Why Won’t My Charcoal Grill Stay Lit?

Why Won’t My Charcoal Grill Stay Lit?

Sep 07, 2021Staffan Ulmert

Grilling is a fantastic past-time, and the more you grill, the better you’re at it. Still, even the most seasoned grill masters find themselves in a bit of trouble sometimes, like when the charcoal just won’t stay lit. Has this happened to you? Talking about ways of ruining a backyard party, right?

Yes, charcoal grills can be a pain sometimes, and it might be hard to assess what’s going wrong. Charcoal is supposed to be a fool-proof fuel, but let’s just say it has its bad days. If you’re having trouble keeping your grill lit, here’s all you need to know about what’s probably causing the problem, how to prevent it and even fix it!

You’ll be surprised to know there are many reasons your fire just dies off, but the good news is that almost all of them are easy fixes. Here’s your quick guide to everything charcoal and an answer to such a pressing question: Why won’t my charcoal grill stay lit?

7 Reasons Why the Charcoal Doesn’t Stay lit


  1. Charcoal is Dry
  2. Ventilation Problem
  3. Clean grill
  4. Are You Closing the Lid?
  5. You Have Low-Quality Charcoal
  6. Stack Them
  7. Perhaps It’s Just Humid Outside!


To figure out why you’re having trouble keeping your grill lit, let’s find out if it’s the charcoal’s fault or yours. We’ll also talk about a few techniques that can help you light a fire easily and with better results. We’re also talking a bit about charcoal quality and factors that can affect its flammability — some you can control, some you just can’t, sorry.

Let’s dig deep into defective charcoal and good grilling habits, and to end this article on a high note; we’re talking about the most common ways of lighting up a grill. Which one is more effective? Which one is the fastest? Let’s find out!

1. Charcoal is Dry

This might sound obvious, but it really isn’t. When you get a bag of briquettes at the store, you somehow assume the charcoal is nice and dry, and it often is. But, if you have some stored in your backyard, it might be too moist to work.

Charcoal is porous and extremely dry, so it picks up moisture easily. You won’t be able to light this charcoal quickly. There’s some good news, though; you can dry most types of charcoal just by laying them down under the sun for a few hours. Some briquettes are harder to save, as they can crumble when damp.

Also, although you can grill with slightly moist charcoal, you need to use completely dry charcoal as a starter. You can add less than optimal pieces later. Know that charcoal has an infinite shelf-life. As long as it’s dry, you can use it; it will light up beautifully.

So, is this the reason your charcoal grill won’t stay lit? Perhaps your charcoal is just too moist! If you’re sure this isn’t the problem, read on and discover a few other interesting causes for such a common problem.


"You might think the charcoal is the fuel here, but it’s actually the air."


2. Ventilation Problem

Here’s the thing. Fire needs oxygen. You might think the charcoal is the fuel here, but it’s actually the air. You might have noticed your grill has some kind of vents. They let air find its way to the burning embers, creating combustion. The problem with these vents is that they’re somewhat small, and they can get blocked by ash, briquettes or smaller pieces of lump charcoal.

If your charcoal doesn’t stay lit, there’s a chance it doesn’t have enough ventilation. Just like putting out a candle with a small cup (actually called candle snuffer) when there’s no more air around, the charcoal extinguishes. The good news is that you must only allow some ventilation and try again. You’ll easily light your charcoal back up, especially if you have a firelighter.

Keep in mind you should always grill with the vents open. Start by opening them all the way to create a hot air funnel and close them a bit to control the temperature while you cook. The more you open the vents, the hotter the grill will be.

3. Clean grill

You’ll also notice some obstruction when you don’t clean the grill before using it. That’s why you don’t have enough ventilation and therefore the answer to: Why won't my charcoal grill stay lit.

Clean the grill before and after using it. And if you’re not using it for extended periods, clean it every month. Make sure there’s no water in the grill, or it will ruin it. Also eliminate all traces of ashes. They retain moisture.

4. Are You Closing the Lid?

Not all grills have a lid, but most professional grills do, from the famous green egg to portable charcoal grills and, of course, smokers. Most grills have a cover, and it helps cook food evenly. The problem with grills with lids is that if you close the lid too early, before the charcoal burns evenly, then the charcoal might lose temperature and extinguish.


To make a fire, you need fuel, a heat source and oxygen. Well, the charcoal is the fuel; the initial spark provides the flame, and oxygen is everywhere unless you close the lid. No oxygen equals charcoal that doesn’t stay lit. We'll get into our electric lighter later too. So, when should you close your grill’s lid? Generally, you want to close the grill if cooking thick steaks (of over 3/4-inches) or large pieces of meat. Otherwise, you can leave the grill open.

You might also want to close the lid if you throw some wood chips in there or if you’re cooking stubborn food like potatoes. For this type of food, you need some convection, yes, just like an oven, so close the lid to cook these. There’s no real reason to close the lid when starting the fire, though.

5. You Have Low-Quality Charcoal

Grilling is not the time to be cheap, especially when it comes to charcoal. A bag of charcoal can go for a few bucks and up to twenty bucks for some fancy Briquettes or nice lump charcoal. So does the price of coal mean anything? Actually, yes.

Did you know one of the most expensive types of charcoal in the world comes from Japan? It’s called binchotan. This specialty is made with hard oak and burns at around 300 degrees without producing smoke!


So, yes, the type of charcoal matters. The cheap stuff, often with a low carbon content of around 50%, is hard to light up and hard to keep lit — it also produces relatively low heat. Why bother, then?


"The charcoal is just half the story"


If you have trouble keeping your grill going, you might be working with the wrong type of charcoal. Splurge a little; it’s worth it. After all, the grill’s temperature matters, and so does the temperature it produces.

And here’s a final tip on the matter. The charcoal is just half the story; use fruitwoods, hickory or mesquite to give some personality to your grilling. Wood will also help the coals stay lit.

6. Stack Them

Talking with a few grill masters, it turns out one of the most common causes for charcoal not staying lit is a rookie mistake, and it’s more common than you think. The good news? It’s an easy fix!

"everyone is a charcoal-piling expert"

If you’re not staking the charcoal as you light it, you’re not allowing for air to slip through and fuel those flames. Never lay coals flat on the grill; instead, pile them up while leaving some space between them.

There are many techniques here, and it seems everyone is a charcoal-piling expert. Of course, a charcoal chimney might help, but they’re often bulky and not very practical. When it comes to charcoal chimneys, you either love or hate them. But there’s no right or wrong answer here!

In a nutshell, your charcoal is not staying lit because you’re not piling it, or you’re piling it wrong. It’s okay if you’re a noob but come on! We’re talking about a basic grilling skill here! So, keep on practicing! Seriously, the difference between a blistering, successful grill and a so-so one is the way you arrange your coal and the heat you get from it.

7. Perhaps It’s Just Humid Outside!

Is the charcoal not hot enough? Although some things you can control, there are many others you can’t. You might have nice, dry charcoal, a perfectly clean grill, and the correct technique. If the weather is not on your side, sometimes there’s little you can do! How to keep fire going in the grill? Sometimes you can’t!


"Once you reach a temperature between 450°-600° F, humidity won’t have a chance against your grill."


Many places worldwide often have humidity levels as high as 70%, and that doesn’t help — especially when trying to light a fire. Humidity is in the air, and it dampens everything, including your wood and charcoal. Of course, this will not only make lighting up the grill harder, but it might also cause your charcoal to cool off and die; your charcoal is not hot enough.

Did you know the most humid season in most places globally is summer? Which is when we all want to go out and play with our grills. And sure, humidity might not be a factor where you live, but if you can’t keep those embers burning, it might be mother nature having a bad day.

Sadly, there’s nothing you can do about humidity. Your best bet is to light the first coals and keep on feeding them with dry fuel. Once you reach a temperature between 450°-600° F, humidity won’t have a chance against your grill.



How to Keep a Charcoal Grill Lit?

Provided you brought the right kind of charcoal, and it is dry and in good condition, keeping charcoal lit is easy. That’s your answer to why won’t my charcoal grill stay lit. Now, the next pressing question, how to keep fire going in the grill?

"Dry coal, ventilation, adequate spacing and patience. That’s the secret formula right there."

Once you’ve got those embers going, it’s time to keep them lit. Remember to light the charcoals in a pile and then spread them around the grill. You can then add more charcoal to hot coals. This is an excellent opportunity to create a ‘hot’ and a ‘cold’ zone on the grill to cook different things at different temperatures.

Make sure you have adequate ventilation and that the vents are not obstructed. Once lit, you need not add any liquid or other fuel; charcoals are cool like that — once they get going, they won’t stop. That’s the beauty of it! That’s how to keep a charcoal grill lit right there.

Dry coal, ventilation, adequate spacing and patience. That’s the secret formula right there. And remember, we all have different grills and live in different places — what works for you might not work for a fellow grill-enthusiast. Still, we’ve got to start somewhere, right? After all, we’re all a big meat-loving family.

Before we wrap this one up, let’s look at the different ways of lighting the grill. In fact, that’s what usually makes all the difference!

Use a Better Fire Starter Method

Lighting a grill and keeping that charcoal lit can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to. There are many ways of lighting your grill, so which one is best? Well, it depends. Here are the most popular methods of lighting charcoal.

  1. Traditionally, you might use some kind of charcoal fluid or fire starter to get things going, but here’s the thing. One, it’s dangerous; two, your food might end up tasting like a nasty liquid; three, you might need to add a lot of fluid if the charcoal isn’t in prime condition.
  2. A second method, one friendlier, is steeping paper with cooking oil and building your charcoal pile around it. With some patience and a little luck, you’ll get that fire going in fifteen to twenty minutes. And we’ll admit, there’s nothing wrong with this method, but you DO need to be patient; we hope your kin is not too hungry!
  3. A third method is revolutionary and has taken the world of cooking with fire by storm (of course). Looft lighter - An electric lighter. A handy appliance that propels hot air, lighting charcoal in just sixty seconds. The firelighter is relatively straightforward, but it’s still genius. Just point and shoot — you’ll thank us later! And then you can add more charcoal to hot coals.

Summary: Let’s Get That Fire Going!

Hopefully, you found what you were looking for and have identified what’s wrong with your charcoal. Was it the humidity? Or were you just not paying attention? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that now you’re all set to light that grill and cook some food for your friends and family.

Sure, we all have bad days in front of the grill, but we can always learn something new. Mastering the art of cooking with smoke and fire is worth it, even if sometimes things don’t go our way.

Now that you know how to keep a charcoal grill lit, let’s marinate some meat and get that grill flamed up. Who’s up for a grilling party?


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