Gas grills are incredibly convenient, which makes them increasingly popular with people who don’t have a lot of time or just don’t want to deal with the mess of a traditional charcoal grill. Gas grills might have started out as small, portable cooking devices with a limited shelf life, but modern manufacturing has helped them evolve to be able to do pretty much everything a charcoal grill can do. Sometimes more.
Of course, this popularity means that the market is flooded with gas grills, which can leave you feeling spoiled for choice. It can also leave you scratching your head as you try to sort through all the technical jargon and special features that seem to be slapped onto them.
The emergence of natural gas grills compounds the confusion. Especially since natural gas and liquid propane grills cannot use each other’s fuels without installing a complicated conversion kit.
If you’ve recently started shopping for a new gas grill, one technical term you’re probably seeing over and over again is BTU. It’s a critical component in choosing the best gas grill to meet your needs. Though grill manufacturers don’t really go in-depth explaining its importance.
What Is a BTU?
BTU is an acronym for “British Thermal Unit.” It’s technically defined as the measure of the heat content of fuels or energy sources. It is the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of liquid water by 1 degree Fahrenheit.
When you put that in perspective a single BTU is pretty wimpy. That’s why gas grills need to have so many of them to do things like sear steaks and melt slices of cheese on burger patties.
How Are Gas Grill BTUs Determined?
A lot of gas grill manufacturers tout the maximum or total BTU rating of their grills. They essentially take the BTU rating of every single burner element and add them all together. Then they print that massive, combined number on the box or put it in bold typeface on their digital marketing ads.
On the one hand, this is truth in advertising. They’re giving you the combined specs. On a grill that just has burner elements dedicated to the grill grates like the Dyna-Glo Bronze DGA480BSP 4-Burner Propane Gas Grill the BTU rating is a direct reflection of the heating potential. It has four burners with a total combined BTU rating of 48,000 BTUs. All it takes is a little second-grade division skill to understand that each of the four burners puts out 12,000 BTUs.
However a grill with multiple accessory burners, like a smoker burner and side table burner for cooking side dishes like the Weber Summit S-470 LP 7170001, the BTU number isn’t a direct reflection of the heat potential of the primary grill grates. To know just how many BTUs are available across the grill grates you have to read deeper into the description to find that it has four burners, and each puts out 10,000 BTUs for a total of 40,000.
How Many BTUs Do I Need in a Gas Grill?
Ideally, you’re looking for around 10,000 to 12,000 BTUs per burner element. Though in some smaller gas grills, you can get by with 8,500 BTUs like you find in the Weber Q1200. Especially if the grill grates are made from heat-absorbing cast iron which helps cook and sear meat more efficiently.
Can a Gas Grill Have Too Many BTUs?
Some grill manufacturers like to brag about the massively high BTU rating of their grills. Though once you start getting more than 14,000 BTUs per element, it’s likely a sign that they are trying to compensate for poor thermal efficiency.
The grill might have a leaky hood, or poorly insulated sidewalls that make it struggle to hold the heat. So, the engineers tried to make up for it by putting in massive burner elements, which is a cheaper fix than redesigning the hood. The one exception here is with infrared elements, which often carry much higher BTU ratings.
How Many BTUs for an Infrared Element?
Infrared elements burn propane to heat up a special element, usually made from ceramic. It then radiated infrared heat which often has a higher BTU rating around 15,000 to 20,000 BTUs.
How Many Burner Elements Do I Need in a Gas Grill?
The larger the grates or the larger the cooktop the more burner elements you want. Ideally, you’re looking for something in the neighborhood of 80 to 100 BTUs per square inch. Then divide that by the number of burners.
Also, consider that the more burners you have on a gas grill or outdoor gas griddle the more heat zones you can create. This means you can have one area of the grill that’s set up for high-heat searing, steaks, and chops. Then you can reserve the other side of the grill as a warming zone, or a low heat zone for cooking bone-in cuts of meat over a longer period of time.
In general, most portable gas grills and camp stoves have two burner elements. Though some have a single H-shaped or U-shaped element like the Weber 9010001 Traveler.
When it comes to a gas grill for a single person or a couple, a two to three-burner model like the Blaze BLZ-3-LP-BLZ-3-CART is usually sufficient.
If you need a gas grill to feed a family of four, or you want to make sure that you can host a big cookout for special occasions, then you might want to set your eyes on a four-burner model like the Dyna-Glo Bronze DGA480BSP 4-Burner Propane Gas Grill.
Is There a Difference In BTUs for Natural Gas vs Propane?
Propane has a little more than twice the energy density of natural gas. So, gas grill manufacturers use a different type of burner element for natural gas grills like the Weber Q-3200 57060001 Titanium that allows them to have relatively the same BTU unit as the replica propane version.
There are some gas grills like the Kenmore PG-40409S0LB that come set up to run on liquid propane but can be converted to burn natural gas. The conversion kits for these grills usually cost around $100 to $150, which you have to take into account in the initial purchase price. If you’re a reasonably capable DIY home handyman, you should be able to complete a natural gas grill conversion without surrendering your entire Saturday afternoon.
Just keep in mind that the lower energy density of natural gas means it’s not feasible to store it in large tanks like you can with liquid propane. You’ll have to have some type of municipal natural gas line running to your home, with a secondary feed line running to your natural gas grill.