50 Days Happier: Day 2 – Reuse it Already!

I believe in the potential of materials. So much so that I commonly hold onto things–scraps of wood, broken furniture, discarded pallets–with the faith that I can and will make use of them. I honestly don’t find this tendency to be problematic in itself.  In fact, it’s a really enjoyable way to engage my creativity and my commitment to live more sustainably. The pile up of materials, however, is a problem. When I don’t get around to utilizing all the materials I collect, my house, basement, and back yard start looking like a workshop…or a junkyard.

Today, I tackled a project I have been meaning to work on with my stepson–a desk addition to the loft bed I built him a couple of years ago.  Miles has been slowly earning components for a custom built gaming PC (sort of a motherboard for good grades scheme).  All of these computer parts have just been siting in a pile. By building the desk, we’re not only getting rid of some back logged building materials, but also decluttering a corner of the house.

The desk plan (snuck a summer math lesson about right triangles in there)

Ever in search of educational opportunities, I had Miles help me to take measurements and draw up a plan for two triangular brackets and a custom fit desktop.  A couple hours, breaks, and snacks later, we finished.

We’ll be cleaning it up and adding some details, but the new computer desk is more or less complete.

After looking at the scraps from the desk project, I decided to start another project that I have been thinking about for a long time.

Scraps from the desk build.

I have an amazing dog who happens to be elderly and paralyzed from the middle of his back down. When he’s not in his cart or my lap, he spends a lot of time on the couch in the living room. This is non ideal for a couple of reasons. A fall off the couch would be really dangerous for him. Our family likes to use the couch and he takes up a remarkable amount of space for a 10lb dog. And, as you can imagine, he’s not the most “continent” animal in the world.  For whatever reason, sitting on the floor doesn’t work for my little guy either.  I suspect it’s something about lines of sight or fear of getting trampled. Whatever it is, the floor gives Kielo massive anxiety.

I have long had the idea to make Kielo a small little personal sofa  for the living room, and saved a piece of a old, broken knock off mid-century end table just for that purpose.

This used to be one of those two-tired end tables.
As you can see, it’s not the greatest condition.

I cut the scraps to size and added them to the side of the table as arms or guard rails for the little man and then headed down to the basement to find a piece of scrap to use as the back.  For all the random crap I had down there, there weren’t a ton of options.  I ended up grabbing a left over piece from when I build a triangular shaped corner cabinet for my computer.

Used this piece of scrap wood for the dog sofa back.

Everything went together pretty smoothly.  Tomorrow I am going to rummage through the spray paint in the basement.  Hopefully there’s something I can hit this with that will look nice with the living room (at least nicer than this scrap wood collage).

Now all it needs is a coat of paint and some blankets and cushions.

Though the custom doggy sofa is far from done, I couldn’t resist giving it a little trial run.

It looks like a throne because it is.



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Start With the Hardest Part: Control Panel Design

There are clearly more than two types of people in the world, but if we were going to work with this popular (if asinine) theory, then a nice way to make the distinction might be to make it between people who tackle challenges by addressing the easiest part first and those who go for the hardest.  I belong to the latter group of folks and for this reason, I am starting off my e-brewery build by attacking the control panel first.

Key Decisions

In a lot of ways addressing the control panel first is the only logical way to start, as it forces you to make some key decisions in the overall design of the system.

120V or 240V Power? – How to power the brewing system was probably the decision I waffled over most.   At the center of most e-breweries are electric water heating elements (like those in household water heaters).  These elements can run off 120V (the voltage in a normal outlet) or 240V (the voltage in an outlet like your electric clothes dryer) residential power. Unsurprisingly, when available, 240V power is superior choice, allowing for the use of 4,500W-5,500W elements and shortening the time it takes to bring water and wort from room to boiling temperatures.  The Electric Brewery build uses 240V power to fire two 5,500W heating elements.  The problem with 240V power is that it isn’t widely available in most homes (rather specifically wired for a few appliances like dryers and stoves), it can be a pain in the butt to install a new receptacle, and I am renter (meaning I can’t monkey with the house too much either way).  Because I am locating my brewery in my laundry room, I do have the option of unplugging my dryer and using that receptacle on brew day.  But ultimately, I don’t know that I am going to live in this house forever and I want to build something that gives me the most flexibility into the future.  And so, I decided to use 120V power for my e-brewery so that it can be plugged into almost any residential outlet.  Moreover, because my build is designed around 5-gallon batches (smaller than those driving The Electric Brewery design), I’m hopeful that my heating times wont be too terrible.

RIMS or HERMS? – My quests for higher efficiency, better temperature control, and all around better beer, demand that I upgrade to a recirculating system.  The Electric Brewery build uses a HERMS design.  Wort passes through a stainless steel coil located HLT (hot liquor tun) where it is heated and recirculated back to a mash tun using a high temperature pump.  While this is a great design, it is NOT particularly compact (it uses three large Blichmann Boilermaker pots and two pumps all on the same tier) and it doesn’t have much consideration for energy efficiency (nothing is insulated and it does not take advantage of gravity).  Because I am looking to brew inside a very compact footprint, I started looking at two-vessel builds (for example the rather cool Brutus 20).  I finally settled on a RIMS design that uses the boil kettle like a RIMS tube during the mash, or what the good folks at Blichmann are calling a Kettle-RIMS or K-RIMS system.  The result will be a two vessel, no sparge system where an insulated mash tun is positioned vertically in relation to a boil kettle.  This design allows me to eliminate an accessorized brew pot, a heating element,  a pump, and a lengthy stainless steel coil from the original The Electric Brewery design.  Now that’s $AVINGS! 


Having made these two key decisions, I began planning the wiring for the control panel.  Again, the information on The Electric Brewery was absolutely invaluable in my planning.  Having something to modify was infinitely more feasible than starting from scratch.  I did however, modify the design heavily, as I was able to eliminate quite a lot of circuitry from the The Electric Brewery control panel.

  • Because I am using only one heating element (in the boil kettle), I can remove all of the wiring and components for one of the elements as well as the switch that toggles between elements in the original design.
  • I  scaled back from 3 to 1 PID Temperature Controllers.  The original design used one controller for each element and a third simply to read temperatures from the  mash tun (which, seems to amount to a rather expensive thermometer).
  • I eliminated the Voltage and Amp meters from the control panel, as they were merely cosmetic.

Below are the wiring diagrams I will be using for my 120V control panel’s four major systems.

Control Panel Power
Timer and Alarm
Heating Element
Wort and Air Pumps

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Electric Homebrewery: Getting Started

As promised, I am veering away from the current events theme that has been dominating my blog lately for this upcoming series of posts. Instead, I’ll be posting updates on something I am almost as passionate about (though perhaps I should not admit that): my homebrewery.

If any of you homebrewers out there are anything like me, you are perpetually in some state of upgrading–or at least planning to upgrade–your  brewing system or fermentation/dispensing rig.  Over the years, I’ve slowly made improvements to just about every aspect of my brewing process.  I given myself more dispensing options by moving to kegs, converting an old dorm fridge into a kegerator, and building a jocky box for serving on the run.  I’ve more tightly controlled my fermentation temperatures by converting an old fridge into a fermentation chamber.  I’ve added pumped aeration and filtration to my brew day.  And even geeked out pretty hard on water chemistry to try to get the most out of my mashes and dial in on the characteristics of styles I brew most.  What I have surprisingly NOT changed much over the years is my actual brewery.  My propane burner, brew pot, mash tun, and wort chiller have served me well for years, but are LONG overdue for an upgrade.

IMG_1089IMG_2163IMG_2156Friends know that I have recently relocated from Charlottesville to Lynchburg Virginia to join the faculty at Randolph College (GO WILDCATS!). The move has been a perfect opportunity to make a lot of changes for the better–in the way I live and work, in my space and with my belongings, in my health and well being…and now, in my homebrewery.

I have a few specific goals in mind in making this upgrade.

  • First and most significantly, I want to move from my gas-fired system to an electric system. While I have enjoyed many hours over the years standing outside on mild and sunny brew days listening to the gentle burble of a boiling wort; I have also suffered excruciating heat, freezing cold, high winds, unexpected rain, swarming insects, falling leaves, and more. Further, I am simply tired of hauling equipment and (often very hot) gallons of water and wort around my house and yard.  I am simply looking for a more booshy brew day.
  • Second, I want to make the footprint of my homebrewery much smaller. I am probably not unlike a lot of homebrewers, who tended toward MORE when leveling up. As such, my homebrew equipment takes up a LOT of space…too much space. The truth is, I rarely make more than 5 gallons of any particular beer at a time, though I have always maintained the capability to do three times as much. I’ve finally reached the point in life where less is actually a more attractive option.
  • Third, I want to increase my efficiency.  With my current setup, I can only achieve about 70%-75% efficiency.  No matter what I do, I rarely get out of this range.  Somehow this has always been something of a moral defeat for me and to be honest, I’m cheep enough to mourn the admittedly small cost of those wasted ingredients.
  • Fourth, I want to add more automation and precision to my brew day. Though I have been able to achieve relatively precise temperature control during my mashes, I’m not really set up to do anything more than a single infusion mash and frankly I just don’t like being limited in that way.  I don’t need complete automation, but I want to be able to walk away from my mash tun and/or kettle and not fear that I will make some sort of colossal, off-taste producing error.

I’m also sure that I am not alone in having drooled over and dreamed about Kal’s indoor brewery build at www.TheElectricBrewery.com.  It truly is a thing of beauty if you have not taken a look.  For years, I have simply marked this build as awesomely unattainable (after all the parts and tools, it’ll set you back about $7,000).  Now,  it is still awesomely unattainable.  But, I am in the position to do my own build–one that is scaled WAY back from Kal’s–but makes use of much of the incredible design and planning work he so meticulously and generously documented online.

So, in the same spirit of open documentation that is making my build possible, I am going to be documenting my process is it unfolds.  Feel free to comment (particularly if you see me doing something that will result in burning my house down), collaborators are encouraged.

NEXT >> Start with the Hardest Part: Control Panel