Electric smoker shorting out (?)
March 16, 2013 8:13 AM   Subscribe

The electric smoker that I was so excited about last week doesn't work! After I plug it in, it runs for about 5 minutes before tripping the GFCI outlet that I had it plugged into. I did have it on a 10 foot long extension cord (no electrical outlets on my back porch). I assume this means there is a short somewhere?

I have two questions:

1) Is it possible to fix this, or am I better off trying to find a replacement electrical smoker element? It looks like those are going to be about $50, which pushes this into the "maybe not worth it" territory for me.

2) Since the various Good Eats DIY smokers are powered by electric hotplates, could I just remove the burned out electrical element and shove a hot plate in there?

I have a Meco smoker, which is very similar to this Brinkman model. The element looks like this.
posted by rossination to Home & Garden (9 answers total)
What is the circuit rated for? The smoker is 1500W, so it's right about the limit - by itself - of a whole 15A circuit. Any other things on that circuit (all the outlets and lights that are controlled by the breaker that tripped) hasten the overload.

What kind of extension cord are you using? Just a little one you'd use for a lamp? That's insufficient to carry the current to your smoker. It would work for a little, but it would heat up, increasing the resistance of the cord+smoker combo and drawing more and more load until the circuit pops.

Borrow a 10-gauge extension cord, like construction workers use. Try that. You might need to get an outlet on its own breaker installed outside.
posted by notsnot at 8:41 AM on March 16, 2013

Common reasons for a GFCI to trip. Maybe you should ask someone at Lowes or Home Depot if you should be plugging an appliance like an electric smoker into one of those outlets.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:43 AM on March 16, 2013

I have a heavy orange extension cord like you'd use outside. There are a few other things on the circuit (it's a small apartment). I don't know what the circuit is rated for but I will try to find out!
posted by rossination at 8:43 AM on March 16, 2013

If you know someone smart around electricity here is something for them to look into:

It may be because your cooker has not been run for a long time. I suspect the heating element you have is built with Magnesium Oxide insulator (MgO) like these from Watlow. When the heater sits cold for a long time, the MgO absorbs moisture from the air and becomes slightly conductive. The electrical current leakage to the heater sheath is small but GFIs are designed to be fussy. The temporary fix is to get the heater hot to evaporate the moisture.

On expensive equipment I helped install in Japan, we had to inelegantly reset the GFI several times until the moisture was gone (we later redesigned the heaters with a different insulation). We didn't see the problem in the U.S. because our facility didn't have a GFIs on the power outlets.
posted by tinker at 9:15 AM on March 16, 2013

GFCIs don't trip because of an overcurrent situation, the breaker in the main panel takes care of that.

A GFCI trips because the amount of electricity coming out of the outlet doesn't equal the amount of electricity going back in. That means that some current is getting diverted, probably into the grounding wire. This is most likely caused by some sort of weak connection (internal moisture?) between a live wire and the body of the device. (A strong connection would be a short, and that would trip the breaker.)

Though thinking about it more, I guess if you had a true short between hot and ground, it'd be a race between the GFCI and the breaker to see which one tripped first.

But you said it happens after the device has been on a few minutes. Heat expansion causing a wire to move slightly?
posted by Hatashran at 9:40 AM on March 16, 2013

I think this is an intrinsic problem and will not be solved by replacing components.

If the smoke itself is ionized in the process of generation-- which might actually be difficult to prevent-- it could carry enough current in the smoke stream to the outer casing and then to a ground outside the electrical system to cause the GFCI to trip.
posted by jamjam at 10:08 AM on March 16, 2013

OK, everyone - sorry to threadsit, but here is what I just heard back from my dad:

"I had the same problem with mine. Exchanged it twice. Finally I called customer support. I was told "you can't plug it into a GFCI; it will always overload." So I use a non GFCI circuit. No problems. You don't need GFCI protection unless you don't have a ground wire."

My dad is a smart dude but he isn't an electrician - does this sound right? The Internet seems to agree.
posted by rossination at 10:56 AM on March 16, 2013

If the smoke itself is ionized in the process of generation-- which might actually be difficult to prevent-- it could carry enough current in the smoke stream to the outer casing and then to a ground outside the electrical system to cause the GFCI to trip.

This seems like an entirely plausible explanation for the phenomenon. I do a demonstration in my college physics class where I charge up an electroscope and then discharge it by holding a lit match nearby (but not touching it). The combustion process produces plenty of ionized molecules, and the oppositely charged ones are drawn to the electroscope, rapidly discharging it. So combustion products can, in principle, allow for current flow through the smoke itself.

As far as whether or not the GFCI protection is needed, I *believe* that your dad is right; if there's an actual electrical fault to ground, it'll trip the breaker without a GFCI. The outer case shouldn't be "hot", either, so long as the ground connection is properly connected to the case. But IANAEE.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:17 AM on March 16, 2013

Yes. I smoke a lot of fish and you are best off plugging it in to a dedicated circuit and yeah, they don't work on gfci.
posted by fshgrl at 11:30 AM on March 16, 2013

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