However, somehow I'm defying the odds and can't seem to get the hang of this thing. No matter what I do, it's running too cool.

I'm starting off w/ mostly short cooking meats (ribs, chicken) and the target for most of the recipes I have found are right around 275. I've done 4 cooks over the last month and I can't get the temp to steadily remain over 220. Below is what I'm doing. Any advice is appreciated since it seems like I must be missing something fundamental.

Outdoor temp: between 50 - 70 deg F.

Wind: Might have been an issue the first few times, but moved smoker to another location and it didn't fix the issue

Start method: Have tried minion method and also just tried filling a chimney starter full and dropping it in w/o the unlit coals. Temp seems to be about the same either way, but the fire doesn't last as long w/o the unlit coals.

Fuel type: First BBQ was w/ lump charcoal, but moved to Kingsford

Fuel amount: I've been experimenting here, but haven't had much luck. At first I thought the more coal the better and would fill up the coal ring-thingy (that's the official term, right?), but the volume seemed to restrict airflow. However, when I put in less the temp didn't really seem to get any higher.

Water pan: I have played w/ this a bit, but usually fill it w/ water about 1/4 - 1/2 full.

Vents: Full open the entire time and still the fire won't get up there...


Timeline of events:
  1. Setup charcoal using minion method
  2. Wait about 20m for the coals in the chimney to get super hot
  3. Dump 'em, build smoker, add water
  4. Get excited because the temp immediately shoots up to 350+degrees
  5. Wait a few minutes and throw the meat on
  6. Watch despondently as the temperature slowly drops to about 220 no matter what I do. Usually hits 220 or lower within 20-30 minutes. Sometimes it drops as low as 185.

Also, thinking the thermometer may be broken, I got out a digital reader and measured various parts of the smoker. The coals are so friggin hot it maxes out the temp (400+), the top grate is about 220, and the temp on the lid is about 230. I figure it's normal for the coals to be that hot, but what I can't figure out is how I lose 200+ degrees in 2 ft.

Help please.
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Unread 04-18-2010, 08:31 PM   #2
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I've done about ten cooks since getting my WSM and had some of the same issues. The one fix I tried worked very well. Try foiling the water pan and keep it empty. I do this and have run the two bottom vents closed, one 50% open and the top 100% open and can hold 250* for hours. Vent adjusting will allow me to go to 275*-300*. Your lighting method and fuel seems to be okay. Smoke On
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Unread 04-18-2010, 08:33 PM   #3
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Well, the first glaring question I have is are you starting with hot water in the pan? It takes a lot of BTUs to get cold water to boil.

Have you tried w/o water? Wad up some foil into balls, put them in the water pan, cover with a sheet of foil.

Also keep in mind that when you get the WSM lit, it will take a while to heat up. Give it a while, watch your temps, when you get to say 220, then shut down your intake vents to 1/3. Always leave the top vent wide open. When you put cold meat on, you can guess what's gonna happen to temps too.

Sounds like you have the stock Weber thermo too. I don't have any of those so I can't speak to the accuracy.
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Unread 04-18-2010, 08:36 PM   #4
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Is the top vent open all of the way ??

You may also want to close the bottom vents about half way and let you smoker come up to temp slowly. Filling the charcoal ring up should not restrict airflow at all, you will also want to make sure that the ring is centered in the bottom so as not to restrict the air flow.

Water in the pan will also help control the temps. I will also recommend that when lighting your chimney that you only have about 12-15 coals in there, this will allow better temp control as well.

I hope that helps.
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Unread 04-18-2010, 08:40 PM   #5
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How many different bags of charcoal have you tried? You might have some bad charcoal that once got wet during shipment/storage.
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Unread 04-18-2010, 08:57 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Harbormaster View Post
Well, the first glaring question I have is are you starting with hot water in the pan? It takes a lot of BTUs to get cold water to boil.

Have you tried w/o water? Wad up some foil into balls, put them in the water pan, cover with a sheet of foil.

Also keep in mind that when you get the WSM lit, it will take a while to heat up. Give it a while, watch your temps, when you get to say 220, then shut down your intake vents to 1/3. Always leave the top vent wide open. When you put cold meat on, you can guess what's gonna happen to temps too.

Sounds like you have the stock Weber thermo too. I don't have any of those so I can't speak to the accuracy.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bluesman View Post
I've done about ten cooks since getting my WSM and had some of the same issues. The one fix I tried worked very well. Try foiling the water pan and keep it empty. I do this and have run the two bottom vents closed, one 50% open and the top 100% open and can hold 250* for hours. Vent adjusting will allow me to go to 275*-300*. Your lighting method and fuel seems to be okay. Smoke On
Hmmm, it seems you two may have answered my math question. 400 degree coals - x = low temp at the grates. X may be the crapton of cold water that I put in the water pan w/ my garden hose.

I'm cooking some chicken now and have removed the water, I'll keep an eye on the temp and report back.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Spydermike72 View Post
Is the top vent open all of the way ??

You may also want to close the bottom vents about half way and let you smoker come up to temp slowly. Filling the charcoal ring up should not restrict airflow at all, you will also want to make sure that the ring is centered in the bottom so as not to restrict the air flow.

Water in the pan will also help control the temps. I will also recommend that when lighting your chimney that you only have about 12-15 coals in there, this will allow better temp control as well.

I hope that helps.
How do I let the temp come up slowly? once the coals in the chimney are red hot, I dump the coals and I build the grill. Once I have the lid on, the temp shoots up to around 300 - 350 immediately (i.e. about 2-3 minutes) and then starts dropping (probably from the cold water). Should a jump to a temp that high in the beginning not be happening?

Thanks guys. I feel like I'm making progress in a few minutes after fighting this thing for weeks. Glad I found these forums.
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Unread 04-18-2010, 09:04 PM   #7
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how much unlit charcoal and how much lit? Also, what is your target temp? It is much easier to catch the temp as it climbs than it is to bring it down.
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Unread 04-18-2010, 09:23 PM   #8
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I start with a full ring of charcoal mixed with about 5 fist sized chunks of wood. I create a small indentation in the middle of ring. Into the middle of the of the charcoal indentation I place 10 lit, ashed over briqs.

Bottom and top vents wide open. Once the grate temp reaches 195 degrees I close all the vents half way. As the temps start to rise a little at a time I close the bottom vents until the temp reaches the 225 degree range. At that point I let the WSM chug along for 30 minutes. Then I put the meat on. Some people will take the temp up a little higher than the desired cooking temp so when they put the meat on the temp doesn't fall that far. I don't normally worry about that.

Keep in mind that I do not use water in the water pan. I use a foiled 14 inch terra cotta saucer. This, in my opinion, allows me far greater control over my temps than using water.

Keep practicing, you'll get it...
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Unread 04-18-2010, 09:56 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bigabyte View Post
How many different bags of charcoal have you tried? You might have some bad charcoal that once got wet during shipment/storage.
I've used about 4 bags. That's another weird thing...I seem to be burning through a ton of charcoal and still can't get the temp high.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ron_L View Post
how much unlit charcoal and how much lit? Also, what is your target temp? It is much easier to catch the temp as it climbs than it is to bring it down.
Since I've been having low temp problems, I go overboard. Lately I've been filling a Weber chimney almost all the way up and then putting a ring of unlit charcoals around it. That's probably why my temp jumps up to 350+ when I built the smoker.

Quote:
Originally Posted by BBQ Grail View Post
I start with a full ring of charcoal mixed with about 5 fist sized chunks of wood. I create a small indentation in the middle of ring. Into the middle of the of the charcoal indentation I place 10 lit, ashed over briqs.

Bottom and top vents wide open. Once the grate temp reaches 195 degrees I close all the vents half way. As the temps start to rise a little at a time I close the bottom vents until the temp reaches the 225 degree range. At that point I let the WSM chug along for 30 minutes. Then I put the meat on. Some people will take the temp up a little higher than the desired cooking temp so when they put the meat on the temp doesn't fall that far. I don't normally worry about that.

Keep in mind that I do not use water in the water pan. I use a foiled 14 inch terra cotta saucer. This, in my opinion, allows me far greater control over my temps than using water.

Keep practicing, you'll get it...
Sounds like I'm probably wasting charcoal by filling my chimney so full. I'll try using less coals in the chimney to start w/ and let the temp slowly build.

Also, a lot of you are suggesting using something other than water to cool the smoker. I thought another benefit of the water was to provide humidity in the smoker which provides added tenderness/flavor/etc. Is that not the case?

On a side note, I removed the water from the smoker during my chicken cook tonight and it seemed to help a bit but the temp dropped after shooting up for a short while. I think that might be because the coals are on their last leg though and I don't have any more. I'll give it another shot tomorrow night.
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Unread 04-18-2010, 10:12 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by KCMitch View Post
Since I've been having low temp problems, I go overboard. Lately I've been filling a Weber chimney almost all the way up and then putting a ring of unlit charcoals around it. That's probably why my temp jumps up to 350+ when I built the smoker.

Sounds like I'm probably wasting charcoal by filling my chimney so full. I'll try using less coals in the chimney to start w/ and let the temp slowly build.
OK... That explains the quick jump to 350 and then the drop. You're putting in too much lit charcoal and then when the temp spikes I'm guessing that you are closing the vents down too far and the unlit never has a chance to catch. Try filling the ring with unlit except a 6-8" hole in the middle. Some guys will put an empty coffee can in the middle and then fill the ring around the can then remove the can. Add some chunks of flavor wood into the unlit charcoal. Then start 12 - 15 briquettes and a chunk of wood in your chimney and when they are ashed over add them into the hole in the charcoal.

Now put the middle section on including the water pan. add HOT water to the water pan, put if the grates and then the top. Keep the top vent wide open and start closing the bottom vents as the temp rises.

Quote:
Originally Posted by KCMitch View Post
Also, a lot of you are suggesting using something other than water to cool the smoker. I thought another benefit of the water was to provide humidity in the smoker which provides added tenderness/flavor/etc. Is that not the case?
The water isn't there to cool the smoker. It is there to add thermal mass to help keep temperatures more stable. Water works well but can be a pain to clean up. Some guys just use an empty pan, others will fill it with playground sand and cover the sand with foil to keep he grease out of it. Still others will use the clay base from a flower pot. All you really need is something to add the thermal mass to make temp management easier.
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Unread 04-18-2010, 10:54 PM   #11
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Hey Mitch, I have to agree with not using water in the pan. I wrapped the pan (both sides) with heavy duty foil, filled the pan about 1/3 full of clean sand and then put two layers of HD foil over the sand, pressing the foil down onto the sand. Good luck, Bro, you've got a great little smoker there.
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Unread 04-19-2010, 07:07 AM   #12
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I think RonL is on the right track. He is also saying it a whole lot better than I was...
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Unread 04-19-2010, 12:13 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by BBQ Grail View Post
I start with a full ring of charcoal mixed with about 5 fist sized chunks of wood. I create a small indentation in the middle of ring. Into the middle of the of the charcoal indentation I place 10 lit, ashed over briqs.

Bottom and top vents wide open. Once the grate temp reaches 195 degrees I close all the vents half way. As the temps start to rise a little at a time I close the bottom vents until the temp reaches the 225 degree range. At that point I let the WSM chug along for 30 minutes. Then I put the meat on. Some people will take the temp up a little higher than the desired cooking temp so when they put the meat on the temp doesn't fall that far. I don't normally worry about that.

Keep in mind that I do not use water in the water pan. I use a foiled 14 inch terra cotta saucer. This, in my opinion, allows me far greater control over my temps than using water.

Keep practicing, you'll get it...
Thats almost exactly how Ive done it for 3 years. Only exception is I use play sand in the foiled waterpan, about 2/3 full, then covered again with foil to catch the drippings. Makes cleanup a 10 sec breeze. I close the bottom vents to 1/3 open as soon as the top shelf grate temp (maverick lead, thru a small hole in a two inch block of wood) hits 190 degrees. The WSM will settle in at 228-236 degrees and hold there for 8 hrs. No guru needed. Like Ron says, its easier to catch the temp on the way up, by damping down the lower vents than waiting for it to lower if it gets too high. I'd say I have clean sweet blue and a rock steady 228 in about 45 mins after dumping the chimney of lit in the center of the unlit coals.
I use Kingsforg briquettes also exclusively. make sure your stashed charcoal bags stay DRY, up off of cement floors in sheds and garages. A little moisture will definitely show in SLOW burns.
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Unread 04-19-2010, 03:57 PM   #14
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Thanks for the help everyone. I tried RonL's method of a slow start combined w/ sand in the water pan and right now the temp is sitting at 300. It took about 30 minutes to climb up there. Now I'm messing w/ the vents to try to get it to stop. A few questions:
  1. What's the best approach for vent control? Fully closing some vents and leaving others open or slowly closing all vents at approx the same amount?
  2. Right now the top grate measures at 300 and the lid thermometer measures at 275. I thought the temp at the lid is supposed to be higher?
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Unread 04-19-2010, 04:18 PM   #15
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I close off the one facing the wind and adjust the other two
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