My Charcoal Grill Won’t Stay Lit: 7 Likely Culprits To Look Out For

August 24, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

A good barbecue can be the highlight of any day but it can easily turn into an anticlimax if your charcoal grill won’t stay lit. There are several reasons why this happens but the most likely culprits are the air vents, the quality of charcoal, or the charcoal arrangement.

Charcoal grills require time and patience to master. I learned this when I first started using my Weber Original Charcoal Grill. I had to light it several times because I kept forgetting to work the vents. It was frustrating but I learned from the lessons my grill was handing me like a pro and eventually mastered it.

In this article, I will tell you the best ways to light your grill, the 7 reasons your charcoal grill won’t stay lit, and how to remedy them.

Charcoal Grill Won't Stay Lit.

7 Reasons Your Charcoal Grill Won’t Stay Lit and How to Remedy Them

Below are the top reasons why your charcoal grill will not stay lit:

1. You Are Using The Wrong Charcoal

A good fire begins with picking the right type of charcoal. There are many types of charcoal to choose from and they vary across brands.

I use B & B Charcoal Briquettes because I prefer a plain oak flavor on most of my barbecues. The type of fuel you choose should be based on how long you intend to cook and the flavor you prefer.

Some types of charcoal burn faster and hotter than others which is why they are recommended for different types of cooks. Masterbuilt Lump Charcoal is an optimal choice for both long and short cooks.

On the other hand, if you are grilling fish or vegetables, you only need charcoal that lasts a short while. There are two types of cooking charcoal each with distinct characteristics: lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes.

Lump charcoal is irregularly shaped which means it does not burn evenly. It is often a more challenging fire to control. Lump charcoal burns faster and hotter than briquettes. It is better-suited for short cooking sessions like smoking baby back ribs and turkey thighs.

Charcoal briquettes on the other hand are perfect for long, slow, cooks. They are regularly shaped which means they are easy to stack and burn evenly.

This is a fire that gives you more control over your cooking which is exactly what you need for BBQ and smoking. If you are planning to serve pulled pork or brisket, briquettes should be the way to go.

2. Your Grill Needs Cleaning

Another possible reason why your charcoal won’t stay lit is that it is dirty. Ideally, you should clean your grill after every BBQ session.

Keeping the grill clean prevents flare-ups from grease build-up but more importantly, it prevents ash build-up that would otherwise choke your fire. This is how to go about it:

Cleaning Your Charcoal Grill

First off, you don’t have to clean it immediately. Enjoy the delicious BBQ you’ve prepared while the grill cools down.

Remove the ashes and the grease. Most grills on the market have an ash and grease management system that does most of the work for you.

If your model does not have those features, use a metal ash shovel or employ your vacuum cleaner hose. Be sure to wear gloves and a face mask to protect yourself from dust and ash particles.

Next up, clean the grill grates by detaching and scrubbing them thoroughly using a wire brush and some warm, soapy water. The wire brush serves to remove any debris while the soap solution will loosen and absorb any stubborn residue.

Now, clean the interior of the grill using warm soapy water and a damp cloth or a sponge. Wipe down the inside of the grill, paying particular attention to the walls, the lid, and the bottom of the grill. You can also use a mild degreaser to remove any stubborn stains or grease.

Next, is the outside of the grill. Wipe it down using mild soap and water, especially on the handles, and the lid. If your grill has a stainless steel exterior, you can use a stainless steel cleaner to give it a nice shine.

Lastly, if you notice any damaged parts, make plans to have them replaced.

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Steaks on the Charcoal Grill

3. Remember To Work The Vents

We build the fire but oxygen keeps it alive because it is necessary for combustion. No matter how quickly you light your fire, without a flow of oxygen, it will choke.

This is why maintaining airflow in and out of the cooking chamber is the most reliable way to keep a charcoal grill lit.

As more oxygen enters the cooking chamber, the hotter and faster fuel burns. This increases the internal temperature within the smoker or grill.

Similarly, when there is less oxygen getting into the grill, there is less combustion taking place, which translates to a cooler fire and lowers the cooking temperatures.

For long cooks, I recommend filling the charcoal grate. After all, you can always save the unused charcoal at the end of the cook and regulate the internal temperature by working the vents.

If you need to raise the cooking temperature, drive more oxygen into the cooking chamber by opening the vent. To reduce the temperature, simply close the vent halfway.

At all times, the exhaust vent should be at least halfway open to release combustion gases into the air. A closed exhaust vent leads to a build-up of gases and smoke that does nothing to help your charcoal stay lit.

4. Harsh Weather Conditions

Harsh weather conditions can easily be the party-pooper in your barbecue. Unfortunately, charcoal grills are more affected by surrounding weather conditions than any other type of grill.

Strong wind blowing into the grill will make the fuel burn a lot faster and demand more refills. It also makes the fire much harder to control and for your charcoal to stay lit. Without being closely monitored, the grill could go out in minutes.

Lighting charcoal inside the house is not an option as it will expose you to poisonous gases that may have adverse effects. If you can’t move your grill to a barricaded area of your backyard, use a shield guard or improvise one. You will notice the difference.

During cold conditions and especially in the winter months, I recommend keeping your grill completely covered to protect its components and keep it in tip-top shape. Good grills don’t come cheap you know.

In humid conditions, avoid storing your charcoal in the open. Charcoal absorbs water vapor from the environment making it impossible to light. Store them in a dry airtight container or a tightly wrapped plastic bag.

5. Keep The Grill Lid On

This point may seem obvious but it also applies to itchy fingers that just can’t stop opening the lid.

Opening the lid releases precious heat and flavor and replaces it with cold air. This reduces the internal temperature in the cooking chamber, meaning the grill has to come to temperature again, increasing the cooking time and fuel needed.

Too much air flowing into the grill can overwhelm the fire and put it out. My advice is to keep the lid on, be patient, and trust the grill timer.

Meat Grilling on the Charcoal Grill

6. Charcoal Arrangement

One of the most important things to keep in mind when grilling with charcoal is the coal arrangement. There are several techniques, however, they all aim to maximize airflow. No pitmaster worth his salt will huddle some bits of cooking wood or wood chips, light it up and get to grilling.

The most preferred cooking wood arrangement techniques like the charcoal snake method requires the charcoal stacked to maximize airflow within the cooking chamber. It facilitates slow cooking methods like barbecuing, grilling, and smoking.

These methods cook your meat using indirect heat which provides ample time to break down even the toughest connective tissue in cuts like beef brisket and chuck round.

7. Refill The Charcoal As Needed

Last but not least, your grill will not stay lit if you wait too long to refill the charcoal. The fire is maintained by having lit coal light up fresh coal. If you wait too long to add coal, the grill cannot stay lit and you have to relight it.

Before grilling, ensure you put enough charcoal to take you through the session. For short cooks that last around 3 hours, you won’t have to replenish the fuel. However, for longer cooks, I recommend monitoring the fuel level and replenishing every 3-4 hours to keep the grill lit.

How Do I Safely Refill The Charcoal?

I know the thought of reaching into burning charcoal can be intimidating but it can be done quickly and safely. Most importantly, do not delay replenishing the charcoal until it’s too late.

I recommend adding more charcoal when only a third is left. Sooner than this may cause the grill to run too hot thus overcooking the food.

If you employed the charcoal snake method of coal arrangement, just add more briquettes to the pile at the unlit end of the charcoal snake. If you opted for the minion method, open the charcoal basket and add coal around the lit coals being careful not to hurt your forearms.

Which Is The Best Way To Start My Charcoal Grill?

The best ways to get your charcoal grill going are using charcoal chimneys, lighter cubes, or lighter fluid.

Grilled Meat on Charcoal Grill

Using A Charcoal Chimney Starter

I find using a chimney starter to be a quick, convenient, and safe way to light my grill. Fill your charcoal vertically in the starter till half full. I am partial to Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter because I have used it for over two years with great success.

Place the lighter cubes on top of the cooking grates and light them up. The chimney starter goes directly on top of the lit starter cubes.

The fire from the cubes ignites the charcoal and the flames will grow upwards. This process should take up to 10 minutes max. You will know the charcoal is ready when the ones at the top get a thin layer of gray or white ash.

If you do not have starter cubes on hand, you can achieve the same desired results with a piece of paper placed below the charcoal chimney. With the charcoal lit, pour them onto the charcoal grate and open the vents. Easy.

Using Starter Cubes

Starter cubes are mostly made from paraffin wax which makes them flammable. They work equally well on both briquettes and lump charcoal. Starter cubes burn for a short while giving the charcoal time to light.

Using starter cubes is easy. Just place 4-5 cubes at the bottom of your grill and pile charcoal on top of the cubes, leaving a little room for you to light the cubes using a match or a grill lighter. The cube should stay lit for around 5 minutes.

If this doesn’t tickle your fancy, try Deezer Quick Light Charcoal. Most quick-light charcoal brands will burn for around 10 minutes.

When using cubes, make sure to reseal the package they come in. If they are exposed to air, the paraffin evaporates making them less effective.

Using Lighter Fluid

Lighting charcoal using lighter fluid involves piling the charcoal briquettes into a pyramid-like mound and squirting the lighter fluid evenly on the sides and the top of the charcoal mound. Close the lid of the fluid bottle and light the fuel with a match or a lighter.

When choosing the fluid, go for brands that are recommended for cooking. They are odorless and do not impart a taste to your meat as it cooks.

How Can I Put Out my Charcoal Grill?

The easiest way to put out your grill is to close the vents. This will cut out the oxygen supply thus choking the fire. If you are in a hurry, separate the hot charcoal and take out any unburned pieces. The lit charcoal will go out and turn to ash.

In Conclusion

Manning the grill like a pro entails rolling with the punches. Make your charcoal grill stay lit by sticking to high-quality charcoal brands and storing the charcoal away from moisture. Dry charcoal is easier to light and burns longer.

Additionally, work the vents and monitor the charcoal level. Master those, and you will never go wrong.

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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