Baltobrewer's Electric Stand

The Great Brewstand Project
How I Went All Electric And Managed To Not Kill Myself

I started homebrewing in November of 1996. For the first year or two, I was extract mini-mashing on my stovetop, but like most homebrewers out there, I got bitten by the all-grain bug fairly quickly. For the 6 or so years that followed, I brewed on an ever-changing ramshackle array of coolers, pots, buckets and burners that came and went like the seasons. What I settled on is what you see at left, a rectangular cooler for the HLT, an orange Gott cooler for the MT, and a converted keg and burner for the kettle. The smaller 5-gallon pot I kept for sentimental value, and the occasional decoction…

Over time I grew frustrated at the lack of repeatability of my batches, the time and toil of the brewday (especially in the dead-nuts of winter), and the imminent possibility of major skin loss due to critical failure of a hot water container at altitude. When my wife gave me the green light to build a brewstand of my own design, I had 5 major goals in mind:

  1. Be able to brew indoors
  2. Be able to shorten the brewday
  3. Be able to improve batch to batch consistency
  4. Be able to make the brewday less physically demanding, and
  5. Be able to make it look all purty

Since I was already a long-time customer of B3, I contacted them about designing a single-level electric system for me. They were hip on the single tier (eventually they added one to their lineup) but not so much on the electric part. (Apparently they have good lawyers….go figure). So they agreed to just do the stand for me. After much sketching and wasted paper, I finally came up with a flow schematic that would allow me to go single tier and use hard piping for most of the flow paths. Originally I was going to use gas for the kettle and electric for the HLT. I later discarded this idea and went all-electric. Here’s the stand as shipped to me by B3 in August of 2004.

Next step was adding sheet metal for the pump/CFC level, and painting and drilling out the stand for the pumps and return valves.

Plumbing came next. I sweated most of the connections out of ½? copper, and with the pumps mounted horizontally as opposed to vertically, a prime consideration (no pun intended) of the flow plan was to eliminate the need to plug and unplug liquid lines. This is because the March pumps lose prime very easily if air gets into the impeller, so I wanted to prime the pumps and leave them that way. Here you can see the flow path.

I covered all the copper in Armaflex to reduce heat loss, and secured all the lines with zip ties, copper pipe straps and rivets. I like copper. You will see this. This keeps heat loss to 4 degrees from HLT to mashtun.

Here’s the finished stand, bare of electronics. The left side is the wort side, and the right the water side. There is a thermometer on the left return arm so I can see the wort temp after it exits the heat exchanger, before its return to the kettle.

Since the MT and boil kettle share the same wort line, I added a valve in between them so you can lock off the MT during the boil to empty out your grains and clean the MT.

The MT, in case you are wondering, does not have its own heat source. The counterflow chiller, a Convolutus model from B3, serves as the heat exchanger. Honestly, what is a CFC anyway if not a heat exchanger? It can raise temps as well as it can lower them, so why buy an extra HERMS coil for the HLT?

I recirc the HLT water thru the outside of the CFC and the wort thru the inside of it. That way, the MT picks up the HLT’s heat. I just keep the HLT at mash setpoint +4 degrees during the entirety of the mash, and it holds it steady as a compass. Look at the flow pattern and you can see how it works.

The next step was adding electricity to the system. Let me add a disclaimer here, in case lawyers are reading: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO USE ELECTRICITY TO POWER A BREW SYSTEM. YOU WILL KILL YOURSELF, AND I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE. I SHOULD BE DEAD BY NOW, BUT I AM LUCKY. YOU ARE NOT. Okay then. That’s out of the way. Scavenging electronics are where I got my real love for eBay. Let me tell you, electronic bits and pieces are cheaper here than anywhere else on planet earth, short of outright theft.

I started with an enclosure. It’s NEMA-6 rated enclosure (apparently that means splash resistant). Do yourself a favor when shopping for enclosures: buy all the other stuff first. Then put all the bits and pieces in cardboard mock-ups until you have enough room. Buy an enclosure that’s the next size bigger. You will ALWAYS need a bigger enclosure than you think. Here’s mine I got from eBay for $35.

Now on to the shuck and jive, as Papazian so annoyingly puts it. I wanted the main power to come from a 240V line, but I also had the pumps and the PID control running off of 110V. That meant splitting off a separate 110V line and plug, or running the 240V main thru a contactor. I opted for the contactor, as it’s also a safety valve. A contactor is basically a giant switch. Shut the power at the breaker or GFI and the contactor snaps closed, killing all power to the system. In the event something goes haywire, you won’t be killed. The contactor has a 240V pass-thru AND a 110V shunt so I could split off a powered line to my pumps and PID control., Here’s my Square-D. About $40 from eBay

The 110V side also contains another element of the system, and it’s probably my favorite: a timer. I have the 110V line from the contactor wired into it.

The two pumps and the PID are plugged into the timer. When I pre-measure the strike water for my mash and sparge the night before, I set the timer to wake up at 5 am or so. Since the PID remembers its last programmed setpoint, when the timer energizes in the early AM, the PID and the pumps get to work.

Lets talk about the PID. In case you don’t know, a PID control is basically a fancy thermostat. It stands for proportional-integral-derivative, and it’s meant to control a setpoint in a feedback loop. Basically, you enter a setpoint that you’d like reached, and the PID uses calculus to turn heaters and other paraphernalia on and off so that you hit your setpoint dead on without overshooting and yo-yoing around it like typical on-off thermostats (like RANCOs) would do. I found an Omega CN9000A for about $40.

The PID control is the brains of the system. An SSR (Solid State Relay) is kinda like a site foreman, and the heater, in my case a 7000W element, is the brawn.

It is controlled by an SSR, or Solid State Relay. This is a very large switch with no moving parts. The SSR is connected to the PID and the contactor. The PID tells the SSR to send or cut power to the element in intermittent bursts, and the SSR takes incoming power from the contactor and sends it to the element per its instructions. These cycles decrease in frequency as the temp of the hot water nears the setpoint, so it won’t overshoot. The PID is good at this. A regular switch…not so much.

See that little silver thingy in there with the element? That’s a thermocouple. It’s the PID’s “eyes in the kettle,? so to speak. It monitors the temp of the water and sends a constant readout to the PID, so the PID knows what progress the heater is making getting to its setpoint. One aside: the SSR gets mighty hot shuttling 240V of power, so look for one with as big of a heat sink as you can find. Like this.

So now we have the HLT awake at 0-dark-30 heating the strike water in the mashtun to setpoint. If I want to mash in and hit 150, I use ProMash to tell me what the strike temp needs to be based on grain temp, and then I set the PID control to that temp +4 degrees, because I know I’ll lose that in ambient heat losses. So when I come down to brew at 8 am or so, the strike water is ready. I yawn and mash in – no waiting. Dump in the grains as fast as possible and stir like a madman. Conversion happens quick. This helps.

The night before, I also put about 1/3 of the HLT water in a bucket and reserve it at room temp, because when I mash in, the HLT water will be around 168. I need to bring it back down to 154 if I’m going to use it to maintain mash temps. This goes back in the HLT after I mash in. I reset the PID to mash temps +4, and let it come back to setpoint while I let the mash rest for a few minutes. Then I begin the recirc part of the mash. The wort is pumped thru the left pump, thru the inside of the CFC and back to the left return arm, where it diverts right to go back to the grain bed. The HLT water goes thru the right pump, thru the outside of the CFC in the opposite direction as the wort, then back to the right return arm where it diverts right to return to the HLT.

Inside the MT.

The only drawback of the system is since the MT has no external heat source, it's very slow to respond to heat inputs from the HLT, so step mashing is not efficient at all. However, I usually do single infusion mashes, the one exception being my pre-pro pils, which I do a cereal grain boil and raise mash temps by decoction.

I mash for 45 minutes. At 45 minutes in, I raise the PID to 165 to heat the HLT for sparge. At 60 minutes, I switch the valves over to divert both return arms left. This sends the wort to the kettle and the HLT water to the MT.

Now about that kettle… I had originally wanted to go with gas. Not good for indoors. So onto eBay went the burner and in came the spa heater. A friend of mine who does process control for a living (he actually automates church organs) helped me design the control for the kettle. Rather than a simple on-off switch, he based it off of a rheostat, or dimmer switch. However, this dimmer switch has to handle 7000W.

So the flow for the kettle control goes like this: the rheostat knob on the front of the enclosure feeds a diac, which is basically a custom-made circuit board that can handle 10,000 watts. Don’t ask me how he made it. I know it involved a soldering iron and circuit board. It shuttles power to a triac. That acts much like an SSR (it’s actually mounted to the same heat sink) and sends the power to a dryer plug that I can manually plug the kettle into.

The back of the enclosure with dryer plug and kettle plugged in. Also the heat sink from the SSR and Triac.

Here’s a close up of the SSR. Right above it you can just make out the triac with the yellow wire leads from the diac on it.

Here’s the front of the enclosure. You can see the PID control set for a mash temp of 151 (+4 for the HLT water), the dial control for the kettle, the 2 manual switches for the wort and water pumps, and the “on? light. Not sure why I have an “on? light, but oh well…(ed: because it's friggin' rad!)

And here’s the ugly pic. What I refer to as the “squirrel’s nest?. Bob, my brew buddy, is good at designing the controls. He’s not so intent on making them look good.

The yellow board on the bottom left is the diac. If you trace the white power leads off of it to the right, you’ll and up at the triac, mounted right above the SSR. The contactor is mounted to the back, right below the PID, and the timer is to the right of it. The 110V lines coming out of the contactor feed the timer, into which are plugged the household outlet that faces downward. The pumps are plugged into it. It faces down in case of splashing. Al in all, it’s not pretty, but the electrons go where they’re supposed to go, and that’s really all that matters.

Once the wort covers the element, I start up the kettle. I’m usually at a boil before I’m through sparging, so I count that 30 minutes into the boil of 90. 45 – 50 minutes to sparge.

After boiling for an additional 60 minutes, I hook up the lines in chill mode. I added in a hard-piped bypass for the chilling water, so it would be a more direct path for the flow.

The chill water is not turned on for 10 – 15 minutes, and during that time I recirc the hot wort thru the wort loop and back to the kettle. The lines are sterilized this way, and the whole hops (I cant use pellets) collect around the funky bent bazooka tube and serve as a filter bed for the hot break already in the kettle.

When I turn on the chill water from the washer hookup on the left, it goes straight thru to the CFC bypass and out the right return arm, where it goes down the drain I have on the washer hookup. The wort continues to recirc into the kettle as it chills. The cold break, and there’s LOTS of it, gets caught by the hops. This avoids one of the downfalls of CFC’s – cold break in the fermenter. After a few minutes of recirc, and when my wort return has been stabilized at my pitching temp, I switch hoses and pump to the fermenter. I run the wort through an inline O2 stone and into the fermenter.

Aside from the cleanup, that’s whole day. I can usually get 10 gallons into the fermenter and clean up within 4 ½ hours.

That’s all I got, folks! Thanks for slogging thru it!

Brew Strong!

addendum 4/22/08 ------------------------------------------------

Here is the bottom of the boil kettle 'raw'.

I made covers for the exposed connections by cutting PVC elbows open, filling them with silicone sealant and letting them set.

This makes the bottom of the pot a bit more sturdy and insulates the wire ends (and me) from damage.

Jay (brewing since '96) lives in York, Pennsylvania with his wife, two kids, and a cat who favors lime-colored hats. He can be found most often online at the Brewing Network and Morebeer Forums and is a Certified BJCP Beer Judge. When he's not brewing he can usually be found scouring eBay for brewing gadgets or drunk on the floor of his mancave. His wife apologizes in advance.
Squeeky on 04/13/08 12:41 pm writes
Well, I want to say thank you for giving my something to copy. I've been seeking an eBrewery and I already have an all copper CFC and I really like the was you utilized it. I intend of making stand from wood in order to cut my cost and stay away from welding. Jay if I can contact you in the future with questions please let me know.
Keith on 04/22/08 09:28 am writes
Any chance of more pictures / explanation of the spa heating element? I've been wanting to use one of those instead of a hot-water element, mostly for immersion chiller reasons. Also, where did you get the element from? Thanks!!
baltobrewer on 04/22/08 03:06 pm writes
Squeeky - feel free to contact me on anything about the system...use

Keith - Push helped me post some pictures above to show some more detail about the BK. To mount the element, I drilled holes right through the bottom of the pot (yeah that was nerve racking...) and just bolted it in place. It came with high-temp washers. Once I had it in place and liquid electrical taped the connections, I went to the local HD and got two 2" PVC elbows. I used a dremel with a cut-off wheel to essentially hack them apart, leaving a c-shaped channel with a closed end. I filled that with high-temp silicone and just kind of squished them onto the bare ends. Let it sit for a few days. Works great to insulate the ends, but if I ever have to replace the element, I'll be screwed.

The element itself is made by a company called Brett Aqualine. They're spa heaters, and are widely available on the net...just poke around. Here's one retailer: Spa and Pool Source
You can probably find it cheaper on ebay or with a more thorough search; this will get you started, though. It provides a LOT of heating power (it could probably easily boil 20 gallons) and it has a lot of surface area compared to a traditional hot water element, so scorching is not an issue. Hope this helps!
Kerry Hales on 09/13/08 09:32 pm writes
My girlfriend, who does not drink much beer, just called your system "A work of art!" That, sir, is a compliment that should not be ignored.
Rick on 10/03/08 07:45 pm writes
Just curious but what did the whole build cost you?
Pete on 01/23/09 05:04 pm writes
Great system, Jay! Does the element in the brew pot get gunked up with trub? Does it ever need cleaning?
Jay on 02/03/09 04:30 pm writes
Kerry - nice compliment indeed! Good te hear...

Rick - I think I have about $2500 - $2800 in it all told.

Pete - Yes and Yes. I use whole hops, and it gets pretty clogged after every brew; I end up having to hose it out. The element itself attracts beerstone like you wouldnt believe so some acid wash followed by hot PBW will break it apart. I usually do this about every 6 months or so...
Josh on 02/22/09 08:47 pm writes
Hi, I'm wondering what the reason is that you can't use pellet hops? Do they clog up the lines? Probably a dumb question, but have you tried putting them in a steeping bag yet? Also, I can't see from the photos, but where is the fresh water supply in connection at? Just as an FYI, I'm building a system that's nearly an identical copy of yours, I liked yours so much. That said, anything you'd change if you had it to do over again? I've got the frame fabricated and have started on the plumbing. Fun project, for sure. Thanks for posting your system - it's been a great inspiration!
Yorg on 02/27/09 12:50 am writes
So what kind of pump are you using to circulate the HLT water in the CFC?
Drew on 03/14/09 04:43 pm writes

I just got back form brewing with Jay today He uses 2 march 809 pumps you can get them at most online Homebrew shops.
Broc on 04/05/09 11:02 am writes
AWESOME! I am looking to build a brewery system in a room I am converting to a bar/game room. Your system is ideal! And, SWMBO is impressed and is basically giving me the go ahead! VERY nice. I am in the electrical/automation industry, so I am hoping I can score some deals on the products and design of the system.

Would it be ok to contact you in person to ask some questions? I am very impressed with what you did. Nice job!
Jay on 07/24/09 12:06 pm writes

fire away.....
Scott on 08/15/09 04:37 am writes
Dude, this rocks! Although I am more of a gas man myself, I do like the concept of the single tier.
chuck on 08/27/09 06:52 pm writes
Thank you for an excellent post and inspiring system. I am right behind you in my building and have few questions.

First I am confused about 240 and 120 volt requirements. As I understand it you are coming into your box with 240 and then breaking off the 120? Is there a GFI breaker on the circuit? (Bottom line Iâm lost on the whole AC circuitry .) I understand that your elements are plugs that plug into the elec. box. Do you unplug each one as you move between elements? I was thinking of hard wiring all three elements in my box. Thoughts?

#2 Do you think you can do this with just one pump switching connections. Any thoughts about this.

#3 I have purchased a used Omega PID. Are all relays created equal? Their manual gives no specs on relays that I can find. I imagine I size it to the element.

Any additional electronic specs or pics would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for what you have already shared!
Travis on 01/12/10 08:12 pm writes
Impressive! I supposed I can't stay idle...
Can you do me a huge favor... can you provide the dimensions, please?
Joey on 01/27/10 09:24 pm writes
A true display of ingenuity. Thanks for sharing!
Dante on 02/22/10 10:21 am writes
That is an amazing setup, and has inspired much of what i am doing with mine. I was wondering if you could include a generalized wiring diagram for those of us at home trying to do something similar.

240 in -> contactor -> voltage control module -> 240 outlet -> heater
| | ^
\ | |
>------ | --------------> SSR ----------/
| ^
V |
120 -> timer -> PID
Hugh on 02/24/10 09:27 am writes
really inspiring setup, am running a single tier, single pump electric system that has some similarities but is nowhere this refined. bravo!
Rob on 05/15/10 03:31 am writes
I'm no elexctrician but if you have a 240v feed and a 7000w element what amp fuse do you run the system on? What is the maximum load during brewing with the element and all the other bits drawing current at the same time?

Cheers for the porn...

Erik on 07/11/10 11:21 am writes
Why can't you use pellet hops?

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