Best Infrared Engineer
By Lisa Readie Mayer
PhotoS: ©2018 Jeff Amberg Photographer.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make a good grill, but it sure can help. In the case of William H. “Bill” Best, founder and president of Thermal Engineering Corporation (TEC), his work as a rocket scientist led to his invention of the infrared grill. His patented TEC Patio I, first sold in 1978, will mark its 40th anniversary this year.
The grill is but one of Best’s innovations, and represents a mere fraction of the 120 patents he holds – 35 to 40 issued in the last few years alone. A brilliant scientist and inexhaustible inventor with a mind in perpetual motion, Best first discovered his passion for research and development at age 22 when he worked to improve the “hose and drogue” in-flight refueling system for the United States Air Force after serving as a bomber pilot in the Korean War.
Best later went to college on the GI bill, earning an engineering degree from the University of South Carolina. He went on to earn a Doctoral degree in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on heat-transfer and thermal dynamics through a co-op program offered by his employer, aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.
It was in 1961, while doing research on flame-quenching devices for guidance rockets for Pratt & Whitney and teaching at the University of South Carolina, that Best developed the first gas-powered infrared burner.
“I was working late in the lab on a small rocket engine, and at about 3 or 4 in the morning, I walked by the running engine and felt the heat from this intense radiation coming off the ceramic coating,” he recalls. The experience led to the idea for an infrared burner that could be used as an energy-efficient industrial space heater.
Best started a company – Thermal Engineering Corporation – taught himself ceramic engineering, and partnered with the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M) to develop a noncombustible ceramic material with low thermo conductivity, required so the burner would not auto-ignite and blow out.
He came up with the notion of embedding finely ground walnut shells in the ceramic; the shells would carbonize in the manufacturing process and leave behind holes in their place. These holes would let heat out, lower the temperature of the emitting surface, and keep the burner box from auto-igniting. Best says it took countless experiments and at least 10 to 12 burner designs to get it ready for patenting and manufacturing a line of portable industrial heaters.
A long list of other patented commercial applications for gas-powered infrared burners followed. Best designed and manufactured high-bay infrared heaters for factories and other industrial settings. He developed infrared processes for mass-manufacturing radial tires, and installed the systems in Goodyear factories all over the world.
He developed the TEC Turbulator Oven, Radiant Wall Oven, and Air Radiant Oven that revolutionized paint-drying and -curing systems by improving the finish quality, reducing the floor space needed for equipment, conserving energy, and saving millions in energy costs. The systems are still used in the furniture-, truck-, heavy-equipment-, aerospace-, wood-, and paper-manufacturing industries, and by the majority of the world’s automotive manufacturers. It was once estimated that 70% of all new cars on the planet went through at least one of Best’s patented processes during manufacturing.
In the 1970s, Best, a serial tinkerer, took one of his infrared burners and installed it in a grill he built for himself. He found his infrared grilling system produced a better sear and juicier, more flavorful meats than any he had grilled on traditional convective gas grills.
“Infrared is a very efficient way to transfer energy,” he explains. “It is not absorbed by gasses and can be transferred without disruption in an extremely efficient way. Think about it: The sun’s energy goes through millions of miles and freezing temperatures and still heats the Earth. Grills that cook by infrared energy are not affected by outside temperatures, wind or rain.
You can’t get that same performance from a convective grill that relies on heating the air to cook food, because it’s impacted by the elements. In addition, the hot air dries out the food. Food cooked on an infrared grill retains more of its natural juices.”
|Bill with the original Patio I (world’s first infrared grill, produced in 1978).|
Best’s concept grill would have gone no further than his backyard, were it not for a consultant he hired to find new avenues to expand business at the Columbia, South Carolina-based TEC. “The truth is, we have a large manufacturing facility and part of what we do is metal work,” says Best. “We hired a consultant to see what else we could do to fill our metal capacity, and to find a use for the scrap metal we were generating. I was jabbering with him about how I had built a grill and how it solved a lot of problems inherent in other grills. I was not even thinking about manufacturing it. But the consultant saw the potential and he said, ‘That’s what you’re going to make!’”
That first grill, the TEC Patio I, incorporated a burner Best had developed for paint drying and curing. Initially, it sold mostly by word of mouth, but, when one of Best’s first customers wrote an article about it in Popular Mechanics, sales took off. “We sold at least 1,000 grills as a result of that article,” Best says. The grill became known for its searing temperatures, and was sought-after by backyard enthusiasts seeking a restaurant-quality crust on their steaks.
The infrared grill was not Best’s only successful collaboration with an outside consultant. About 13 years ago, he brought in attorney Rachael Kearse Best to help him reorganize his company. She did, and then invested in the company, and went on to become his partner in business and in life. Today, Kearse Best is co-owner of TEC, president of the company, and Best’s wife. The partners are yin and yang; she deals with the sales, marketing, and legal aspects of the business that he has little interest in, and also interprets Best’s complicated scientific jargon into layman’s terms.
“Some customers really like the technical stuff and want to know in detail about how infrared energy works in a grill,” says Kearse Best. “But usually people just want to know how the food tastes. Bill uses this analogy: Most people don’t know how a refrigerator works, just that it keeps food cold.”
“I am primarily a researcher and not much of a marketing person,” Bill Best admits. “Mathematics is exact. Sometimes people in marketing and sales use exaggerated numbers. For instance, one time at a restaurant show, a competitor said their oven got to 2,000 degrees. Well, if that were true, you would have no hair or eyebrows when you opened the oven door. The industrial process side of the business requires very precise calculations and the numbers speak for themselves.”
When Best’s original infrared grill patent expired in 2000, the technology was quickly adopted by a number of other grill manufacturers. Today, that original infrared technology is mostly found in hybrid grills that use traditional convective burners on one side of the grill and high-heat infrared burners on the other side to create sear zones. While infrared technology’s searing capability won many fans, others believed its high-heat-only temperatures limited cooking versatility, and it prevented the category from fully taking off.
But by this time, Best was already light-years ahead on his patent-protected path to grilling perfection. After five years of research and development, TEC launched the second-generation infrared grill in 2005, with a patented, all-metal burner and high-temperature glass-plate system replacing the original ceramic technology. The breakthrough technology cooks with virtually 100% infrared energy. (Earlier infrared grills cooked with approximately 35% infrared energy.)
The new system distributed heat more evenly, reduced flare-ups, could turn down to somewhat lower temperatures, and was up to 50% more energy efficient than other grills. This new line of residential grills won Vesta Awards for Best New Gas Barbecue and Best in Show for Outdoor Room Products at the 2005 Hearth, Patio & Barbecue EXPO. Its commercial line captured the National Restaurant Association’s 2006 Kitchen Innovation Award, and the Gas Food Equipment Network’s 2006 Blue Flame Product of the Year Award. The International Academy of Sciences recognized the burner system as one of the top new technologies of the year in 2006.
By 2008, Best had patented a new radiant-tube-broiler technology, which he licensed to Char-Broil for use in “The Big Easy,” an oil-less, infrared turkey fryer. That product captured another Vesta Award for innovation, and one year later, Best won again for his G-Sport grill. This third-generation infrared grilling system uses a stainless-steel burner under the glass panel and can turn down to previously unattainable low cooking temperatures.
“Many people associate infrared grilling with high-temperature searing,” Best says. “That’s because our first grills used our ceramic infrared burners that had limited turn down. The lowest you could go was about 700 degrees. With the new stainless-steel burner and the high-temperature glass, you can cook at temperatures from as low as 200 degrees up to 900 degrees. You can smoke or slow-cook for hours on low, and still get the intense searing temperatures on high. The new infrared grilling system is much more versatile than the old.”
Best is now working on his fourth-generation infrared grill, one he promises offers even more enhanced cooking performance, versatility, and longevity. His latest system involves encapsulating a metal burner with ceramic, a new formula he’s been developing, testing and retesting for four years. “The challenge is to develop a ceramic material that has same expansion properties as the metal burner,” explains Best. “The ceramic coating will make the metal radiate heat better. It will also protect the metal burner from corrosion by the fatty acids and salts in food drippings, thereby increasing the life of the grill.”
|44-in. Sterling Patio on an island.|
Best’s constant research and development is driven by his business philosophy: If you don’t obsolete yourself, someone else will. “I’m proud of how we continually come up with new and improved technology,” he says. “This is the best grill I’ve ever worked on and will be the way everyone grills in years to come. I love research and development; it’s the most enjoyable work you can possibly have.”
Best is sharing his enthusiasm with the next generation of engineers as a mentor to students at the University of South Carolina, where he still teaches an Engineering course occasionally. He pays forward the assistance he received from mentors, like his former professor Frank Hurdy, by helping students get into graduate school and through the scholarship he established to honor Hurdy. He also takes on student interns at TEC, providing young engineers the opportunity to put classroom theory into hands-on application working with highly specialized industrial process systems.
The Bests have also cemented long-time relationships with TEC’s retail and consumer customers. The company sells exclusively through independent dealers, primarily in the hearth, patio, barbecue, lawn and garden, and propane business channels. “We have a family-owned business and we love being part of a community of family-owned retailers,” says Kearse Best. “We have relationships with our dealers and know the husbands and wives, sons and daughters. It’s very gratifying to see them talk to Bill at the HPBExpo and want to hear what he’s working on.”
There is usually a lot to talk about.
Best’s latest endeavor takes him back to where he started: infrared heaters. He is currently working on a new-and-improved, highly-efficient outdoor patio heater. “Typical outdoor heaters are seriously affected by wind, and are so inefficient that less than 20% of the fuel goes toward creating infrared radiation (heat),” he explains.
Kearse Best says her husband dreamed of the mathematical equation for the new heater in his sleep, and got up in the night to write it down. In fact, she says it is not unusual to find him tinkering in the backyard on projects in the middle of the night. “His mind is constantly working,” she says.
Bill Best is not the only inventor in the family. Kearse Best has patents pending for accessory products she designed for use on TEC grills. “According to HPBA research, over half of consumers who buy grills also buy accessories, but we offered very few because Bill wouldn’t work on designing them,” she says. When her repeated pleas failed to yield action, Kearse Best developed a line of accessories herself.
Her first product, the Infrared Smoker/Roaster, is a three-piece, stainless-steel unit consisting of a slotted roasting rack, a heavy-duty radiant drip tray, and a woodchip corral. The system sits on the grilling grid, collects food drippings, and lowers cooking temperatures to enable low-and-slow barbecuing, roasting, smoking, and steaming.
“The tray acts as another barrier for the radiant energy to pass through,” Kearse Best explains. As it reradiates energy in longer wave lengths, it lowers the temperature of the cooking surface by 80 to 90 degrees. You can smoke turkey and pork butts; you can put water in the tray and steam oysters. The Smoker/Roaster, in combination with the new burner, adds so much versatility to the infrared grill because you can do all these different techniques. It’s now purchased as an accessory with almost every grill we sell.”
Kearse Best has since added a pizza tray, commercial-style griddle, and biscuit rack to the line of accessories. Her latest accessory, a bottomless meatloaf pan, allows radiant energy to hit the bottom of the meatloaf to create an all-around surface crust, while retaining juices.
“When we introduced accessories, our dollar volume tripled,” says Kearse Best. “People love them. Our research shows most people cook on TEC grills year-round, three times a week. They are really interested in trying new things. With these accessories, people don’t have to buy a second grill for different techniques.”
|No hot or cold spots on a TEC infrared grill.|
Best, who will turn 86 in May, has the energy, enthusiasm and productivity of someone a quarter of his age, and his passion for work still burns as hot as one of his grills. Even his down time usually involves designing, experimenting, and creating.
“Bill likes to make things,” says Kearse Best. “He has never played golf; all his hobbies have to do with creating something.” For instance, dissatisfied with the outdoor landscaping lights on the market, Best designed and built his own. He likewise designed and built their bathroom light fixtures, a 14-ft. dining room table, buffet cabinet, and entertainment center.
When the couple renovated a vacation home on an island off the South Carolina coast, accessible only by boat, Best designed a 44-ft. barge to transport construction materials, and had it built at the factory by TEC employees. When the remodel was finished, he converted the barge to a houseboat, outfitting it with an air-conditioned cabin, complete with a bathroom.
Cooking is another hobby. According to Kearse Best, her husband makes a mean beef tenderloin (his secret: trimming it perfectly and putting a few woodchips on the grate for a hint of smoke flavor). “People say it’s better than in a restaurant,” she says. “And, now, on the new infrared grill, he does a lot of slow cooking. He makes incredible pulled-pork barbecue.
“Of course, you could argue that cooking is all part of the research process, too, so in a sense he is still working,” says Kearse Best with a laugh. “He works this much because he loves what he does.”