One more post about keeping a smoker lit
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  1. #1

    Default One more post about keeping a smoker lit

    I have (as I see many people have) struggled with my smoker a good deal.

    Based on what I have learned from that struggle, I am offering this as my perspective on keeping a smoker going for a long time.

    Lets begin with the basics (I didn't think of this at first).

    In a smoker, you have a fire.

    The way fire works is, you have a source of heat which is burning. To do that, it needs oxygen and fuel which it can heat up to the ignition temperature. As long as the unit of fuel that is burning releases more heat into the unheated fuel than is needed to heat another unit of fuel to the ignition temperature, the fire grows larger.

    If the fuel is wet, then it is harder to heat, since the water needs to be boiled off first. This is why a fire made with green wood is so difficult to keep going.

    In a smoker, the situation is somewhat different, since the design of a smoker provides for a very limited supply of air. Ideally, the fire in a smoker should burn at a rate determined by the available air supply. What that means is, when your smoker is just sitting there, the amount of fire is limited to the amount of air that drifts through the smoker driven by the convection currents the smoker creates.

    If that amount of air isn't enough to heat enough fuel to the combustion temperature to keep the smoker going, the smoker will go out.

    So, it helps a good deal to have fuel which heats easily (is very dry).

    I mostly use hardwood pellets, as they are not much trouble. However, I live in southeast Wisconsin, which is not the driest part of the country.

    TO my surprise, I discovered that if I use wood pellets kept in my shed, indoors, but not heated or air conditioned, they burn about 20 minutes. If I use pellets kept in my garage, which has a dehumidifier, the smoker will burn until it is out of fuel.

    In both cases, the pellets are "dry", but in the shed, the relative humidity averages 80% (lower during the day, higher at night), while in the garage, the relative humidity averages 50%.

    Wood and similar materials very quickly absorb moisture from and lose moisture to the air as the relative humidity changes.

    I have observed this multiple times. The pellets are from the same bag.

    So the main thing to keep a smoker going until it uses all of the fuel is to have truly dry fuel. If you live in Arizona, this might not be much of a problem. But in most of the USA, getting the smoker fuel really dry will help a lot. Keeping it in an air conditioned or dehumidified area will help greatly.

    The second conclusion is that taller smokers will burn better/longer. They have a taller chimney, and will draw more air. more air means more heat, which vaporizes more fuel, etc. If I lay my smoker on its side, it goes out pretty quickly, because the air intake and exit are at the same level, and it can't get any air. (Provided the lid seal is tight)

    Alas, my smoker is pretty short. I looked at those tall smokers, and thought they looked funny. Now not so much.

    As regards fuel, most all plant based fuel sources have about the same heat value per pound - a pound of pine or a pound of hickory or a pound of cotton all produce about the same amount of heat when burned. So if your smoker is burning well, the way to make it burn longer is to get as much mass of the fuel of your choice into it as possible. Packing the fuel may also reduce the air flow - depending on your smoker design this could help it burn longer, or possibly make it go out...

    Other than that, use whatever fuel you want. I am very much an amateur when it comes to smokers, and am very happy if I can get my hardwood pellets to burn nicely and produce smoke for 3 or 4 hours reliably. When they are dry, the burn until they are nothing but ashes, which takes quite a while. I don't know how long, since this only happens when I forget my smoker on, and come back the next day...

    I'm writing all of this because it took me a surprising amount of time to figure it out, and most of the posts I have seen on the topic (not an exhaustive search) have focused on what fuel to use and how to light it (I use a torch), and not on the relatively simple chemistry and physics of fire.

    I hope this will help people who have struggled with this.

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  3. #2
    Join Date
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    Default Re: One more post about keeping a smoker lit

    Good post. I have been using pine straw mixed with pine cones as a primary fuel source. Once properly lit, the smoker will burn itself out of fuel. Sometimes the straw is more damp and hard to light. This is where dry burlap sack material comes in handy.
    Thankfully, the bees are smarter than I am. They are doing well, in spite of my efforts to help them.

  4. #3
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    Default Re: One more post about keeping a smoker lit

    Quote Originally Posted by A Novice View Post
    I'm writing all of this because it took me a surprising amount of time to figure it out, and most of the posts I have seen on the topic (not an exhaustive search) have focused on what fuel to use and how to light it (I use a torch), and not on the relatively simple chemistry and physics of fire.
    A useful post.

    I tend to use softwood sawdust as a fuel, mainly because I've got lots of it (stored in plastic dustbins to keep it dry. )

    It smoulders (smolders in US) beautifully, but can be a b:tch to light - so I've taken to plugging-up the smoker after use, so that a small amount of partially burnt fuel remains at the bottom of the can. This residual partly-carbonised fuel then lights very easily by simply dropping a lighted tissue paper or similar down onto it - a few pumps, and we're away again ...

    The type of fuel would seem to determine how best a smoker should be loaded-up, but in general terms I'd say that the secret to getting a smoker operational is to create a well-established fire right at the bottom of the can - once that's been achieved, almost any fuel can then be added. I also find that a handful of dried grass (preferably which has been exposed to damp air in storage) is perfect for 'topping-off' a smoker to produce lots of cool smoke.
    'best
    LJ
    A Heretics Guide to Beekeeping http://heretics-guide.atwebpages.com/

  5. #4
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    Default Re: One more post about keeping a smoker lit

    Quote Originally Posted by little_john View Post
    the secret to getting a smoker operational is to create a well-established fire right at the bottom of the can - once that's been achieved, almost any fuel can then be added.
    In a nutshell, that.

    The other thing i see people do wrong is pack the smoker too loose. IE, put a bit of sack or a few sticks in, and wonder why it goes out. The established smouldering bit can't really keep going if there is just some scattered bits here and there, the fuel should be solidly packed, but just loose enough to allow air through when the bellows are puffed.

    Oh and, crappy low quality smokers can be a problem, there are some crazy cheap smokers coming out of China now but the race has been to the bottom for both price and quality. Air flow can be very poor, and don't even think about a 3 inch one, just too small and prone to go out.
    "Every viewpoint, is a view from a point." - Solomon Parker

  6. #5
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    Dane County, WI, USA
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    Default Re: One more post about keeping a smoker lit

    Corrugated cardboard rolled up (from all those Amazon boxes).
    Stupid easy to light up.

    Another consideration - do you work 50 hives in one setting OR do you want 1 hive in one setting?
    There is large difference in your need, based on this spec.
    That is what you should consider first.

    Then decide if you need a non-stop smoking OR you need a quick job smoking.

    I personally work in stop-and-go, quick fashion and the smoker burning up in 10-15 minutes is a benefit for me.
    The smoker going non-stop for a long time is a hindrance for me.
    I don't need that.

    If need more, I just insert another roll of cardboard.
    If not - the smoker is done.
    I drive too between my yards (no need for smoke in the car).
    Former "smoker boy". Classic, square 12 frame Dadants >> Long hive/Short frame/chemical-free experimentations.

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