The affordable ThermoWorks Billows has some big shoes to fill to be worthy of the brand. In this article, we will discuss how the product works, how to install it, and then what happened when we used it for smoking some ribs.
Article Updated: 2/4/2021
Temperature is often a misused asset when it comes to cooking. Neglecting to manage a precise level of heat can turn a delectable dinner into absolute garbage. ThermoWorks has cornered the market in thermometer and temperature regulating equipment and took home the gold for the Best Instant Read Thermometer. For long-time followers, hearing they were releasing a BBQ Temperature Control Fan was a welcome addition. Because of the brand’s quality, however, Billows, has big shoes to fill.
At the very affordable price of $59, The Billows is sure to grab the eye of the amateur and professional griller alike. As the lowest price professionally made automatic temperature (thermostatic) controller, it comes with conditions:
To use Billows, you have to own a ThermoWorks Signals device. Signals can be bought for $229, making the Billows less affordable at a combined price of $288 plus tax (you can see our complete review on Signals here). That being said, it is still a lower cost than most models. This device allows you to manage up to four temperatures at once using Bluetooth and WiFi.
A benefit of this is being able to keep an eye on it while you are on your smartphone. That convenience will allow you to spend time with the family without worrying about burning dinner.
How to Install Billows Thermoworks on a Weber Kettle Grill
The set up for the Billows is about what you would expect from most modern models. With the product being so versatile in its applications, the company does not offer many instructions. However, you can find videos online showing you how to customize various smokers and grills. When you first receive your devices, you will have to update their firmware. If you attempt to proceed without this step, you will not be able to connect your device to it.
You’ll start by hooking up the thermostat controller to your grill or smoker, as well as the Signals. The Billows has a clip that can fit through most openings, making it ideal for consumers. If there is a fan icon on one of the channels on your signals device, then it is connected. Then you’ll plug the ambient controller from the Signals device into your grill, where it can now monitor your grill remotely. The Billows fan will regulate your cooking temperature while you do whatever you want.
We drilled a hole in the bottom of a Weber Kettle Grill. As most people have one of these grills, it is an ideal example. After drilling a hole out of the way of any critical pieces, we placed the clip through the hole where the device set correctly. After placing the Signals thermometer through the top vent, we were fully set up and ready to begin cooking.
How Billows Works?
Once the device is plugged up and functioning, it does everything autonomously.
The Signals device reads the temperature through the internal ambient probe. It lists it on the interface as well as your smartphone. The heat can be raised to 500 degrees at its max. The Billows will maintain that temperature within 10°F either way , according to the ThermoWorks website (we found it to be more like 15°F – 20°F). When the temperature drops, the Billows’s overpowering internal fan releases oxygen into the grill, which reacts with the lit coals and causes the heat to rise. The Billows fan is powerful enough to accomplish this and keeps the temperature from dropping too low.
If the temperature rises or falls 25°F, then a loud alarm will sound. This is useful in the same way that a fire alarm is necessary. You understand why it is there, but you wish it were just a little bit quieter. There is no option to customize the alarm’s sound or temperature range, which is a bummer. It can also go off when you open the lid, as the temperature drops due to the heat escaping. This is more of an inconvenience, but it would be much better if it were improved upon. However, despite the negatives, it does serve a useful purpose in that you will always hear when the temperature drops too low.
For our testing purposes, we set the temperature at 255°F. Based on the graph in the app, it mostly maintained a 15 to 20°F degree difference on either side. It took a considerable dip when we slightly lifted the top, causing the temperature to plummet before the fan overloaded the grill with air. The temperature on the Signals device read the highest of the entire session.
Features & Specs of Billows Thermoworks
The Billows is missing some of the smarter features that would be necessary for more expensive models. There are no detection capabilities outside of the temperature. Whether you are running low on fuel, need to clear the ash, or any number of issues, the Billows will leave you guessing. While this will most likely not be a problem for most users, it is something to consider for those who are looking for precise instruments. However, speaking of precision, the Billows does the one thing it is supposed to reasonably well.
The Billows heats up to the requested temperature very quickly. There is some slight fluctuation as it settles, but that is normal. Most of the time it stays in the 10°F window mentioned on the company’s website. However, when there is a sudden drop in temperature, such as slightly lifting the lid, the fan will compensate by pumping the grill/smoker full of air. This will cause the temperature to shoot up temporarily as well as setting off the Billows’ alarm.
The adaptability of the Billows clip and Signals internal ambient thermometer is an attractive feature. They are so easy to maneuver that almost anyone can figure out how to apply them to their grills/smokers. All you need is a small opening, and this can be achieved by something such as a drill if your grill is missing one. This adaptability makes it perfect for anyone who might have a use for multiple applications such as different cooking units. The Signals internal thermometer is very accurate. It translates into responsiveness from the Billows and precise reads on the ThermoWorks app.
Using Thermoworks App
Wireless connectivity is a necessity in modern times. Every recent innovation comes with its own companion app for remote access. ThermoWorks is only the latest brand to throw their thermometer in the ring. The app connects to the Signals via a Bluetooth connection. From there, you can monitor the internal temperature of your grill, receive alerts, and adjust the temperature remotely. This is very useful for cookouts with family, or for those who don’t want to babysit their grill while it cooks.
The app itself is very minimalistic and doesn’t take a lot of effort to figure out. Once you have updated the firmware for your Signals and Billows device, it should connect seamlessly. As your meat cooks, you will see multiple things on the app. For one, the temperature will be measured on a graph that you can track in real-time. Each of your ThermoWorks devices will be listed on the dashboard. This allows for a complete overview of all of the functions inside your grill.
While it is handy for managing temperature, the app has its fair share of bugs. The graph can be hard to read, and the barebones design leaves much to be desired. The alarm notification that pops up is consistent, but it will not always mute it remotely. This can be annoying if the grill isn’t close by. It is excellent for managing and watching the internal temperature of your grill, but that is about it. If that’s all you need, then this app will be an excellent addition to your Signals and Billows devices.
Customers in the app’s reviews state that they love both the Signals and Billows devices. The only problem they have with the bundle is that the app is so hard to use at times; they would instead not use it at all.
Our experience with the app had both its positives and negatives. For managing temperature, it did everything that we needed. However, anytime the alarm would go off, we would get a notification. That in itself is great. It would be better if the app responded to any endeavors to turn it off from the other room. The ThermoWorks app only does a few things and somehow still has problems doing that.
How and What We Cooked Using Billows Thermoworks
To test out the Billows product, we decided to go with the classic BBQ ribs. They required a long enough time that we were able to test out all the features of the Billows. All while getting to create a tender and delicious recipe that you’ll find attached. While we primarily recommend salting the ribs the night before, if you’re pressed for time, it is fine to do it before you apply the rub.
We recommend the tried and true 3-1-2 method. You usually start with 3 hours in the smoker, followed by one cooking in a Texas Crutch Wrap, and finished up with two more hours in the smoker. We prefer the 3-1-2 method as it gives the ribs a little more texture, but this rule can be changed depending on your taste. While we had to rush a few aspects, we more or less stuck to that rule while preparing our ribs with the Billows.
We were delighted with how the ribs turned out. Due to time constraints, we had to pull them out an hour early. Even though we were rushed, they still came out tender and full of flavor. After a total of five hours, the Billows had kept the ribs at such a consistent temperature that we could cut an hour off our cooking time. While we still recommend the 3-1-2 method, it is impressive, nonetheless. The ribs were barely starting to come apart enough without falling off of the bone. The bones sticking out from the sides were a great indicator of the taste to come.
Conclusion- Buy it or Leave?
ThermoWorks Billows has a lot going for it. The very affordable price makes it a no-brainer for those who already own the Signals device. The $59 price point is very affordable and even more competitive against similar models on the market. That being said, you are getting what you pay for.
If your grill or smoker remains undisturbed, it will cook your meats at a constant temperature. Any sudden drops in temperature, however, such as opening the grill, will cause the fan to flood the grill with air automatically. This causes unintentional heat spikes that may cause uneven cooking if you’re not careful.
If you don’t own the Signals device, there are a few questions you should ask yourself. If you are looking for a more affordable temperature control unit, then you can’t go wrong with the Billows and Signals. Also, having the Signals device opens you up to ThermoWorks wide variety of compatible devices. That being said, if money is not an issue, you can find more comprehensive tools for about $100 more. These have better detection features that make cooking that much more stress-free. These would be ideal for those who are serious about cooking. The Billows will do everything casual cookers need without breaking the bank, making it suitable for most uses.
This is an ideal tool for those who are looking to regulate their temperature while grilling or smoking meat. If the slight annoyances in this article don’t stand out, then the Billows is perfect for your needs. However, these glitches and errors might drive more professional workers up the wall. So if you need something that is affordable and works, then the Billows is for you. If you require a smoother device that can do more things, then spend the extra money as the Billows may only cause you more stress.
What We Would Improve
The ThermoWorks Billows is good at maintaining a constant temperature inside your grill/smoker. If it were not for the features that detract from that, this would be an excellent add-on to the Signals device. Here we will discuss what we improve on the Billows in-depth.
The fact that you have to buy a $229 Signals additional purchase makes the $59 price point for the Billows seem like an overpriced add-on as opposed to a standalone device. If it required no other investment, even if the Billows were slightly more, it would be sold out in minutes. If you don’t already own Signals and are looking spend a little more cash than purchasing the Signals + Billows in order to control your pit’s temperature, you can check out Fireboard or Flame Boss.
The range for the alarm is nothing short of annoying. With the only available option, and default, being 25 degrees, you can forget about lifting the lid unless you want an ear-piercing alarm. Any time it dips or raises below that limit, the alarm will sound. This happens quite frequently and is very much an inconvenience. That alarm won’t usually stop until you manually walk to the grill/smoker and turn it off yourself. The inability to change the level of the volume is sure to give many migraines. Some customization options in regards to the alarm would help users be safer without causing headaches every time you cook.
In the same vein, there are no lid detection features. Since this causes significant fluctuations in temperature, it can set off the alarm reasonably easily. It would be nice if the Signals or Billows device were able to communicate that short temperature fluctuations were normal. Now with lid detection. Billows released an update to their firmware to now include advanced lid detection. As a result, the fan should not kick on to max power each time you open the lid.
How We Made the Ribs
Rib Rub Recipe
If you have time, salt the ribs the night before (8 -12 hours) using the 1/2 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat rule of thumb. It does get a little tricky because half of the weight you pay for with ribs is bone; so adjust the formula accordingly (1/4 teaspoon of salt for the total weight of the slabs). If you don’t have time, as we didn’t, just salt the meat before adding the rub.
Makes about a cup (8 racks)
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 3 Tbs Paprika
- 2 Tbs garlic powder
- 2 Tsp black pepper
- 2 Tsp mustard powder
- 2 Tsp onion powder
- 1/2 Tsp chili powder
Mix all ingredients in a bowl.
Next, we added a light layer of mustard just to get the surface wet and act as a bit of a glue when we go to apply the rub. However, if you opt to skip the mustard, just pat on a little water.
Now you’re ready to sprinkle on the rub.
Smoking the Ribs
Modifying the 3-2-1 Rib Cooking Method
The 3-2-1 method
6 hours of total cook time breaks down like this:
- 3 hours in the smoker as normal
- 2 hours wrapped in a Texas crutch (foil) on the smoker
- 1 hour in the smoker as normal
We modified it to be 3-1-2. Still with six hours of cook time, it looks like this:
- 3 hours in the smoker as normal
- 1 hour wrapped in a Texas crutch
- 2 hours in the smoker as normal
After the first three hours on the smoker, we pull the ribs off to wrap them in foil. When we wrapped the ribs we added apple cider vinegar, bacon fat, red pepper jelly, and sliced onions. Then we toss the wrapped ribs back on the smoker for an hour. After that, we unwrap the ribs and place them back on the smoker for the final two hours.
In the video we cheated the last phase: instead of 2 hours as normal on the smoker at the end, we only did 1 hour. Mostly due to the fact I had plans for a night on the town and needed to wrap up the review with my final take; couldn’t do that without a rack of ribs to show off.
Why 3-1-2 instead of 3-2-1?
The reason I prefer the 3-1-2 method to the 3-2-1 is because two hours is too long to have the ribs wrapped. I like my ribs to have a bit of a bark and some texture to them however, it seems every time I’ve done the 3-2-1 method my ribs are squishy. And I know some prefer the 3-2-1 method because it tends to yield ribs that are more likely to “fall of the bone” and while there’s nothing wrong with that I shoot for a bit more texture and togetherness.