If there is one piece of equipment that our customers have asked for, it is a BBQ fire-control fan. No, we’re excited to bring our new Billows™ BBQ control fan to our customers—not to mention pleased to be able to use it ourselves! To celebrate its arrival in our line of top-quality BBQ tools, we cooked up a Meat-stravaganza to show you what Billows can do for your cooking and to answer some questions you may have about it. Without further ado, then, let’s take a look at Billows!
What is a BBQ fire-control fan and how does it work?
A BBQ fire-control fan regulates the amount of air that is available for the fire in a smoker. By blowing air into the smoker, the fan can increase the temperature, and by holding still, the blades of the fan slow the ingress of air to the smoker, allowing the flame to die down a little and cool. An air probe placed in the cooking area of the smoker relays temperature information to the fan controller so the fan can cycle on and off appropriately. By feeding your fire oxygen only when it needs it, the fan keeps your smoker temperature from running wild.
How can a BBQ fan help me?
There are huge advantages to using a fire-control fan in barbecue. Handing the worry of temperature maintenance frees you up to live the rest of your life, not tied to bed coals for 12 hours at a time. But even more importantly, fire control gives you greater control and therefore greater predictability and reproducibility in your cooks.
Yes, every slab of ribs is different, and wow is every brisket different, but with constant temperatures, you learn better what to expect from a cook. Knowing that your smoker will be at the same temperature this weekend as it was last weekend lets you improve your BBQ technique more quickly because you can focus on things like wrapping, timing, and flavoring rather than constantly poking the fire. In many ways, a fan makes barbecuing with a charcoal- or stick-burner as easy and reliable as using a pellet smoker. But with Billows, you get true charcoal flavor without the hassle of fire tending.
Benefits of Billows
Built to ThermoWorks rigorous standards, Billows excels in the field in several key ways. Among these are accuracy and narrow variance, heating capacity, and reparability. Let’s look at those individually.
Because Billows operates in tandem with the ThermoWorks Signals™ thermometer,* you can rely on the 1.8°F (1°C) accuracy of our Pro-Series® probes. An accurate probe means a more accurate air temperature! Some BBQ fans may maintain a constant temperature, but the temperature they are holding is not actually correct. Our high-accuracy air probe assures that the temperature Billows thinks it’s holding is actually the temperature it is holding.
The air probe’s accuracy also allows Billows to maintain a tighter variance on the air temperature itself. If set up properly (including proper vent management), Billows will hold a temperature that is ±10°F (6°C) of your target temperature. In many of the cooks I have performed, that has actually been as low as ±4°F (2°C) of variance, which is stellar.
*A Signals is required to operate the Billows fan.
The Billows fan can pump 46 cubic feet per minute (CFM) of air into your smoker, more than twice the airflow of our nearest competitor. So what? Higher fan capacity means more air can be put on your fuel faster, bring your smoker up to temperature faster, either at the beginning of your cook or when you open your lid to spritz your meat.
With that kind of airflow, not only can you heat your smoker faster, but you can also heat a larger smoker. Larger smokers need more fire to heat, more fire needs more air, and Billows provides more air! Most commercial smokers can easily be powered by one single Billows.
That kind of airflow takes a good bit of energy, so using the included 12-volt AC adapter that was included with your Signals is essential.
The cables on many other BBQ fans are integrated into the circuitry or housing, meaning that if the cable burns out or the probe loses accuracy, the entire unit must be replaced. We used USB-C cables that are easily replaceable for communication with the fan, meaning a broken cable does not necessitate a new fan. In this way, repairs to the fan itself are not as likely to be needed.
How does the Billows fan attach to a smoker?
When designing Billows, we thought hard about how to connect it to the myriad smokers on the market we went with the most universal design we could, allowing the maximum amount of smokers to work with Billows without the need of adapters. Billows attaches to a smoker via a V-shaped spring that is simply inserted into a hole in the smoker’s outside wall. The hole can be no larger than 1 1/4″ and should allow the fan to blow air onto your fuel. For many smoker models, that means inserting the spring through one of the air-intake vents.
(Be sure to take a look at our Billows set-up video for more on setting your Billows up correctly.)
Some smokers, especially some types of barrel smokers, have intake vents that are too large for Billows to mate with, and the attaching spring can’t reach through thick-walled ceramic smokers, so we’ve created an adapter that can fit onto those smoker’s built-in intake vents.
Modification and ingenuity
Billows was built to control fire, but your smoker was not built to interface with Billows. It would have been completely infeasible to have tested Billows on every smoker on the market and impossible to build an attachment that fits onto every smoker, so individual adaptation may be necessary. Some smokers may need a new hole cut in the side, others may need some adaptation for the adapter. But any modifications that may be necessary will be well worth it for the added control you’ll get over your smoker and the better food you’ll be cooking in it!
Does the Billows fan work with my smoker?
Billows is for use with stick-burner and charcoal-burner smokers that would otherwise only be controlled by opening and closing vents. It makes BBQ as easy as cooking with a pellet smoker or electric smoker, but is not for use with a pellet smoker or electric smoker! Those smokers (and gas-powered smokers) have built-in thermostats, and blowing more air into them won’t affect their temperatures in a positive way.
As already stated, Billows controls the temperature by controlling the air that is available to the fire. By fanning the fire when needed, Billows control one very important aspect of airflow, but it does not control every aspect. Other vents must be adjusted to control the available air, too. You can see in the image below that the bullet smoker we were cooking a brisket on has other intake vents, but we taped them off with some of the flue-tape that we include with each Billows. Blocking off intake vents is essential for proper temperature control.
It is important to note that airflow also needs to be controlled on the way out of the smoker. On most smoker models, we recommend closing the vents until about 1/8 open, but that is a guideline only. Close the vents until your Billows is able to achieve a steady temperature.
Vents that are open too wide can circulate air and draw more air through the fan than desired. This is one place where experimentation and a little bit of trial may be in order to find out how much vent-space your smoker needs to work well with Billows.
If your vents aren’t properly set, you will see spikes in temperature. If your Signals’ high-alarm sounds for your air channel, it probably means you have too much air getting into your smoker. If that happens, you’ll need to close off the vents even more and wait to see if the temperature goes back down.
Tips for best use
The Billows/Signals combination operates seamlessly with both Bluetooth® and Wi-Fi, loading your cooks’ information up to the cloud for later viewing and analysis. To get the most out of each cook, it is best to start a new graph in the ThermoWorks BBQ app to make sure your data is saved properly. With the Signals connected to Wi-Fi, you can change your smoker temperature remotely with the app, meaning you don’t even have to get out of bed if you’re in the middle of a long cook and want to change the smoker temperature.
That being said, you do not need Wi-Fi or the app to use Billows! The temperatures and alarms can be changed manually on the Signals unit and the fan control will operate just the same.
Warming up and cooling off
When you’re getting ready for a cook, it’s always best to get you smoker warmed up before putting your meat on to cook, and it’s no different with the Billows fan. Give your smoker time to get up to temp and make sure it’s holding at that temperature. If the temperature is too high or too low, check your vents and adjust them to make sure you’re getting proper air flow.
Once you’ve finished your cook, you can do one of two things. One, remove Billows from the smoker body—don’t worry, the cool-touch composite it’s made of will help keep it from getting too hot to handle—or two, place the yellow cap back over the fan hole to prevent hot air from flowing back through the fan, possibly damaging the mechanism.
If you want delicious, consistent, flavorful barbecue, the Billows BBQ control fan can help you achieve your dreams. Compatible with most smokers, it will give you charcoal flavor with pellet-burner ease. Give it a try and you’ll never look back!
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