Starting up your charcoal is a pretty straightforward process.

The only catch is to be able to light the charcoal grill with minimal risk. This is because chances of your grill catching fire and lighting up is high, without adequate safety measures.

According to the National Fire protection Association, charcoal grills were responsible for over a thousand home fires per year between 2014 and 2018. We’ll discuss the 3 main ways to light your charcoal grill and the precautions to adhere to, to see your grilling through.

Steps to Take before Lighting your Charcoal Grill

These are preparations that you need to have in place before lighting the grill. They include;

ѵ. Buy your Charcoal

You need good quality charcoal for your charcoal grill. The type of charcoal affects the intensity of heat produced and the length the hotness is maintained. They are two forms of charcoal that you might opt for- briquettes or lump charcoal.

So, what is the difference between the two?

Lump charcoal is unevenly shaped and forms as a result of burning wood and materials such as coconut shells and mesquite. It burns hotter, faster and produces less ash after grilling. It’s recommended for a low and slow grilling.

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On the other hand, briquettes are formed from sawdust that is bound with fillers and chemical materials to form a uniform pillow shape. Although they light easier, they burn less hot when compared to lump charcoal. The downside of briquettes is the use of chemicals when binding that may alter the taste and flavor of your food.

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The coal you choose depends on the type of heat you require. Others opt to use a mixture of briquettes and lump charcoal.

ѵ. Set up your Grill

This majorly involves placing the grill in the location you’ve identified for grilling. The area should be open and away from other structures that might be affected by the heat produced.

An open space promotes air circulation, meaning you’ll not be affected by the smoke coming from the charcoal grill. Also, assuming a fire erupts from the grill, you’re able to quickly contain it and less likely to incur more damage.

Charcoal grill smoking outside

ѵ. Arrange your Charcoal

You’ll need to arrange your charcoal in a stack on the grill if you’re not using a chimney starter to light your grill.

The amount of charcoal you use depends on the size of your grill and the amount of heat the food you’re cooking requires. Some of the general rules when it comes to charcoal quantity are;

  • A single layer for grilling that requires moderate heat.
  • About 30 briquettes for small portable grills
  • Between 50 to 80 briquettes for grills with large barrels.
  • Slightly more charcoal when grilling during windy, cold and rainy days.

It’s really not an exact science, my advice is to try out with small quantities and build up from there depending on the heat produced. You can add pieces of wood or paper to hasten the lighting process.

Having a thermometer comes in handy to monitor the temperature.

Another aspect that affects the arrangement of charcoal on the grill is the type of heating. The two main types you can achieve are direct and indirect heat.

  • Direct Heat

To achieve direct heat, spread the coals evenly on the grill grate for uniform heat distribution. This is recommended for foods that cook quickly.

  • Indirect Heat

Indirect heat is whereby one section of the grill gets more heat than the other and distributes it inside the grill. You place the coals in one section of the grill and leave the other area without. It’s best for foods that cook slowly.

Ways to Start a Charcoal Grill

There are 3 main ways to fire up your charcoal grill. We’ll discuss these methods and precautions to take when using each one.

1. Start your Charcoal Grill with a Chimney

A chimney for this purpose is also known as a charcoal starter. It’s basically a cylinder made from metal with a handle. You’re supposed to place the charcoal inside the chimney and light.

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You use any type of paper for lighting. The simple steps of using a chimney are:

  • Fill the chimney with the desired quantity of charcoal.
  • Place the pieces of paper at the bottom section of the chimney.
  • Light the paper at different sections and as it burns it’ll light the coals up. Monitor the fire through the chimney vents to ensure it’s burning the coals, if not, add more paper and light.
  • When the flames reach the top and the coals are glowing, it’s time to pour the coals on the grill.
  • Place the charcoal starter on the grill and let them out. They’ll fall in a pile and you can spread them out using tongs.

This is the safest and quickest method of lighting your charcoal grill. The precautions to adhere to is to ensure that the flames from burning paper and charcoal stay within the chimney. This is to avoid the spread of fire to the surrounding.

Also, hold the chimney with a piece of cloth when transferring the coal to the grill to avoid burning your hands since the entire chimney heats up.

2. Start your Charcoal Grill with Lighter Fluid

Lighter fluids are those made from alcohol or petroleum products. You can also find bio-fuel fluids produced from plant-based oils.

Once the charcoal is stacked, pour the lighter fluid over the charcoal around the edges or center of the stack. It’s recommended to use a quarter cup for every pound of charcoal. Once this is done, wait a few seconds for the fluid to absorb and then use a match to light the charcoal.

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Give the coals time to burn and spread them once they are white on the surface.

It’s important to note that the use of lighter fluid is discouraged as it not only pauses a danger of fire explosions but also affects the smell, taste and flavor of food.

Precautions to take when using a lighter fluid

  • Don’t pour lighter fluid on hot or flaming coals.
  • Never use gasoline as a lighter fluid as it’ll explode when ignited.
  • Place the lighter fluid container far from the grill and grilling area as it’s flammable.

3. Light Using an Electric Starter

The electric starter is a gadget with a heating element, normally a metal loop, and a handle that is plugged into a socket to fire up the charcoal.

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Stack the coal together and place the heating element at the center of the pile. Ensure the heating element is covered with pieces of charcoal. Give the electric charcoal starter time to light the coals and remove it.

Although this method takes longer, it’s less involving as you don’t directly handle fire. Just plug in and wait.

Word of caution, do not use an electric starter when it’s raining or near a damp surface to avoid electrocution.

How Do you Know your Charcoal is Ready?

Determining the readiness of coals to cook is the difference between an overcooked, undercooked and a well-cooked meal. You can opt to use a thermometer or use the charcoal color as a guide.

The different colors a charcoal produces and their indication is as follows;

  • Grey or black with flames- The charcoal is not ready for cooking, give it more time to light up.
  • White hot glowing with red- You’re ready to grill in direct heat.
  • Ashy white- Adequate for indirect heating.

You need to constantly tend the fire when cooking to maintain the temperature of cooking. The vents of the charcoal grill also aid in controlling the temperature incase it fluctuates.

Constantly add more charcoal to the grill as the quantity reduces. An average of 5-10 pieces after 30 minutes depending on what you’re cooking. Also control the spacing of the briquettes using tongs.


Lighting your charcoal grill can be a fast process but precautions need to be taken irrespective of the method of lighting used. There are 3 main ways to light a charcoal grill- using a chimney, an electric starter or lighter fluid.

Using a chimney and an electric starter are the most preferred as they’re safer. When using a lighter fluid, opt for plant-based fluids and do not pour fluid on hot or burning coals.

Before you get to starting the charcoal grill, you need to buy charcoal, set up the grill in an open space and arrange the charcoal.

With any of the methods discussed, you’ll be able to enjoy a tasty, well-cooked meal with lots of flavor. If you don’t have a grill yet, here’s a list of the best charcoal grills for the money.

Once you’re done grilling, identify simple ways to clean your grill with minimal effort.