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

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?

Purchase Price

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.

Fuel Costs

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.

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 $20 after shipping and handling charges were applied.

Conclusion

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

  • 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 :)

  • 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

  • Vince

    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

  • @Vince: I can’t argue with that. I’ve seen Surviorman burn cow dung to survive – just not BBQ a steak. ;-)

  • T-Bone

    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.

  • 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

  • Scooter

    I’ve got an electric grill. I wonder how that stacks up?

    • 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!

  • Sheila

    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. Even if I’m 100% off, our costs are still about half what you quoted. I guess it depends on how much you pay for charcoal brickettes and how much you use each time you grill.

    • Len Penzo

      Interesting, Sheila. That article is essentially two years old so the prices may have dropped over that time, for whatever reason. Or prices are just higher where I live. 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.

  • Stephen

    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.

  • Stephen

    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.

  • It al 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.

    Weber Summit S-670

  • 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.

  • 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?

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