As summer time creeps up on us, I am once again forced to consider one of the great debates of all time: should I buy a gas or charcoal barbecue?
Yes, it’s that time again. My current gas grill is ready to be retired from service and so I am now in the market for a new one.
When it comes to gas or charcoal, hard-core grillers love to debate considerations such as cooking time, flavor, authenticity, and temperature control. But many barbecue infidels like myself tend to look at cost first. We’ll worry about whether or not propane is able to provide that authentic smoky, hardwood fire flavor later.
From a purely financial perspective, there is a significant short-term cost difference depending on whether you choose gas or charcoal barbecues.
But frugal folks who are focusing on a barbecue with price as their key discriminator should consider not only the original purchase price of the grill, but also maintenance and operating costs as well.
As you will see in the following analysis charcoal is the clear winner in the short run, but what about the long run?
Generally speaking, when it comes to start-up costs, charcoal grills offer the lowest prices. The most basic charcoal grills can be had for as little as $25, however you can find high-end charcoal grills for as much as $2000.
Gas and electric grills start around $125 for the low-end models. Like the charcoal models, gas grills can also be found for thousands of dollars.
Folks who like to use the standard six-quart chimney starters instead of lighter fluid will spend between $4 and $5 per cookout when using high-quality briquettes. Here is a comparison between Kingsford charcoal briquettes and a barbecue brick; the briquettes averaged about $4 per hour of burn time while the bricks averaged $3.75 over the same period.
What about gas grills?
Well, on average, you can get two hour-long cookouts per pound of propane. Therefore, a five pound tank will get you ten cookouts. I recently saw an advertisement for 20-pounds of propane at a cost of $28. Based upon that price, gas barbecues currently average about 70 cents per one-hour cookout.
Electric grills are even cheaper per cookout. Char-Broil and Weber offer models rated at 1650W and 1560W, respectively. For an electric grill rated at 1600W, and assuming a cost of 13 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity, that comes out to just over 20 cents per hour-long cookout.
The beauty of charcoal grills is that they generally require very little maintenance. Other than the grill grates that experts recommend should be replaced every one or two years, for lower end models there shouldn’t be any other maintenance costs.
With gas grills, you not only have to refill the propane tank (assuming you do not have a direct connection to your home gas line), but you also have to maintain the gas connections and lines, the ignitor, and grates. You also must be sure to keep the burners, ignitor collector box, and drip tray clean. Oh yes, and you may need to replace the flavor briquettes if you choose to use them as well!
How much does all that stuff cost if it goes bad? It depends on what is being replaced, of course, but as an example I had to replace the heat plate on my old gas barbecue a few years ago and that ran me close to $20 after shipping and handling charges were applied.
For many folks, choosing a barbecue can involve many different considerations. When it comes to cost effectiveness, charcoal grills tend to offer lower up-front costs than gas or electric grills. However, for those who care, over the long run the initial savings of charcoal grills can be quickly eaten up by the corresponding fuel costs. Ultimately, however, neither charcoal nor gas grills can claim a complete cost advantage over its rival.
In other words, the great debate continues.
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