How to spring clean a barbecue

Before grilling season gets here, give your barbie its much-needed tuneup

By David ZimmerDavid Zimmer

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It greets you the same way it did last year and the one before that, a greasy and corroded indictment of your procrastinatory maintenance skills huddled on your deck. It is your gas barbecue, and you’ve been meaning to “tune it up” since your last batch of sooty lamb chops. Now’s the time, before the cocktails and fat fires of summer are in full swing.

Prep the barbecue

Lay down some garbage bags and start eviscerating the beast. Remove the cooking grills and dig out the lava rocks, ceramic bricks, or sheet metal reflectors that sit underneath. Yank out the grate. Beneath that lies the burner, the heart and soul of the operation; it should just lift out, but there might be a spring, clip, or screw arrangement that holds it in place. Pull the unit up and out. Behold the empty bottom of your barbecue, the charred remnants of cookouts gone by all glued to the bottom in a layer of tackified grease. Hey! Is that a petrified zucchini slice?

Get down and dirty

Clean all the crap out of the firebox with a scraper — a stick will do in a pinch. If you’re feeling really keen, slop some soapy water down there to loosen up the scunge. Take a look. Is the bottom of the firebox sound? Fist-sized holes that the manufacturer didn’t create mean it’s time to buy a new barbecue. Otherwise, carry on. Pick up your burner and give it a prejudicial assessment. Check out the little holes in the side of the burner; if some are blocked, use a small nail or wire brush to clear them out. If the burner sounds like a maraca when shaken, but is otherwise sound, keep shaking — and try to work any loose rust particles out the end of the venturi tube, that gracefully curved section that delivers gas to the burner itself. Poking and prodding with a pipe cleaner or venturi tube brush can speed this process, and will also fish out any spider webs that might be lurking in there, just waiting to create a gas blockage and turn your next wienie roast into a Hollywood fireball. You should, however, be prepared for more terminal burner damage. If sooty flames belched out of one side last summer, your burner needs replacing. If the unit crumbles in your hands, it definitely needs replacing.

Burner burnout

Cheer up, burner burnout doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. When you consider that a burner must endure extreme heat, extreme cold, and the greenhouse humidity levels created by its “protective” storage cover, it’s a miracle they last as long as they do. Replacement burners are available at Canadian Tire and decent barbecue stores. Just note the make and model of your barbecue and go pick up a new burner. One tip: Most burners are made from zinc-plated steel, and tend to wear out fast. If you can find a replacement in stainless steel, pay the extra coin and you won’t have to perform this part of the task for a long time.

Examine all the bits

Next, examine all the other bits as if you were mentally reassembling your grill. The grate that holds the lava rocks, bricks, or reflectors will look like something from a car fire, but looks don’t count — it can be used indefinitely, until failure. If it snaps in two when you pick it up, note the dimensions and put it on your list. Now to the lava rocks. If they’re filthy but sound, you’re okay. Just reinstall the rocks dirty side down and let the cooking flames clean them. If they crumble into golf-ball-sized chunks, replace them with new rocks or get some fancy ceramic replacement briquettes — some people swear they work better than rocks. Now scan the cooking grills. They rarely fail, rust and grease (important for flavour and supplemental dietary iron) notwithstanding. If rusted out or broken, add to the list.

Now look at your list. If grates, lava rocks, grill, and the burner need replacing, think about buying a new barbecue. Otherwise, pick up your replacements and reassemble the unit. Is your electronic igniter kaput? Good. That’s what they were designed to do. Just get a long-snouted barbecue lighter instead.

Final steps

Almost done. All that remains is to reconnect the gas line, open the main valve, and brush some soapy water on every connection. If bubbles appear, there’s a leak. Tighten the connections a bit more and repeat the soap step until your line leaks no more. Finally, remember to test-fire black beauty to make sure everything works and to burn away any factory-applied lubricants lingering on your replacement parts. Then throw some hamburgers and a knackwurst or two on the grill, and start the happy corrosion process once again.


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David Zimmer