or: How I Learned to Stop Working at Making Things Burn, the Great Grill Control Project part 1.

Foods cooked on the grill are at the top of my food chain. I am a main predator of Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Grilledatas. The problem with grilling is that the grill is outside, in a place where it is usually hot, far away from my beer, and entertainment-starved unless observing the negative gravitropism of stenotaphrum secundatum is your thing. Barbecue further aggravates the situation by requiring long cook times which may even necessitate losing sleep. Sure you can “barbecue” in an oven, “barbecue” cooked in an oven isn’t barbecue all and bears as much resemblance to the real deal as K-rab does to stone crab. There has to be smoke, and the easiest way I know to get smoke it to light something on fire.

Contrary to what Frankenstein says, fire isn’t always bad, but it can require a good bit of fiddling make it do what you want, sort of light plate spinning. It certainly is a lot easier than plate spinning and you can’t eat anything when you’re done spinning plates for 8 hours, so I’m not sure why I used that analogy. Anyway, I’ve tried the Alton Brown Electric Pot smoker concept, which produced lackluster results even after several attempts and equipment swaps. The initial solution was to step up to the big leagues and buy a Big Green Egg, the self-described “World’s Best Smoker and Grill!” (emphasis theirs).

Enter the Egg

The BGE works really well and allowed me to go hang out at World of Beer while cooking BBQ, where my concern that the food was being either cremated or being cooked entirely with solar heat was moderately low. Some jockeying around with vent positions to get the temperature right over the first 30 minutes is required. There is also notable apprehension when leaving the grill behind which declines markedly with each passing Saint Rogue Red or Dogfish Head Midas Touch. Returning to find the Egg 15-20 degrees on either side of the sweet spot isn’t unusual, but acceptable considering the alternative is to drink alone.

To further complicate things, I used to live in a 3 bedroom apartment.

The AGC Happiness Scale

There is nothing downstairs worth getting on the ground floor for. It isn’t until you get to around 50 on the AGC Happiness or “Agck Happ” scale that life starts being worth living. Running up and down two flights of stairs while drinking is a sure recipe for disaster; I could fall down and the food would burn by the time the coroner came to retrieve my corpse. Therefore I needed a way to minimize the amount of time I spent in the peach section of the scale and maximize the amount of time I spend in the… fuchsia area? The periwinkle area? We’ll just say I want to be “in the pink”. Science needed to be called upon.

Google led me to finding The BBQ Guru Digi-Q line of products and Rock’s Stoker. These served the purpose, but 250 American wing-wangs? That costs more than many of the grills they are designed to be controlled! Not mine, mind you, because the Big Green Egg costs roughly what its gold weight equivalent is. More research lead to a post by Bob Hruska about his microcontroller project. I’ve always been interested in embedded development, but have never spent the time to look into it because the barrier of entry seemed pretty high. Bob’s project seemed within reach for me, and did what I wanted. Why don’t I just tell you what I wanted.

Design Goals

This project had to meet certain requirements to lift it from a glorified thermometer to an actual time-saving, effort-reducing, beer-intake-facilitating device. My mother also would like it to increase my life expectancy rather than abate it, but chicks dig scars and I’m Argh baby.

  • Fully autonomous grill control capable of maintaining a preset temperature of a charcoal grill for 12 hours. Hands-free operation, just like Ghost Ridin’ the Whip
  • Standalone 802.11 wireless remote query ability. Having just a temperature sensing unit with probe wires is bad enough already. Having to piggyback a wireless router, network cable and second power supply onto a wired solution isn’t a manly solution. Coming out with a bag full of grill control parts would make me feel like the girl who dumps her giant-ass purse on the table spewing lipstick, gum wrappers, and spare change everywhere
  • Grill-local digital temperature display. I don’t want to have to use a web browser to see what is going on.
  • No supplementary control equipment. Most home automation equipment can not function by itself, relying on a base station to mediate control. This is along the lines of the standalone wireless deal, but it bears repeating that there should be just one box that can travel without needed a van full of support equipment
  • No permanent grill modification. Scarring my Big Green Egg would be like Angelina Jolie getting a tattoo. Err, I mean another tattoo. Like on her face or something.
  • Cost less than the commercial solutions. I want it Better, Faster, and Cheaper.
  • Room for customization and personalization. Nobody is perfectly happy with anything, or not as happy as they could be if it had a racing stripe or some flames on it.

And thus begun the Great Grill Control Project. The Great Wireless Grill Control Project. The Great Wireless Grill Control Project 1: Electric Boogaloo. In my next post I’ll describe the components of the system and some of the technologies they provide.