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!