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Gas and electric grills may not impart that smoky charbroiled flavor that charcoal lovers crave, but they ignite more easily, burn cleaner, cook foods more evenly, and are simpler to clean. No barbecue method is without its eco-impact, but gas and electric (with gas slightly ahead) lead the way in green grilling.

Find it! Gas and electric grills

There are literally dozens of gas and electric grill brands available at stores ranging from specialty retailers (patio and outdoor living stores), mass merchandisers (like Wal-Mart) and home improvement centers (like Lowe’s and Home Depot), to hardware stores and even department stores. Gas grills—powered by propane tank or permanently connected to a home’s natural gas supply—cost anywhere from $100 to as much as $10,000 for deluxe stainless steel models. Electric grills start at $150 with top-line models going for $2,000 or more.

Before you buy

When deciding which style, size, and features you want, consider how often you barbecue, how many people you serve on average and the size of the area available for grilling (e.g., a big backyard or small balcony).The advantages of a gas grill with propane tank is its portability and ability to heat quickly. Electric grills are slower to sizzle and must be operated near an electrical outlet. On the other hand, they don’t produce an open flame and are often smaller so they can be used spaces where gas grills can't fit or aren't allowed because of fumes (such as indoors or on an apartment balcony). For more on choosing a gas or electric grill, check out:

Gas and electric grills help you go green because…

  • They burn cleaner than charcoal and wood and are more energy-efficient.
  • Gas and electric contribute fewer hydrocarbons and health-harming soot particles than charcoal (both lump charcoal and briquettes).[1]
  • Grilling with gas or electric means you forgo the lighter fluid. The 46,000 tons of lighter fluid used in the US each year releases an estimated 14,500 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to ground-level ozone.[2]

More than 80 percent of US households own a barbecue grill, and a majority cook out all year. Peak use occurs during the summer months when 47 percent fire up an average of one to two times a week.[3] With millions of grills smoking at once, the eco-impacts are significant. On the Fourth of July alone, an estimated 60 million cookouts gobble up enough energy via charcoal, gas, electricity, and lighter fluid to keep a small city (20,000 homes) powered for a year. They also consume the equivalent of 2,300 acres of forest and release 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.[4][5]

Charcoal and wood burn dirtier than either gas or electric, emitting carbon monoxide, soot, and greenhouse gases. Lump charcoal is made by slow-burning wood (branches, limbs, trunks, etc.) in a low-oxygen environment to eliminate moisture and volatile gases (such as methane and tars, which are released into the atmosphere). The resulting charred wood is much lighter than whole wood and burns longer and more steadily. It also produces less ash than processed charcoal briquettes. Many purists prefer lump charcoal because it adds a smoky flavor to food and doesn't contain any artificial binders and additives like briquettes. However, the charring process produces significant amounts of particulate matter in the smoke. A large portion of these emissions can be contained by fitting the exhaust vents with afterburners, but this often isn't done because of the cost.

Pillow-shaped briquettes aren't much better. They're typically made from charred sawdust and wood scraps from lumber mills (a good way to use wood waste), combined with binding agents to help them hold their shape. However, many commercially available brands also contain potentially harmful ingredients, including coal dust (a heat source), sodium nitrate (to aid ignition) and VOC-forming lighter fluid (for quick-light brands).

In part because of the smoky habits of charcoal and briquettes, gas and electric grills have gained in popularity since 1985, with shipments tripling. Gas grills now represent 58 percent of the total market and electric account for 2 percent. Charcoal grills (once the leader with 70 percent of the market) have slipped to 40 percent of grills shipped.[6]

Gas and electric grills aren't without their environmental downsides. Both burn natural resources that also contribute greenhouse gases. Natural gas and propane (a byproduct of natural gas) are nonrenewable fossil fuels, and recent increases in demand have boosted calls for more offshore drilling. Electricity is often generated via coal-fired plants and other methods that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

On balance, though, both gas and electric are preferable to charcoal and wood—with gas (the cleanest burning fossil fuel) coming in slightly ahead of electric. However, when electricity is generated via wind or solar power, electric barbecuing leads as the green-grilling method of choice.

Glossary

  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products, including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, and may cause immediate and long-term health problems. VOCs are also considered a possible carcinogen, and can create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.

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