A SMOBOT Kickstarter Update

SMOBOT Control Unit
I cannot wait to get my hands on this thing.

I made a post about the SMOBOT Kickstarter campaign when it started back at the beginning March. I’ve been obsessively tracking its progress. There are now five days to go and it’s hard to say whether or not they’re going to get funded or not. They need about 50 more people to commit to buying a unit. I have no illusions that a lot of people read this blog, but I’m going to write this in the hope that it might help someone who’s on the fence make a decision. I like the guys behind this. I’ve been using  a pre-production Beta unit for over a year now and I love it.

If you’re not sure what a SMOBOT is, go read the last blog post and watch the video. The tl;dr version is it’s a robotic damper control unit that attaches to the top of a Kamado-style smoker like the Big Green Egg, Kamado Joe, or Primo. A thermocouple tracks the temp inside the cooker and the damper opens and closes to maintain the temperature at the set point. The damper looks like this when it’s operating.

Animated GIF of the damper working
This is a time-lapse of the damper working. In real-time you rarely see the damper visibly move. The individual adjustments are very small. That’s why the whole unit can be powered by batteries.

There are also two food probes that allow you to track the temperature of whatever you’re cooking. And since we live in the future, all the data is available on your local Wi-Fi network and even through a free cloud service. When you’re a nerd like me, that’s pretty damned cool.

What the SMOBOT doesn’t have is a fan or blower. There are other temperature control units out there, but they require you attach a blower unit to the lower air inlet of the cooker. That’s where the airflow control comes from. Clearly the things work because lots of people swear by them, but they never appealed to me. The whole idea of something like a Kamado is that it’s built to draw in air. The things work essentially like a convection oven. Getting air into the things is not the issue.  The issue is how much and when. That’s what the SMOBOT takes care of. It constantly watches the temperature and fiddles with the damper when it needs to, and leaves it alone otherwise.

The data from my last cook. Winds were 18mph gusting to 30mph. They were blowing directly into the damper-opening side of my Big Green Egg. It was like sticking a hair dryer in the lower damper and randomly turning it off and on. To say these were challenging conditions is an understatement. I never touched a thing from the time I put on the food to the time I took it off. I was actually cutting the Kickstarter video the whole time.

I have no idea how much charcoal Eric Reinhart and Curtis Pope have burned developing the algorithm that runs the thing. There’s probably an sixteenth of a degree of global warming with their name on it. Small coal plants in China look at them and say “See?  Why are we getting all the blame? Hey, is that honey-glazed pork?” Whatever rainforests have been depleted, the algorithm is solid. The published control range is +/- 5°F, but I’m convinced the thing takes a 2°F error kind of personally. You can see from that graph up there that the unit never stops looking for that equilibrium point. It’s sort of Terminator-like that way.  Except for the whole traveling-back-to-the-past-to-kill-your-mother thing. I can saw with absolute assurance mine has never done that. Mark that worry off your list.

I really like the design of the production units. I’ve used my trusty Beta unit for a long time, but when I get my new one it’s going to be displayed on a shelf. From that picture I can’t be certain, but I think these units are quite a bit smaller than the Betas were. For one thing they aren’t trying to jam two 9v batteries in there. It’s powered via a USB port now. I’m assuming that’s a micro-USB cable plugged into the side in that picture, which means that whole thing isn’t very big at all. They’ve decided to ship a 4000mAh external battery pack with the Kickstarter package and the estimate is that it should last 48 hours in continuous operation. Worried about weather?  You should be able to toss the controller and battery in a zip-top bag. It doesn’t matter if the damper gets wet. Mine sits out in the weather continuously and laughs at rain. At least that’s what it tells me it’s laughing at. I think it might actually be me it’s laughing at. I’m very insecure that way.

Something that people are really paranoid about is the damper getting gunked up with grease and grit. It can happen, but it doesn’t really cause a problem. If the damper gets bound up with dried grease, you can easily free up the mechanism by lifting up on the arm that moves the damper just a little. It’s not like it’s welded or anything. The bond is pretty weak.  I light my Egg with a torch and I just swipe the flame over the metal part a couple of times.  That melts the grease and then it’s lubrication, not a binder.

They’ve added an indicator light to confirm the unit is actually attached to your Wi-Fi network, which is nice. Once you get it set up on Wi-Fi the first time there’s not much reason to mess with it, but it’s nice to have the visual feedback without having to reach for a phone to check each time. I’ve used the Beta unit at our local Eggfest using a LTE hotspot and it works great.  Cooking at one of those things can be hectic (and loads of fun), and it’s nice when you can resist the urge to fiddle with the dampers, especially since the lid gets opened and closed so much more often than with a normal cook.

The best new feature after the overall size and USB power is that “auto” button.  You’ll usually want to turn on the unit when you’re first lighting the fire. The lid’s up and at that point, though, and you really don’t need the damper working so it powers up in “manual” mode. On the Beta units you had to scroll through a menu to kick it into “auto” mode so the controller would take over.  It was remarkably easy to forget to do.  Or so I hear. Just like I heard a rumor it’s easy to forget to attach the thermocouple to the grate. Don’t think there’s anything they’ll be able to add to fix that.

The coolest thing that’s happened during the Kickstarter is that they’ve been able to add the Char-Griller Akorn Kamado grills to the lineup of cookers the SMOBOT can work with. For whatever reason, most of the ceramic Kamados have top vents that are similar enough that mounting the SMOBOT is just a matter of using one screw. The Akorns — which are made of steel and are typically much less expensive than the ceramic types — use a different type of top vent mount. Apparently a guy with both an Akorn and a 3D printer really wanted a SMOBOT.  After a little back and forth with Eric and Curtis, he came up with a prototype mount that works, so there’s an Akorn version of SMOBOT now. I’m pretty sure the same thing is going to happen with other models of cookers, but probably not in the next five days.

I know I know a lot of people who own some kind of Kamado cooker. Let this be my gentle reminder to you that you need one of these things. It works. It’s easy to use. It lets you sleep when you when you want to cook over night. It’s also just a cool gadget.