Gas or Charcoal BBQs: Which One Is More Cost Effective?

bbqWith warmer weather finally here and the recent demise of my old grill, I once again find myself considering one of the great debates of all time: Should I buy a gas or charcoal barbecue?

When it comes to the question of gas or charcoal, hard-core grillers love to debate considerations such as cooking time, flavor, authenticity, and temperature control. However, backyard barbecue infidels like myself focus first and foremost on cost. I know — but we can always 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?

Here is an overview of the three most important cost criteria:

Purchase Price. Generally speaking, when it comes to start-up costs, charcoal grills offer the lowest prices. The most basic charcoal grills can still be had today for as little as $30, however you can find high-end charcoal grills for as much as $2000.

On the other hand, gas grills are a bit more expensive; the smallest two-burner versions start around $100 for the low-end models. Of course, those who are looking to splurge can easily find fancier gas grill models for $1000 or more.

Fuel Costs. Charcoal barbecues run roughly $2.50 per cookout, assuming 40 charcoal briquettes per barbecue. However, you can save approximately 50 cents every time you barbecue by using a standard six-quart chimney starters instead of lighter fluid.

What about gas grills? Well, on average, a gallon of propane will yield three cookouts. Therefore, the typical five-gallon tank is enough for 15 cookouts. I recently filled up my 5-gallon propane tank for $15.00. Based upon that price, and assuming an average of 15 cookouts per tank, that’s roughly $1.00 per cookout; it’s also $1.50 cheaper per cookout than charcoal — and that can really add up over time if you grill a lot.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, electric grills are cheaper on a per-cookout basis than either propane or charcoal. For the typical electric grill rated at 1600W, and assuming a cost of 16 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity, an hour-long cookout costs just 26 cents.

Maintenance Costs. 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 $30 after shipping and handling charges were applied.

BBQ Update

The Bottom Line

For many folks, choosing a barbecue involves many different considerations. When it comes to cost effectiveness, charcoal grills tend to offer lower upfront costs than a gas grill. However, over the long run, those upfront cost savings tend to be — if you’ll excuse the pun — eaten up by the higher fuel cost of charcoal. As a result, neither charcoal or gas grills can claim a definitive cost advantage over its rival.

In other words: the Great Grill Debate continues.

Photo Credit: ctaloi

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    I’ve been thinking about buying a grill when I move into my condo. I assumed that I would buy a charcoal grill because it’s less expensive, but I didn’t consider the other costs. After reading your post, I’m still going to stick with the charcoal grill, but remember that each time I grill will cost about $4/hour :)

  2. 2

    says

    I know. That $4/hr is kind of hard to ignore, isn’t it? lol It’s still cheaper than if you went to a fancy steakhouse or other BBQ joint though! :-)

    Len

  3. 3

    Vince says

    This is highly dependent on the cost of the fuel. In a third world country where relatively cheap low quality raw charcoal (not briquettes) is available and you use scrap paper and other flammable trash to start the fire … you get the idea

  4. 5

    T-Bone says

    Thanks for this article. I’ve always avoided the propane BBQs because of the higher up front costs but I think you’ve convinced me to go for it now. I’m not one of those BBQ gourmets, so I’ll probably be unable to tell the difference anyway.

  5. 6

    says

    I’m not a BBQ connoisseur by any means and so I really don’t think I’d be able to tell if I did a blind taste test between charcoal grilled and gas grilled meat.

    (I’m sure a lot of barbecue experts out there are already wincing at that comment of mine.) LOL

    • 8

      says

      Scooter, electric grills cost on average between 10 and 15 cents per hour to operate. You can get small indoor/outdoor electric grills starting at around $50 – $60. As for maintenance, I need to do a little more research but I suspect they should be similar in maintenance to that of the gas grill. When I know for sure, I will let you know. Thanks for your question!

  6. 9

    Sheila says

    We use charcoal for the flavor. I usually spend about $15 (double pack at Sam’s Club) on charcoal in the spring along with possibly $3 (Walmart generic) for starter fluid. This lasts us the entire season. We grill on average once a week, Our ‘season’ in Colorado is shorter than some, but lasts at least 4 months. So that’s at least 16 meals for $18 fuel. For us it’s about the flavor rather than the cost, but I just wanted to point out that our costs are nowhere near as high as you show here. I guess it depends on how much you pay for charcoal brickettes and how much you use each time you grill.

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      It definitely depends on how many briquettes you use. You can get 40 pounds of Kingsford briquettes at Home Depot for about $20 — that’s about 640 briquettes in all. The number of briquettes is a function of how big your BBQ is and what you are cooking: generally, steak needs a higher temp than burgers, brats and hot dogs — and therefore, more briquettes.

      By the way, I’m with you: I prefer the taste of BBQ over charcoal — but in the end, I let the convenience of gas rule the day.

  7. 11

    Stephen says

    I have both. I have a Weber Genesis that I use almost year round even in winter. I use it during the week when time is at a premium. I use natural lump charcoal on weekend when cooking a bigger piece of meat. I prefer the flavor of the natural lump charcoal for flavor.

  8. 12

    Stephen says

    I have both. I have a Weber Genesis that I use almost year round even in winter. I use it during the week when time is at a premium. I use natural lump charcoal on weekend when cooking a bigger piece of meat. I prefer the flavor of the natural lump charcoal for flavor.

    For me it’s more of a time factor than anything else.

  9. 14

    says

    It all depends on your budget. There are both great charcoal grills and gas grills for your money. I am a personal fan of gas because they are cleaner, and if you want a smokey flavor that charcoal gives you than try using a smoke box or set up a type of smoker in your gas grill with soaked wood chips.

  10. 15

    says

    I like barbeques but I don’t like the work involved with it. But if I will barbeque, I’d prefer doing it with charcoal. I like the smokey flavor. Anyway it’s not often that we barbeque so even if it will cost more, it’s ok.

  11. 16

    says

    But the time!!!!! You can fire up that propane grill, let it heat up, cook your steak and be done. With charcoal, you have to let the stupid things cool down to ash covered coals, then cook, no wait, the wind in West Texas (which blow 99% of the time) blew out the flame! Start over, now the potatoes are overcooked, salad is limp and I have already eaten my dessert!

    Hollis where it doesn’t rain but the wind blows and blows

    Did I mention the wind blow along with the sand! and we are
    always under a burn ban?

  12. 18

    says

    I prefer my Kingsford charcoal grill. My wife bought it for me 9 years ago and it is fnally falling apart. A few of my friends have gone through 2-3 propane grills in the same time frame. The only downside to charcoal is the time factor. But usually when we are grilling out it is to enjoy the day, so i don’t mind it taking a bit longer.

    • 19

      Len Penzo says

      The first propane grill I ever bought in 1999 lasted me about ten years. The last one I had lasted just three years before it fell apart.

  13. 21

    Karen says

    Have been using hibachi style charcoal grills since 1967. Bought all of them at yard sales for one dollar to five dollars. You usually have to soak the grill part in a plastic bag with ammonia and then scrub it clean. The grills come from families converting to gas cooking. Often there’s a full or partial bag of charcoal and container of lighter fluid thrown in. Bought one brand new (35 year old) hibachi in the original box for five dollars and it was too good for me, pristine, sold it on ebay for $30. We’re using our current $2. grill which has served us for a number of years, and sitting in a corner of the garage is the NEXT one, bought for a few bucks at an estate sale. We like the taste of the smoke on the food. I usually cook burgers or a steak. Then, “That fire is still perfect right now.” I put on cleaned shrimp which have been marinated in olive oil and granulated garlic on the still fiery grill. The shrimp are delicious served hot and even better cold the next day, or sausage links which are used the next day in a very non greasy sausage and peppers on rolls. Getting two meals’ cooking out of one batch of briquets cuts the cost. I once bought a Weber dome top charcoal grill on stand which had been used once, that family switched to gas. Price was $10. including the owner’s manual. The Weber took up too much storage room so I gave it to a friend who is using it years later.

    • 22

      Len Penzo says

      Great tips. Karen! Thanks for sharing those. I’ll hit a few garage sales first the next time I need a new grill!

  14. 23

    MaryAnn Pumilia says

    After 30+ years of using a gas grill, we purchased a stand up George Forman electric grill. We find keeping gas grills clean a chore. We would notice critters, like chipmunks, would get inside the grill from the drain hole, bugs, etc. Hassles with having to fill the tank. With the electric grill- we can use it inside or outside. We clean it after each use and tuck it away in a corner in our kitchen when not in use. It cost about $50 on Amazon. Best thing for us.

  15. 24

    MaryAnn Pumilia says

    BTW- there are special sponge/ scrubbers made for the George Forman grill and with soap and water not hard to clean at all. Has a drain pan underneath that you just empty and wash. Lid just gets wiped down as well. If you store it inside stays nixes and clean away from the elements.

  16. 25

    michelle f. says

    len, my in-laws bought us our weber kettle (we’ve named it big blue) over 31 years ago. we have only had to replace the handles on the sides & lid and the mechanism that closes the vents, that was about 5 yrs. ago. we clean the grate off every time and still don’t see the need to replace it. if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. we use ours at least once a week in the warm season and if it doesn’t have snow on it we use it to bbq turkeys for thanksgiving and legs of lamb for Easter, pork loin roasts and tri-tip year round. if you close the vents down immediately after grilling it saves the coals so you only need to add half as much the next time. granted it does take a little bit of time (20-25 min.) for the coals to get ready but i use that time to prep my food, let the meat come closer to room temp. and then i also put my veggies on the grill too.

  17. 28

    hannah says

    Sorry but charcoal is the clear winner in my mind. Our basic, but name brand, charcoal grill cost only $30, with zero maintenance cost. Only maintenance is occasionally scrubbing with soap and water.
    Charcoal briquettes go on sale very cheap every year in the spring, and you can easily stock a few bags to last the year.
    There is no way you need to use brand new briquettes every grill time, so the $2.00 cost for 40 briquettes is not right. We grill several rounds of food, enough for several days, and my husband often uses briquettes from the last time he grilled.
    We use a chimney fire starter, and have never needed lighter fluid.
    All in all, our costs for a charcoal grill are very low, and I love not having to depend on gas, or the pain of going to the store to buy another refill at $45 a shot.

    • 29

      Len Penzo says

      Fair enough, Hannah! I have to admit, I do hate it when I have to get those propane refills!

  18. 30

    WB says

    I’m very late to the party I know. I know this is a financial site but I’ve never thought much about the difference in cost. I just like charcoal flavor better than gas. I do use the chimney starter. I put 5 or 6 of those quick lite briquets on the bottom and fill the rest with regular charcoal, more often than not a store brand. I usually grill enough for a week of food. My time investment is about 3 hours but it’s something I enjoy and the family loves grilled food.

    • 31

      Len Penzo says

      No worries, WB. It’s never too late to comment on an article here!

      I enjoy grilling too — and I definitely can see why many people prefer grilling with charcoal as opposed to propane.

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