Thursday, September 26, 2019

Stainless Steel Heating Element Upgrade

High Gravity 5500 Watt Stainless Steel Heating Element

After four years of regular use, I starting seeing small black specks of what I thought were burnt wort at the bottom of the kettle. On closer inspection, I saw that the hard insulator around the heating element was deteriorating. The rubber boot covering the 220-volt wire connections to the heating element had become brittle some time ago. And the electrical tape added as a quick fix didn't appear to be waterproof or safe. It was time to replace the heating element. 

I submitted a service request to High Gravity Supplies describing what happened to the original heating element. That day I received an email from owner Dave Knott letting me know what replacement options were available. The first option would be to replace the original water heater type element with a newer BoilCoil element. This option would require more rework of my kettle than I cared to. Having a removable power cord would make cleaning in place a thing of the past. But it would require drilling a new hole to allow clearance for the taller BoilCoil. Then plug the original hole used by the old element. And drilling holes for the bolts that hold the basket above the BoilCoil.

The second option would be a direct replacement of the original heating element. There would be no extra holes to drill or plug. Just remove and replace it. I decided to go with this option. The newer element design addresses issues with insulator cracking and flaking. It also replaces the rubber wire connector cover with a sturdy stainless steel cover. All of which are improvements over the original design.

The third option was to replace only the heating element. It meant rewiring the replacement element and reusing the original power cord. It was the least expensive option but not the best one. Not without having a fix for the element insulator and connector issues.

Unscrewing The Existing Bulkhead Fitting Was A Challenge

With the necessary parts ordered and waiting to be delivered, the next step was to remove the weldless bulkhead fitting. I gave the kettle an overnight soak of Powdered Brewery Wash mixed with few gallons of 170F/68C water. Hoping the combination of cleaner and heat would make unscrewing the fitting easier.  It didn't. I soon learned how difficult a four year build up of burnt wort would make this seemingly simple task.

Using two large channel lock pliers to grip both ends of the fitting and all the strength I had the fitting did spin. But to unscrew it from the kettle one end had to be prevented from turning. I sprayed both fitting ends with vegetable oil spray. I tried it again but still no luck unscrewing the fitting. Although now it was easier to spin in the hole.

Finally, I clamped one channel lock on the heating element itself and jammed the handles against the kettle wall to keep the fitting from spinning. With the kettle on its side, I cranked down on the pliers as hard as possible. After a few sharp taps with a hammer to help loosen the carbon build up on the threads. The element started to turn while the inside nut stayed put. Breaking the heating element in two in the process because of the force applied while holding it.

After A Few Choice Words And Some Sweat The New Heating Element Is Working Great

Aside from a few small dents on the bottom of the kettle from the channel lock pliers, the new heating element looks and works great. The new design has a stainless steel cover plate to protect the insulator from direct contact with the wort. And a waterproof stainless steel connector cover has replaced the rubber one. At 5500 watts it's a small but welcome improvement over the 5000 watt element that shipped with my High Gravity system as well.

Upgrading the heating element was a bit more challenging than expected. Replacing the old element with the newer version was definitely worth the cost and effort to install it. The entire process took a little over four hours to complete. Including setup and cleanup time needed to get the kettle ready for brewing. The food-safe vegetable oil used to lubricate the holes during drilling cleaned up easily. And checking the kettle for leaks after filling it took another hour. In all the upgrade cost about $120.00. And worth it to keep my brewing system well maintained and up to date.

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