Saturday, July 28, 2012

What's inside my Electric Brewstick Controller box?

After deciding to go all-electric for my  BIAB brewing setup, I considered how to control the heatstick.  I wanted something more than an ON/OFF switch. or simply plugging/unplugging the brewstick from the outlet.

Originally, I did not consider a PID as adding a thermocouple into the mix was over-complicating things in my view.  I settled on a design that was detailed in the Homebrewtalk forum and used a small circuit card to control a solid state relay which switched power to the heatstick.

The picture below shows the semi-rat's nest inside my box.  One day I hope to clean it up a bit. My apologies for not having it all prettied up like many of the other projects I have seen detailed.

The first version of this box used the Control Board to turn on the relay every so often based on the setting of the potentiometer (round silver component on far side of box).  By turning the knob on the outside of the box (connected to the potentiometer), I could control whether the heatstick was on for 1 second every 12 seconds, all the way up to 11.5 seconds of every 12 second interval.  The relay switched one of the 2 phases of 120VAC to the heatstick, effectively turning it on and off.

This worked OK during mashing (although still not ideal), but to get my pot up to boil, I needed the heatstick on all the time.

To accomplish this I added the Bypass Switch (shown above) that bypasses the relay, and (when turned ON) keeps the heatstick on continuously.  Once I got to a boil, I turned this off, and went back to the timer (technically a variable duty-cycle) approach circuit to control the heatstick.

Since the heatstick is so powerful (5500W), I could not keep a constant boil using the timer circuit.  The instant the timer switched off the heatstick the boil would stop.  So I decided to buy one of the PIDs so often seen in homebrew projects to see if that would improve the boil as well as the mash temperature control.  Mine was around $20 on ebay and displays temperature in degrees C.

With the PID installed, I was able to control temperature quite nicely by dropping the thermocouple into my pot and setting the digital controller (PID) to the desired temperature.

I no longer need the Controller Board in the box, but have left it there because it provides a 9V voltage source that the PID uses to switch the relay on and off.  I could replace it with a pull-up resistor, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

I did want to mention that I do have a ground wired through the box, and connected to the metal shank of the heatstick.  The other protection that is the most important part of the system is the 2-pole GFCI circuit breaker that I installed in my breaker panel.  This is what will save me if a short happens, as it did already once (my heatstick was not sealed properly with enough J-B weld...had to re-seal problems since.)  GFCI breakers monitor current flow in each circuit (i.e. both phases of 120VAC going to my box/heatstick) and if there is ever a difference (meaning there is a short to ground somewhere in the circuit) of as little as 2-3mA between their currents, the breaker trips.

While the heatstick uses 240VAC, the way this is delivered is via 2 different phases of 120VAC that look like 240VAC to the heatstick.  So, while you'll notice I have a warning sticker on the top of my relay saying 240VAC, it is actually only 120VAC going through the relay.  The other phase of 120 is wired through the box directly to the heatsticks second terminal.  

Below is a functional block diagram of the entire box, including the unused Controller Board.

Here is a picture of the top of the control box.  Of course, I ordered a PID with Celcius readout, and I never did memorize that conversion formula....something like 9/5 times temp plus 32?  or is that minus 32?

Here is the box with associated wiring/connections.  to the right is the thermocouple.  The short white 120V plug at the bottom powers the PID.  The gray 220VAC plug brings power into the box, and the black 10-3 cable coming out the top left is wired into the heatstick.

As I did in my last post, my disclaimer here is that I am not a licensed electrician, and if you are not knowledgeable about electricity/electronics you should consult one.

If anyone wants more details, let me know.

This setup has been working great for me.  I love the fact that I don't have to worry about running out of propane, and I can brew indoors in my basement shop in the winter, or during inclement weather.

I know that the efficiency of a heatstick tops propane burners, as all of the energy from the heatstick goes right into the water.

Thanks again to the entire brewing community for all of the ideas that I've borrowed from to end up with my system!

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The secret behind my Electric Brewstick

I get strange looks at my brewclub when I mention Brew-in-a-Bag.  No one knows what it is.  One guy in the club came up to me last Saturday and asked me about my "Brew-in-a-Curtain".  My mention of using a voile curtain panel earlier in the week must have stuck with him....or maybe he was just ribbing me.... if being a BIAB'er is not strange enough, I also do not use a propane burner as my heat source.  Instead I use a heatstick.  Not many in my brewclub know what that is either, so I'm basically the red-headed step-child in these parts of the brewing world!

Believe me, I'm trying to evangelize the BIAB method to all of my co-brewers, but I think my best chance at winning converts is with the extract brewers who are eyeing up the move to All-Grain brewing, but that's another topic for another day.

Today and tomorrow, I'm going to uncover the secrets inside my electric brewstick and the controller electronics that drive it.  Most of my design is based on concepts from two sites:
1. How to Build an Electric Hombreweing Heatstick page (thanks Tom), and
2. The Electric Brewery (thanks Kal)

They each went to great lengths to layout in detail how to build an electric-based brewing solution and did a great job.

Along with these sites, I also spent hours scouring the Homebrewtalk website as well to see what others had done and how.  The innovative ideas and willingness to share them is incredible among homebrewers!

My version (shown below) takes "elements" of both Kal's and Tom's designs to make what I feel works best for me as a single-vessel hardcore Brew-in-a-Bag'er.

 Here are my thoughts on how I settled on my final design:

1.  The first design (shown below) is a handheld brewstick made from standard plumbing parts and an 2000 Watt electric water heater element. 

I like this handheld design because it keeps the brewstick separate from the pot/keggle.  Other designs have the element mounted in the bottom of the pot.  I was not sure how easy it would be to clean the keggle with the heater element permanently mounted in the pot so I decided to go handheld.

Also, I use a garden hose to spray off my pot both inside and out, and I was concerned that somehow eventually water would find its way into the electrical/mounting box, and that's never a good thing.

Finally, if I ever wanted to use a different pot, a handheld design gives me that flexibility without the need to drill a mounting hole and worry about leaks.

This design allows the user to simply plug in the heatstick to a standard outlet (with an appropriately sized breaker!) to get things heating/boiling.  A temperature control was not part of this design, so the user simply plugs and unplugs the brewstick as needed to attain/maintain temperature.

2.  The second design (shown below) uses a 5500W (240VAC) Camco water heater element mounted through the side of the pot with a waterproof box on the outside to protect the electrical connections.

 Now this baby will get your water up to temperature quickly (it's more than twice the wattage of the other design), but does require a bit of engineering on the electrical side to make sure that you have enough current available to run it full blast.  I calculated that I'd need about 23 Amps at 240VAC.  This requires 10AWG wire, and a 30Amp double pole GFCI breaker in your panel.   This is no place to skimp on cost.  Get a double-pole GFCI breaker and install it!  It could save your life if you ever have a ground fault in your system.

(Disclaimer:  I am not a licensed electrician, and cannot assume any liability should you damage your house wiring, cause a fire, or worse, injure or kill yourself if you copy any of these designs.  Consult a qualified electrician if you don't know your way around electricity and AC wiring)

The element I used is similar to the one shown, but without the curves.  It is an ultra-low watt density (ULWD) element, meaning that it will not burn out as quickly if you plug it in without water around it.

I decided that it was worth the extra hassle and cost of having my local electrician install a 240VAC outlet in my shop, and a double-pole 30Amp GFCI breaker in my panel in order to allow use of a heating element that would quickly get my water/wort up to strike/boil temperature in a reasonable timeframe.

To get my heatstick to lay fairly flat on the bottom of my pot, I tried to find out if these Camco elements are bendable.  After a few emails with Camco, I decided to give bending a try, but to keep the bends gentle based on their recommendation.  I ended up with what you see below, and it's been doing fine for the last 6 months and about 6 batches.
It sits nicely on the bottom of the pot, and with the 2 sections of the element spread apart, it stays balanced pretty well.

Incidentally, the handheld design I reference above uses J-B Weld to seal around the water heater element, as well as the electrical connections inside.  I used it also, but did not use enough initially, and had to re-seal it by using more J-B Weld to get a complete seal.  Since then, it's worked great.  I've read a few online discussions about the safety of J-B Weld.  It is supposed to be non-toxic, and can survive 500 Deg F.  I've never had a problem with it flavoring my beer either.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss the control box I have built to regulate the temperature in my BIAB setup.

Until then.....cheers!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why AL is my new pal

I thought I had the perfect brew setup.  I had a converted keg that served as my single vessel BIAB solution.  My electric heatstick system was working flawlessly, and my homemade voile bag was getting the job done.  My plate chiller worked great, and I had fine-tuned my process to get my hot wort down to pitching temperature with an in-line thermometer assembly.  Life was PERFECT!

Then it happened....I saw it on one day 2 weeks ago....a 10 Gallon aluminum stock pot for just $41.  Did I need it?  No, but man it sure was tempting.  I was getting tired of lugging that big old keg around that weighs 20+ pounds.  Not only was it a bear empty, but with 7.5 gallons of water in it there was little chance I could lift it to the top of my brew stand.  And clean up would be a more reaching way down in that keg trying to loosen that nasty hot break, or hops that was seemingly welded to the sides.

So I took the plunge and bought one.  Two weeks later it had made its way across this great country by land from California.  Upon opening it, I was amazed and disappointed all at once.  It was light as a feather, and nice and shiny-new, but the advertisement had said it came with a steamer basket which was curiously missing.  I was hoping that the basket would give me a way to pull my bag of grains out without too much squeezing.  No luck...I'm corresponding with the company now to see what went wrong.

In no time I had drilled a hole for the ball valve and verified that my voile bag should fit.  There was no reason not to give her a try the next day, as I had just bought grains to brew up a New Glarus Spotted Cow clone.

Here is how the set up looks during mash, not a whole lot different from before, but with the pot being shorter and wider, it's a bit easier to keep an eye on things.

Hit my temps dead on with my high tech electric brewstick with digital controller.
152F for 60 mins, and 170 mashout for 10.  I drew a few quarts of wort out of the bottom and recirculated it into the bag several times to keep the temperature even.  No need for a $150 March pump!  Thanks Bob Stempski!

With the mash finished and the bag drained, the boil begins:

And when it's time to drain the pot, my plate chiller is clamped just under the table surface:

I recently started using some leftover voile to serve as a filter of the wort as it goes into the funnel/fermenter.  This also helps aerate the wort.  The hot break and hops that make it into the voile will actually clog it up, so having a large piece allows me to slide it around as this happens.

Cleanup was a dream also.  Just a quick brushing and rinsing, and I'm ready for next time.

I did have to modify my siphon tube afterwards by adding an extra copper piece so that it extends to the edge of the pot.

The only other change I need to make is to start with about a half-gallon more water.  The larger diameter of this pot allowed more boil-off and I only ended up with 4.5 gallons of wort.  I had been starting with about 7.4 Gallons, and will now need about 8 gallons.

I use Beersmith, and I had to go into the Equipment section and play around with the numbers to get it right.

So until I find a new way to improve things, I think my setup is perfect.

If anyone has questions, please feel free to post them below.  I have been thinking of making a few videos to discuss my process/setup so let me know if that would be of interest, or if you have other topics you'd like me to take a shot at.

Until next time....cheers!

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