The over-engineered brewing controller

Well I have hinted at my new controller build for the new brewing cart was coming and here it is. I had several different ideas of what I wanted in an ultimate brewing controller and those ideas were all over the map. I like to experiment in my brewing, both in beer styles and brewing methods. Most of the time I brew small batches using the BIAB method but sometimes I do traditional all-grain with multiple vessels, sometimes I want to brew a 5 gallon batch and pull out the 7.5 gallon Blichmann with the Boilcoil out of the closet and other times I hear about something new and want to try it so flexibility was important. I love the temperature control that electric brewing offers but I also wanted the flexibility to control multiple elements in multiple kettles, maybe some newer automation technology, compact yet industrial quality and above all 120 volt operation.

It started with a piece of stainless lab equipment surplus, the enclosure began its life as some sort of  lab equipment platform. I picked it up several years ago at a thrift store for few bucks. Never knew what I was going to do with it but hung on to it. When I decided to make a custom brew cart for my small batch brewing style I needed to make a controller to fit it. With only a narrow spot on the cart for something a lightbulb went off…that stainless enclosure! It already had openings on each side that had outlets but the back panel had all kinds of different unusable cutouts. I was able to cut the spot welds for the back panel and had a new piece of stainless cut and bent to fit. I laid out what needed to go on the back panel and cut the holes and then had the finished panel tack welded in place. The front panel and inside was a blank slate so I needed to think about what I wanted it do and then started to plan it. I went with a sub-panel inside to mount all the components on for easy of assembly. Having the entire bottom open made putting everything together so much easier than my previous builds. Cutting the openings on the front panel for the PIDs was less than fun. Plastic enclosures are so much easier to work on but I had this so patience and occasional swearing got it done.

The enclosure has a small footprint at 16″ wide by 14-1/2″ deep by 3-1/2″ tall. I epoxied a piece of high temp resistant Richlite board to make look more finished. I cut a piece of sheet stainless to cover the bottom. I used a surplus DIN rail with terminal blocks for electrical connections. An internal heat sink for the solid state relays with a temp sensor that controls the rear panel fan when things heat up. Incoming power cord connections are Neutrik PowerCon 32A connectors. Two 120V cords allow the simultaneous use of two elements up to 2250 watts including the Blichmann Boilcoil with twistlock plug. Each element outlet has it’s own master switch on the side and dedicated circuit breaker on the back panel. There are multiple temp probe inputs that are switchable so I don’t have to switch cables when I’m done heating the mash water and then switching to monitoring temperature in the wort recirculation path. It features a brewing event timer from Auber instruments as well as two of their PIDs with built-in timers for the mash/kettle and HLT/RIMS elements. The SWA-2451 PIDs can start a timer when a specific temperature is reached. I also have the Auber EZboil power regulator that I can switch to when it’s time to boil and it controls both element outlets simultaneously with a simple knob to vary the boil power as well as control mash and offer pre-boil alarm. There are two switched pump power outlets and an shared alarm lighted buzzer for the brewing event timer and the two PIDs with timers.

During the build I began looking at the Brew Boss brewing control and I liked the fact it was tablet controlled with a lot of time spent developing and supporting the hardware and software. It is a simple controller with a lot of advanced capabilities. One of its features is the ability to import mash temps and hop additions from a Beersmith recipe file and populate that data into the brew session program. It will also control their Hops Boss hops dispenser. I call it smart simple automation for the hands on home brewer. I like the hands on aspect of turning valves, filling the kettle, mashing in etc but also like the simplicity of automated time and temperature control. I found out that the Brew Boss was available as a DIY board kit. After some research and thinking, I knew I could integrate it in my controller build. After a getting a gift certificate for the Brew Boss website for Christmas (yes your children listen to your brewing rambling and mumbling) I went ahead ordered it. I had to add a couple multiple position switches for the element solid state relays and the main pump but it was relatively easy at this point. After a couple days of work it was working! I already had a Android tablet so I was ready to go. Now I can switch from traditional PID control to Brew Boss control whenever I’d like. On a side note I have to give props to Darin at Brew Boss…a great guy, fellow home brewer and provides great product support.

And the finished controller on the brew cart…

IMG_4987

Is this all necessary? No, but it fits any need I could have in my brewing. It was also a challenge from people that said “no way”, I want to say “yes it can be done”. Over-engineered? At about a year in the making and a about 100 hours of build time, absolutely it was over-engineered but if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. If nothing else it is an example that a home brewer can do anything they want and can accomplish it if they set their mind to it. Are those incredible dream systems restricted to big batch brewers with a lot of money and space? Nope, like I have said before, we small batch brewers can have anything from mild to wild. Limited budget? This project took a year and part of that time was finding the best prices for components, finding parts I could repurpose and moving forward as budget allowed. Need a workshop? Not at all, the controller was built and assembled in my kitchen. Do you have to be an electrical engineer? Nope, 90% of what I know about process control and electrical application is self-taught. Designing this controller was done mostly in my head and through doodling on paper and yes, even the cliche napkin or two. Heck there are functions of my smartphone that I still don’t understand after several years.

After all is said and done I am still about simplicity and this allows me the control over brewing while remaining hands on and I can focus on the beer itself.

Thanks for checking out the blog.

Cheers!

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11 thoughts on “The over-engineered brewing controller

  1. Will you post a video of a brew day? I’d love to see it in action. I thought at one time I saw you had a YouTube channel.

  2. Pingback: The new kettle… | Stainlessbrewer's Home Brewing Blog

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