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ProQ Excel 20 Review and First Burn...Part One

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 
Oh yeah, baby! It's here, it's unpacked, it's assembled, it's burned it...It's great! And I got a FREE HAT!

I ordered my ProQ Excel 20 with the extra third stacker from an Ebay auction for $240 delivered to my door. From what I can tell there is only one authorized dealer here in the U.S. and they are currently out of stock. Plus, I saved a bundle of money, possibly half price or better if you factor in shipping charges. However, because I didn’t buy from an authorized dealer I didn’t get any factory warranty. Also, the newest, 2010 versions will have a more heat resistant finish on the stacker sections and better packaging. I haven’t seen any reports of the previous style of stacker coating being a problem. I’m now not at all concerned with the lack of a warranty. It appears to be very well built and at least as heavy duty and durable as only WSM I’ve ever seen. If I hadn’t had the option of buying it at such a discounted price and had to pay retail, (And assuming I could afford it) I would do so and still feel like I got my money’s worth.

I got my boxes yesterday and finally got a chance to check them out. While the unpacking of the parts and pieces was a PITA I'm relieved to say there isn't a scratch, ding, or bend in any of it. It's great! And what was totally unexpected was that it came with some new kind of charcoal in the packing materials for my first burn. But I wasn't impressed with the charcoal at all. It was this pink fluffy stuff and while it did light easily with just a match, a whole basket of it burned in just a few minutes. It gave off clouds of acrid black smoke and it smelled like burning styrofoam! icon_wink.gif Really though, the guy who invented those styrofoam packing peanuts needs to be beaten to death. icon_twisted.gif I could've cut my unpacking time by 90% if I didn't have to deal with a few gallons of loose packing peanuts. And the vast majority served no purpose. They could've been easily and more effectively been replaced with more bubble wrap. But if that's my major complaint with the packaging/shipping then all is good! icon_cool.gif

The assembly was fairly easy. I had to attach one of the grill rack brackets and the legs. The bracket and it's associated fasteners were just floating loose in the large plastic bag that the 3rd stacker came in and the fasteners could've easily been lost. I'm not sure that they were supposed to be loose like that though. The rest of the fasteners were all sealed in small plastic baggies. It was easy to figure out how to attach the legs but it was much easier to do when my daughter held the base on it's side for me. An extra hand or two helps a lot, (But not absolutely necessary) since the holes didn't quite line up perfectly and the half dome base is sort of hard to handle.

My smoker came with the heavy duty, reinforced legs and after assembly they seem very strong. I don't know how much weight they would hold but I can't imagine that they will ever fail even with the smoker packed with meat. Very good job on the design! A wider stance would add to the stability but it also would be an area where someone might trip too. With just two stackers the unit felt very stabile and with the third stacker it still felt fine. Though I don't think I'd leave it stacked up in a strong wind. It might be aerodynamic enough that a 40mph wind won't topple it but I'd have to see that for myself the first time. We get winds here with gusts of 50mph and more at least once or twice a year.

I did end up tightening up just about every single screw and nut that was pre-attached from the factory as they were nearly all a little loose. But that only took a couple of minutes. The top handle was so loose it was almost rattling. I realize that over tightening can not only strip threads but also damage the finish under the screw heads and washers. But some were little more than finger tight. I wish I had some thread locker left in my old dried up tube. I think I might want to add a drop to the leg screws to make sure they don't work loose through multiple heat cycles. Ian, considering the problems you had with the original unreinforced legs you might want to recommend that people check and retighten the leg screws/nuts after a few heat cycles. All of the stacker rings and both domes fit together well. None were out of round at all.
Speaking of the top handle, the guy in that WSM versus ProQ showdown video commented that he liked the WSM handle better and sort of indicated that the ProQ handle maybe wasn't strong enough. But after I tightened it up a little it seems very sturdy and I doubt that it will ever fail within the life of the rest of the smoker.

The chromed grill racks are more heavy duty than I expected. But they also aren't as big as I expected either. I guess 20" refers to the outside diameter of the stacker rings. My grill racks measure in at about 18 3/4". How does this compare to the 18 1/2" WSM? Does the Weber's 18 1/2" refer to the rack diameter or the outside diameter? If it's the rack diameter then maybe ProQ needs to change their advertising a little bit. It's not a major complaint but the booklet that comes with the Excel 20 clearly states 20" cooking grates and I've seen it somewhere else too. That is incorrect. The grate diameter wasn't a deciding factor for me though so I'm not disappointed by this discrepancy. But it might be for some people. Ian? You really should make sure that anywhere it says, "20 inch grates" it's changed to reflect the actual diameter. It's also time to do away with the claim, "20 inches in diameter makes this the largest water smoker available today" since the introduction of the 22.5" WSM.

The aluminum access doors on each stacker open and close easily. But none of the three have a very tight seal. One is more open than the others. I was able to bend it a little bit to improve the seal but there is room for improvement. I only bring this up because it's an area where smoke and heat can escape and air/oxygen can enter. I have an idea for an easy fix for this though. I think I could use some high temp engine gasket silicone and, "Paint on" a thin layer around the edges of the door. It would have to be thin though to keep from over stressing the hinge. But maybe it's not that big of a deal. I've read about this complaint with the WSM door. It doesn't use hinges or latches but just slips into place. I do wish the ProQ doors were a little larger but if I had to choose between the two types I'd choose the ProQ design.

The only other minor complaint I have is with the latches. While they all function adequately they aren't all perfect. A couple of them could be better positioned. One is loose enough that I might attempt to slightly bend the latch. Since it's one of the latches on the base and I won't always stack them in the same order I guess I'll work on the latch instead of the hook. They're riveted on so they aren't adjustable without drilling out the rivets and replacing them with screws and nuts. Screws and nuts would allow for some slight adjustment. Since everything else uses screws, washers, and nuts I wonder why these didn't. I should note that when the unit is up to temperature all of the latches are sufficiently tight. Obviously the metal expands when it's hot so maybe the looser latch on the bottom dome wasn't an accident. Maybe so but one latch was much looser than the rest, loose enough to rattle even when latched.

Everything seems pretty heavy duty. After assembly the triple stacker smoker looked awesome! It was too heavy to move when fully assembled using only the side handles though. I attempted to pick up the smoker with 2 of the handles and I quickly realized that the handle brackets might bend if this is attempted. It MUST be at least partially disassembled before moving it as a triple stacker. I am considering making some sort of a round rolling dolly with locking castors for it. I will probably make it a little larger in diameter than the smoker itself and that will add to it's stability. Also, I will attach the legs somehow to the base.

End of part one...


post #2 of 10
Thread Starter 

Part Two

Now onto the initial burn in. Keep in mind that I have zero experience with a charcoal smoker. Unfortunately I really couldn't devote the amount of undivided time that I would've like to for this. I was busy with other activities at the time but I was able to get a good general idea of what to expect. I filled the charcoal basket about 1/2 full, (Or maybe a little less) with the cheapest briquettes I could find. I used Sam's Choice briquettes, which are the Wal*Mart store brand. Five bucks and change for 18lbs seemed pretty good to me and from what I've read, they are made by Royal Oak. They claim to be, "60% larger by volume", whatever that means. They are pretty big briquettes and they claim the burn longer because of this. They come in a bag with sturdy plastic handles and a zip lock seal. That's cool. I filled my chimney starter with briquettes and wadded up a few sheets of newspaper. It lit fairly easily and was completely ashed over in 20 or 25 minutes. I poured them onto the top of the briquettes already in the charcoal basket and let it sit for a few minutes to get going. I had all three vents wide open.

I really need to get some new digital thermometers. I have one with a probe on a braided line but I haven't checked it's accuracy before. It's a cheap one though. The base of the probe where the line attaches is crimped and is too wide to fit through the temp probe holes. I dont think this as a common problem though, from what I've read. I also have a long dial thermometer from my turkey fryer. I have checked it before and it is reasonably accurate but it's also adjustable and it adjusts way too easily. Which means it's too easy to accidentally turn the dial out of adjustment when inserting it through the probe access holes. I think it was fairly close but about all I would trust it for would be for a ballpark figure and to see how consistent the temp is. It was probably accurate to within 10 degrees or less. Because I couldn't get them all the way inside of the smoker I had to manipulate them to keep them from touching the racks.

Once the coals were going I put two of the stackers on top of the base. I decided not to add any water to the pan. I was mostly concerned that I could get this smoker up to a high enough temp because of two or three reviewers saying they couldn't get theirs hot enough. I figured the addition of water might hinder this. I don't know what the other guys were doing wrong but this thing has NO problem getting hot. Within about 10 minutes or less it was already up to 220 degrees according to the ProQ thermometer in the dome lid. My other therms read approx 10 to 20 degrees hotter at the top and bottom grates. (Remember, I don't necessarily believe the accuracy of these three therms. I shut the bottom vents down to about 1/4 open each. The temp continued to climb over the next 10 to 20 minutes to an indicated 240 degrees at the dome lid. I then shut all three vents completely and kept them that way for the next 3.5 hours. The middle therm, (Deep fryer dial therm) read 250 at the top stacker and the bottom stacker, (Cheap digital) hovered between 268 and 270. I don't know how hot it would've got had I left all three vents wide open. I suspect it would've easily topped 300 and who knows how far up from there.

It was hotter than I wanted it to be but I attribute that to having no water in the pan, no meat in the smoker and maybe I could've got by with only 1/2 a chimney of lit charcoal instead of a full one. Also I probably could've shut the vents down a little before it got to 220 degrees. Still, I would've thought that with the vents being completely closed it would've slowed down the burn a little. I'm thinking that it's possible that the slight gap in the access doors were allowing oxygen into the charcoal. But since they are all up above the charcoal I don't know for sure. One thing for certain, this thing holds an extremely steady temperature with practically no effort. Those three thermometers just didn't budge once they settled down.

After about 3.5 hours I decided to add the top stacker just to see how it behaved. It lowered the temps of all three therms approximately 10 or 15 degrees or so but they still remained consistent. I only checked it one more time about one hour later and the temps were the same. I fell asleep after that and when I woke up after a total of about 6.5 hours of burn time the coals were pretty much spent. The temp in the top therm were about 120 degrees.

Overall I'm pretty happy with my first firing up of the new smoker. I probably should've tried it with water in the bowl but I will next time when there's actually meat on the grates. I'll also light it with a little less charcoal in the chimney. I wonder if spreading the unlit charcoal out into a ring and only adding the lit charcoal into the center would also help keep the temps down. Today when I looked at the spent coals they were all burned completely with the exception of about 1/3 of a piece that was pushed over to the very edge. I don't know how much ash is considered excessive since I don't have much charcoal experience.

I found out what I wanted to know: It has no problem getting hot enough and it is amazing how steady the temperatures are. I do wish there was less of a temperature differential between the top to bottom cooking grates but I don't see how the bullet design would allow for less. With the stacker design at least it will be easy to switch the stackers around if I need to keep the heat even between whatever I'm cooking. You can't do that very easily with the WSM. I think 2 or 3 good thermometers and a little more practice and I'll have this thing purring along and producing some killer Q. icon_cool.gif

post #3 of 10
It sounds interesting Bruce, how about a pic to bring things into focus.
post #4 of 10
What he said, I need a visual!
post #5 of 10
Thread Starter 
My wife is working out of town and has our camera so this is the best I can do for now. Mine looks the same but without the side cut out of it. It also has a third level stacker on it. The legs on mine look the same except they are reinforced with a cross brace inside of each leg. Here's a link to the ProQ website.


post #6 of 10
Sweet! That will turn out some great Q! Congrats!

Make sure you check that temp gauge!
post #7 of 10
This interest me! I have been looking for a smaller smoker. I will continue to watch this thread. Thanks
post #8 of 10
I've been considering a WSM 22.5" to compliment my UDS and that exclusive distributor (Freds Music and BBQ) is about 15 mintues from me.

Where are you getting your details on the 2010 model and do you know when they will be available?

post #9 of 10
Actually I just called them to see if they carried the Excel 20 and they are no longer working with ProQ. Interesting.
post #10 of 10
Thread Starter 
I don't know anything about Fred's or their status as an official ProQ distributor. According to their website the are still selling some ProQ products. But not the Excel 20. Maybe they're just selling off their remaining stock. I dunno.confused.gif

Regarding my source for the 2010 Excel 20 details, it's straight from the horse's mouth. That would be a post on the ProQ forum made by Ian Mack, owner. Here's the link... http://proq.forumotion.com/the-pub-f...-20-s-t703.htm

I would've liked to have bought the newest version with the fully porcelain coated stacker sections but for the price I paid versus the retail, (Or even discounted retail price) I don't regret my purchase at all. I also haven't heard of anyone having a problem with the standard coating of the stacker sections. It's a smoker. I want it to look nice but if it gets scratched or the paint bubbles it's really easy to spray on some very inexpensive Rustoleum BBQ high temp spray paint and you're good to go again. It's no issue at all for me.

Better packaging is always a good thing but my smoker arrived in absolute perfect condition. The only thing that pi$$ed me off was the gallons of loose packing peanuts. And that really is a pretty minor complaint. But apparently there are a few who have had some issues. Mine came very well packed and I've had good luck with both FedX and UPS.

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