I am in the southwest and ran my smoker at 25LHT and 100HHT and only had to change that when I wanted hotter grill cooks. But that's my grill and may not be yours. It was perfect for 225 to 275. As for your ash. Definitely clean out your firepot before every smoke. I keep a small shop vac handy for that. Also, the more seasoned your smoker is the better. Mine is completely black on the inside now. I get hardly any ash on my food in the indirect side. I also suggest trying some different pellet brands. I personally like BBQ delight brand. I use 100% woods. Like cherry and hickory. I don't use my PG-500 hardly anymore since I got my FEC-120, but have kept pretty good notes. If you need any advice or have questions.