In 2020 the world of pellet grills is getting interesting. Danson’s is promoting a third brand of pellet grill, Country Smokers, to compliment their Louisiana Grills and Pit Boss product lines. Oklahoma Joe is introducing its first three pellet smokers and Weber-Stephens is bringing its first two pellet grills to market. In addition, several established brands are coming out with new tweaks to old designs.
Out of all of these changes the barbecue world is most intrigued about the introduction of the Weber Smokefire pellet grills. Weber appears to have been strategic in their market entry as their two grills, the Smokefire EX4 and EX6, are designed to go head to head with the Ironside series pellet grill produced by Traeger.
As some background, in 2017 the relatively new CEO of Traeger stated that the plan for Traeger was not to dominate the pellet grill industry but was to dominate outdoor grilling globally. In order for that goal to be successful Traeger was going to have to up its game and come up with grills that could compete with Weber. The result is that Traeger came up with three new product lines (Pro, Ironwood and Timberline) that were actually pretty dang good and are viable alternatives for traditional gas grills.
It looks like Traeger got Weber’s attention because Weber responded in full force!
Update Feb 2020
The Weber Smokefire has been released and several users are reporting problems. The two biggest issues are grease fires and pellet hopper design flaw. Here are a couple of videos that show the issues.
Weber vs Traeger
Comparing the Weber Smokefire EX4 directly against the Traeger Ironwood 650 gives you an idea of what Weber is up to.
- Weber: $999
- Traeger: $1,199
- Cooking Area
- Weber: 672 square inches
- Traeger: 649 square inches
- Upper Temperature
- Weber: 600F
- Traeger: 500F
The Smokefire is a little bigger, a lot hotter and 20% less expensive than the Ironwood. You get the same trend on the larger Smokefire EX6 vs the Ironwood 885.
Let’s take a closer look at the issue of cooking area. The Weber grill has 3.5% more grilling space than the Traeger and, for all practical purposes, that difference is insignificant. I highlight the grilling area because it defines Weber’s strategy for the Smokefire series: Make a grill that is better than Traeger in every single detail. Time will tell if Weber has succeeded in outdoing Traeger but at first glance it looks like they have put up a pretty solid effort!
The Differences That Matter
So if the grate size isn’t that big of a deal then what, other than price, really makes the Weber grill different?
The biggest complaint about pellet grills in general is that they struggle to generate sufficient heat to be great grills. Pellet grills are amazing at “Low and Slow” but are just okay for high heat grilling.
For years the highest stated temperature that Traeger said you could get with one of its grills was 450F. With the Timberline and Ironwood series the top temperature rose to 500F. If you throw a set of infrared emitting GrillGrate panels into an Ironwood at max heat you will be able to put a decent sear on a steak but the GrillGrate panels are not standard and will set you back another $70 bucks or so.
The Weber Smokefire comes in with a maximum temperature of 600F which is plenty hot enough to put a great crust on a steak. With the improved top temperature it looks like the Smokefire is one of the few pellet grills that actually performs as a high heat grilling machine.
The auger is the screw mechanism that moves the wood pellets from the storage hopper to the fire pot. On every other pellet grill that I am aware of the exit point from the auger is directly connected to the fire pot. On the Weber the pellets leave the auger and fall several inches down into the fire pot.
The Weber design is intended to prevent a rare but serious condition that happens with pellet grills. Sometimes the burning pellets in the firepot will ignite the pellets that are still in the auger. Once a fire starts in the auger it can burn backwards and reach the entire pile of pellets that are stored in the hopper. This burnback scenario does not happen very often but is scary as heck when it does. The elevated distance between the auger and the fire pot should eliminate the possibility of burnbacks.
Additionally, the Weber auger is designed to sense any pellet jams and will work its way backwards and forwards to fix the problem.
Traeger, and almost all other pellet grills, manage grease by collecting it on a large heat deflector/grease tray located between the cooking grate and the fire pot. The grease tray is sloped and the collected grease drains away to a grease bucket of some type. Overall this type of grease management system works pretty well.
The Weber grease management system is completely different and is based upon how grease is handled in the Genesis gas grills. On the Smokefire the grease drips into the firebox, is partially vaporized by stainless steel Flavorizer bars and then falls into a grease trap at the base of the grill.
In other words, a Traeger collects grease ABOVE the flames while a Weber collects grease BELOW the flames. The driver behind this change was to reduce the probability of a grease fire. Grease fires are not very common in pellet grills but can happen when people get lazy and don’t clean their grills as often as they should.
Management of sawdust is an issue unique to pellet grills. As wood pellets burn in the fire pot a fan blows air to help the fire burn and distribute heat through the grill. The fan also blows on any wood dust that comes out of the auger and sends it all over the base of the grill. Over time there will be a large accumulation of sawdust in the base of the grill that must be cleaned out as it is a real fire hazard.
Weber addressed this problem by designing a new fire pot. The fire pot on the Smokefire has slots in the bottom that allow any dust that comes out of the auger to fall through and collect in the grease tray. This results in significantly less dust being blown through the grill which should make the Smokefire safer to operate.
The Traeger system for grease management and sawdust management work fine if you take the time to clean the grill on a regular basis. Weber recognized that most people hate cleaning their grills and do not do it often enough. In response, Weber engineered a system that does not require cleaning as often.
Pellet Hopper Size
The Ironwood hopper holds 20 pounds of pellets and the Smokefire hold 22 pounds. This component is not critical but I like to point it out as another example of Weber’s attention to detail.
There is a sensor in the Smokefire hopper that lets you know when the grill is low on pellets and only has about two pounds left. While wood pellets can come in any size bag, one of the most common sizes is 20 pounds. This means that when the low pellet alarm goes off there is enough room for a full bag of pellets. You can dump the pellets into the hopper and throw away the bag.
When the hopper gets low on the Ironwood you only have room for most of the bag of pellets and will need to store the remaining few pounds somewhere out of the way.
Again, this is not a big deal from a practical perspective but it gives an indication of how well Weber thought things through.
The Weber grill has a PID controller while the Ironwood has Traeger’s D2 control system. The Traeger D2 controller is pretty solid and I do not know if the PID on the Weber is a meaningful improvement. However, there are a lot of folks who swear by the PID as the gold standard so I figured it was worth mentioning.
Both grills come with Wi-Fi connectivity and have associated apps. There are no reports yet on the functionality of the Weber system.
Here is a promotional video for the Smokefire.
Here is a promotional video for the Ironwood.
This is just my perspective but the Ironwood video seems like it focussed more on shots of food and people than the grill itself. You can really see the innovations in the Smokefire video.
Here is a hands on walkthrough of the Ironwood.
Here is a hands on walk through of the Smokefire.
Head to Head Winner
In full disclosure I have not cooked on either of these grills. I also acknowledge that both Weber and Traeger have highly devoted fan bases and their views on products are biased accordingly. I have been a Weber guy for a while and so my perspectives are biased.
That being said….when I step back and try to be absolutely objective
I think the Weber Smokefire is the clear winner. The jury is still out on this until we see how common the reported operational issues are.
The Smokefire appears to be better designed on many levels and is 20% less expensive than a Traeger. It kind of blows my mind that for once you can make the case for buying a Weber based on price!
What do you think? Which grill would you buy??
Related Pellet Grill Posts