Grilling with charcoal is one of the most popular ways to cook outdoors, but many people are left wondering if it’s safe. In particular, there’s a common misconception that charcoal can explode when heated up. So what is the truth? Can you really be at risk of an explosion when grilling with charcoal? Let’s find out.
To start right off, it’s important to understand that in normal conditions, charcoal doesn’t explode – it just ignites.
When charcoal is exposed to a heat source such as a fire, it will begin to ignite and burn. Since charcoal is made up of carbon and other substances, it can burn at very high temperatures. But the ignition process is fairly slow and in no way resembles an explosion. Moreover, there are no flames created when the charcoal is lit. Unless you are using match light charcoal that has lighter fluid added to it.
That being said, there are certain safety risks, including explosions, that come with grilling with charcoal.
Table of Contents
- Charcoal and Mini Explosions
- Charcoal Chimney Starter May Cause an Explosion
- Charcoal Lighter Fluid May Cause Explosion Too
- Can Charcoal Self-Ignite?
- Wrap up
Charcoal and Mini Explosions
When grilling with charcoal you may have noticed small ‘mini explosions’ or popping when the charcoal is burning. The popping sound is usually followed by the charcoal piece falling apart and a small burst of sparkles.
This phenomenon is caused by moisture and sometimes gas that gets trapped in the tiny pockets between the carbon particles inside each piece of charcoal.
Charcoal is hygroscopic, meaning it can and readily will absorb moisture from the air. The trapped water vapor heats up and expands, eventually becoming steam. This causes pressure to build up in the tiny pocket and causes a mini explosion. It’s similar in nature to wood that hasn’t dried thoroughly.
The pressure then forces the carbon particles apart, sending bits of charcoal flying out and producing sparkles.
This is usually harmless and doesn’t pose any risk to you or your food. In some circumstances though, the sparkles or pieces of hot charcoal may fly away and could land on a flammable surface, potentially causing it to catch fire, so caution should be taken.
Lump charcoal made from hardwoods is more susceptible to this than briquettes.
How to avoid this? Keeping the charcoal as dry as possible before grilling is the best way to go about this. Avoid storing charcoal outside in the open to avoid getting it wet.
Charcoal Chimney Starter May Cause an Explosion
Another risk is that if you are using a charcoal chimney starter, it can potentially cause an explosion. This is something that inexperienced people may attribute to the charcoal or the chimney starter but there is a different culprit at play.
Believe it or not, that culprit is concrete. Yes, that concrete your driveway is made from.
I’ve seen countless people placing the chimney starter directly on their concrete driveways, and this is not a good idea. Concrete can explode when you do this. Wonder why?
When charcoal is being started up in a chimney starter, it becomes extremely hot. That heat will then transfer to the concrete, causing the moisture inside to expand. When enough pressure builds up, it can cause the concrete to explode.
Mind you, it’s not gonna blow your whole driveway off, but it will cause damage to the surface below the chimney starter.
Moreover, the explosion will send the chimney starter and the red-hot coals flying in the air, possibly causing a fire if the coals end up on something flammable.
Don’t believe me? Have a read here. You will find many similar reports if you google around.
How to avoid chimney starter explosions?
To avoid this, always place the chimney starter on a non-flammable surface such as fire bricks.
Placing it on dirt is also an option if nothing else is available. Grass, on the other hand, is something I would avoid. First, the heat from the chimney is a sure way of creating a nice and even circle of dead grass on your lawn. Second, especially in dryer areas, there is a chance of setting your whole lawn on fire.
In conclusion, charcoal itself doesn’t explode under normal conditions; however, there are certain safety risks associated with grilling with charcoal that may cause explosions or mini-explosions. Always use a non-flammable surface when starting up the
If you do use concrete, make sure the chimney starter has a layer of insulation between it and
You can even place the starter directly on the grill grates if you want to. There’s no damage to be caused to the grates. The only thing that could happen is that the grates may get covered with a bit of ash. Nothing that a quick wipe won’t fix.
Charcoal Lighter Fluid May Cause Explosion Too
In the past, there have been some accidents involving improper use of lighter fluid, which led to explosions or extreme flare-ups.
There’s been an accident in Australia that involved a man dumping a whole bucket of lighter fluid into his grill. Needless to say, that didn’t end well. Fortunately, he survived. If you want to watch this, you can find the video here.
To avoid something like that, even on a smaller scale, don’t try to add lighter fluid to the charcoal while it is on the grill. The heat will ignite the lighter fluid in a fraction of a second, causing an extreme flare-up. The fire will also follow the stream of lighter fluid, leading to a possible explosion of the fluid container which could cause serious injury.
Can Charcoal Self-Ignite?
Much has been said about the possibility of charcoal self-igniting. Well, the truth is that it’s highly unlikely for charcoal to spontaneously ignite in normal conditions.
Charcoal surely can spontaneously combust in the right environment, but given the small quantities sold and used for BBQ purposes, the ambient temperature would have to reach at least 250°F or 110°C. So, sure, you should definitely use some common sense when storing your charcoal and not leave it near heat sources, but self-ignition is highly unlikely.
If you want to learn more about the self-ignition of charcoal, check out this website.
To sump, although charcoal, is not likely to explode on its own, certain risks come with grilling with charcoal. But these should not deter anyone from grilling with charcoal.
Caution is advised when using any type of grill, not only charcoal grills. Gas grills can cause explosions, pellet grills can set things on fire and even electric grills can cause serious fires if not monitored.
It is important to be mindful of the safety risks associated with grilling and take measures to minimize them. As long as you are aware of the risks involved and take precautions, grills, smokers, and griddles are safe.