Why’s My Smoker Not Getting Hot? 12 Reasons Your Pit Isn’t Heating Up

It’s frustrating when you are trying to bring your smoker up to temperature, but it can’t quite reach the target. Or you might reach the target temperature but it drops off immediately. If your smoker isn’t getting hot enough, it could be several things. I delved deep into this subject and have put together a list of common mistakes that prevent your smoker from getting hot. 

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So why is my smoker not getting hot? It could be several things:

  1. There isn’t enough coal in the fire basket. 
  2. The intake vents aren’t open enough. 
  3. The coals weren’t pre-lit in a charcoal chimney. 
  4. The charcoal is damp. 
  5. Ash build-up is preventing airflow and choking the fire. 
  6. The climate is too cold and freezing the metal on the smoker. 
  7. The lid of the smoker is being opened too frequently, causing the hot air to escape and letting the cold air inside. 
  8. Electric and gas smokers can’t reach high temperatures. 
  9. There are cracks and leaks in the smoker.
  10. You purchased a cheap smoker, which is difficult to control. 
  11. Placing an enormous amount of meat in the smoker will cause the temperature to drop. 
  12. The temperature gauge is inaccurate. 

Possible reasons for a smoker not getting hot enough and corresponding solutions:

Not enough coal in the fire basketAdd more coal
Intake vents aren’t open enoughOpen the vents more
Coals weren’t pre-lit in a charcoal chimneyPre-light the coals in a charcoal chimney
Charcoal is dampUse dry charcoal
Ash build-up is preventing airflow and choking fireRemove ash build-up
Climate is too cold and freezing the metalWait for warmer weather
Lid of the smoker is being opened too frequentlyOpen the lid less frequently
Using an electric or gas smokerUse a high-quality smoker
Cracks and leaks in the smokerSeal any cracks or leaks
Using a cheap smokerUse a high-quality smoker
Placing too much meat in the smokerReduce the amount of meat in the smoker
Temperature gauge is inaccurateCheck the accuracy of the temperature gauge

1. Your Intake Vents Not Open Enough

Fire needs oxygen. If you aren’t letting in enough oxygen, then the fire will not burn hot. When your lighting your smoker, open all the vents to get the fire hot, then lower it by adjusting the vents. You’re better off overshooting your target temperature and then winding it back. We don’t add meat until the temperature has stabilized, so there’s no harm in overshooting.

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2. Not enough Charcoal

Check you are putting enough coal in your smoker. You won’t be able to reach your target temperature if you don’t have enough charcoal in the basket. If you think this may be your problem, check out my article: How Much Charcoal Do I Need For My Smoker.

3. You’re Using Damp Charcoal 

Old, damp charcoal won’t ignite or it will go out easily. If you’re using old charcoal that’s been lying around in your garage for years, then you’re not going to have a hot fire. Buy yourself a fresh bag.

4. Pre-light the Charcoal in a Chimney

Pre-heat a full chimney of charcoal and wait for it to fully light. It can take forever trying to light charcoal in the smoker’s coal basket. A charcoal chimney is one of the few must-have accessories when smoking meat. A chimney is not only the best way to pre-light your coals, it works as a fantastic measuring utensil. I normally judge my cooks by how many chimneys I have used. 

If you don’t have a meat injectors, you can get one for about $30 on Amazon: Simple Meat Injectors.

5. Ash Build-up Can Choke The Fire

A buildup of ash can restrict airflow and choke out the flame. Charcoal briquettes produce a lot of ash which can suffocate the flames. Make sure your fire basket is sitting on a lower grate or is raised about an inch from the bottom. This will allow ash to fall through to the bottom. Lump charcoal produces less ash and burns hotter than briquettes. So you may want to consider making the switch.

6. Stop Opening The Lid

If you keep opening the lid of your smoker, this can cause major heat loss if it’s a cold day. Every time you open the lid, you’re going to lose the precious heat and get a big shot of cold air. Constantly opening the lid can also have the opposite effect because the fire will let too much oxygen and send the temperature soaring.

If it’s a wintry day, it’s going to take longer to bring your smoker up to target temperature. To avoid this, use a leave-in wireless thermometer so you don’t have to keep opening the lid. A leave-in thermometer will take all the guesswork and will sound the alarm when the internal temperature has been reached.

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7. Electric and Gas Smokers Can’t Go High

Electric and gas smokers cannot go as high as charcoal smokers. Electric smokers will struggle to get anywhere near 300°F. Electric smokers are convenient, but their inability to reach high temperatures is one downside. 

Most gas or electric smokers don’t get anywhere near hot enough to make a crispy skin on poultry. The way around the low temperatures is to finish your turkey or chicken in a conventional oven. A crispy skin on a bird is only achievable when smoking meat at 300°F thereabouts. So if you have one of these smokers, cook the meat as normal and let the meat absorb smoke for the first few hours. Then, in the last hour, put the roast in a conventional oven at 350°F. Make sure you continue to monitor the internal meat temperature carefully because turkey and chicken can dry out easily. 

8. Smoking on a Cold Day

Smoking in cold climates in a challenge. You will need twice as much charcoal in the winter months because the metal in the cooking chamber will freeze and take a while to come up to the target temperature. Another option is to buy an insulated blanket. This will keep the weather off the smoker and allow you to cook as normal.

When smoking in cold weather, you need to be prepared with extra coals. You’re better off overshooting your target temperature and start cooking a little earlier to allow extra time. You’re better off pre-heating the smoker long before you are ready to cook.

Depending on the smoker, some manufactures make thermal blankets specific to the model of smoker. Traeger for example has a fitted blanket that will keep the weather from the grill. Welding blankets are another good insulation, and hot water system blankets are also used by many. If you think cold weather may be the reason you smoker isn’t getting hot enough, I have an article dedicated to smoking meat in cold climates.

9. Meat Lowers Temperature

Once you stabilise your target temperature, hold it there before adding the meat. When you add an enormous chunk of meat, the temperature will drop considerably. Overshoot your target temperature before you add the meat. This will make an allowance for the meat. 

10. Cracks and Leaky Seals

If you can see smoke leaking out of all different parts of your smoker, then the chances are you have leaves that will need to be addressed. If the cracks are letting too much cold air inside, then this will have an effect of the smoker’s temperature. 

11. Inaccurate Temperature Gauge 

Is the temperature gauge on your smoker any good? The thermometers that are installed on smokers are notoriously inaccurate. The thermometer on the smoker may give you an inaccurate read and be hotter or colder than you think. We put a lot of faith in our thermometers, so it’s important to make sure they are accurate. Some expensive smokers have trustworthy in-built thermometers, but for the rest, you’re better off using your own. 

To avoid this problem, use a duel-probe thermometer. You want a wireless thermometer that has at least two probes so you can measure the cook chamber and the meat. Leave one probe in the meat to measure the internal meat temperature and clip the other probe to the grill. Good wireless thermometers from Thermoworks or ThermoPro are trustworthy and will give you accurate readings every time. A good thermometer takes the guesswork out of smoking meat and alerts you to what’s going on with the fire and the meat. 

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12. El’ Cheapo Smokers

If you purchased one of those $100 smokers from the store, then you’re going to have a hard time trying to control the temperature. Research “Brinkman modifications” and you will find dozens of videos and blogs on how to modify one of these smokers. Brinkman is the name of a popular smoker that you can buy in the barbecue department of stores like Walmart. These smokers look fantastic on the shop floor, but once you smoke with it, you’ll realise you made a mistake.

These smokers go by a few different names, but they are all a similar design. I started out with one of these cheap smokers. Even though I fell for the shiny new Brinkman, I’m grateful to that smoker because it got me hooked on meat smoking. On my first cook, I smoked some burgers and was blown away by the infused smoke flavor. 

Brinkman smokers are a good introduction to meat smoking and work well on smoked chicken and smaller, cheap cuts of meat. The problems come once you try to smoke the big meats with longer cooks. Cheap smokers are very leaky and let in too much air. The increased airflow causes massive temperature swings. On the other end of the spectrum, the fire baskets have poor airflow and choke out the fire. One modification is to drill holes in the fire basket and raise it up on small legs. This will allow the ash to fall through and will also create some airflow. 

There are better options available if you want a smoker for under $100. My second smoker was a used kettle grill. This allowed me to smoke the big meats with no problems, and I paid less for my kettle than I did for the Brinkman! 

If you’re on a budget, check out my article on the best cheap smokers. Here I go into more detail on the options available to you. 

In Summary

There are several possible reasons why your smoker may not be getting hot enough. These include: not having enough coal in the fire basket, not having the intake vents open enough, not pre-lighting the coals in a charcoal chimney, using damp charcoal, ash build-up restricting airflow, the weather being too cold, opening the lid of the smoker too frequently, using an electric or gas smoker that cannot reach high temperatures, having cracks or leaks in the smoker, using a cheap smoker that is difficult to control, placing too much meat in the smoker, or having an inaccurate temperature gauge. To fix these issues, you may need to add more coal, open the vents, pre-light the coals, use dry charcoal, remove ash build-up, wait for warmer weather, reduce the number of times you open the lid, use a high-quality smoker, seal any cracks or leaks, and check the accuracy of the temperature gauge.

My Favorite Meat Smoking Tools

Thanks for checking out this article. I hope you learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite tools I use when smoking brisket that may be useful to you. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to purchase any of these products, I’ll earn a commission. But in all honesty, these are the tools I recommend to my family and friends who are just starting out.

Meat Thermometer: There are dozens of fancy thermometers on the market, but I still use my trusty TP20. For around $50, I have a high-quality meat thermometer with two probes, and can track the temperature of my smoker with one probe, and my meat with the other probe. The ThermoPro TP20 is an Amazon Best Seller because it’s the easiest thermometer to operate, is durable, highly accurate, and comes with pre-programmed meat settings.

Instant Read Thermometer: Arguably, the second most important tool you need is a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. These tools play an important role in the latter stages of the cook when the meat needs regular checking in multiple areas. I use the ThermoPro TP19 because it can do everything a ThermaPen can do, but for a fraction of the cost. You can check out the TP19 on Amazon here.

Wireless Thermometer: The latest thermometers on the market have no wires and can be controlled by wi-fi via your phone. Airprobe 3 is the best of this technology.

Butcher Paper: Wrapping brisket in butcher paper has become a huge trend in barbeque thanks to Aaron Franklin. Wrapping your brisket in paper will give you a nice brisket bark. However, you can’t just use any old paper, it has to be unwaxed, food grade paper. You can find it on Amazon here.

Advanced Thermometer and Automatic Temperature Controller: Once you’re ready to take things seriously, the FireBoard 2 Drive is a six-channel Bluetooth/Wi-Fi thermometer that can monitor up to 6 pieces of meat, control and graph your cook sessions on your smartphone, and attaches to an an automatic blower that will convert your charcoal smoker to a set-and-forget. This is one of the most advanced meat thermometers on the market. You can check it out on the FireBoard website here.


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Author and founder at Meat Smoking HQ

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