'The Electric Brewery' Control Panel

‘The Electric Brewery’ Control Panel

I’ve spent a lot of time salivating over Kal’s design from The Electric Brewery for his control panel. He basically used several PIDs (control devices) to control the electric heating elements and monitor temperatures, as well as controls for his pumps and alarms. I’ve read elsewhere that he has an industrial engineering background, and it’s definitely apparent when looking at what he accomplished. His design has been used by home and commercial brewers in over 33 countries now, and it’s really quite an achievement.

My only issue with cloning Kal’s design directly is that I find it… well… rather big and industrial looking. If I had a garage or a separate basement where I could create a brewery from scratch, I wouldn’t hesitate to create a clone of Kal’s system and hang the control panel on the wall. But right now I’m living in an apartment, and likely I’ll have some equipment of mine in plain sight. As such, I’d rather have a smaller control panel that takes up a bit less space and looks a bit more traditional, like an TV component or audio amplifier.

Deciding On The Features

Before creating a control panel, you really need to decide on what features you want. If you just want to control a RIMS tube or a HERMS coil, you can probably get away with a small box and a single PID element. If you want to control two heating elements, you’ll need two PIDs or some other temperature controller. Add in a timer and a digital temperature gauge for the mash tun, and potentially you’ll need a larger enclosure like the one Kal used.

When trying to put a control panel together for my system I started with Kal’s design and thought long and hard about what I would really need, as well as what components I could get rid of. For example, Kal has a separate green lamp to show that the power is on once you turn the key. I suspect it was added for symmetry reasons, but it’s not really needed IMO. If the key is in the ON position, lots of other things will light up such as the PIDs and the timer, so I decided to get rid of it.

I also thought long and hard about the role of the alarm in a system like this. Kal mentions a few different scenarios where someone might use the alarm functionality on the HLT, Mash or Brew Kettle, but I suspect from reading his brew day process entry that he actually doesn’t use them himself. For me personally, I don’t really think I would use alarms in any those scenarios either. For example, I could set an alarm to let me know that my strike water is ready, but it’s not really that important – if I forget to check on it for 10 minutes, the PID will just keep the water at the proper temperature, so there’s no impact on the final beer.

A person might want to set a high alarm for 210F or so on the brew kettle PID to let them know when the water starts boiling. That’s a reasonable use case I imagine. But once again, if a person were to not notice the wort was boiling for a few minutes, they would lose some water due to evaporation, but it likely wouldn’t impact the beer noticeably unless they were using first wort hops.

But without a doubt, having an alarm on the countdown timer makes a lot of sense to me, since a huge component of the flavour and bitterness profile of the final beer is due to properly timed hop additions. So I decided for my system that I would only have a single alarm, and it would be tied to the countdown timer. I also decided to get rid of the dedicated RESET button, since there’s already a dedicated (albeit smaller) button on the countdown timer for this purpose.

In terms of functionality, I decided the control panel I build should be able to do the following:

  • Control the HLT water temperature, as well as a HERMS coil
  • Monitor the mash tun temperature
  • Control the brew kettle temperature
  • Have the ability to time events and sound an alarm at the end of each
  • Be able to control two pumps, one for the water and one for the wort

I also needed to decide whether to use a dryer plug (30 amps) or a stove plug (50 amps) for this control panel. 50 amps is more expensive to build, but it allows you to do back-to-back brews. Since I live in an apartment and can’t easily modify anything in it, I decided to use the 30A dryer plug, since it’s the most accessible for me.

Kal also has digital voltage and current meters on his panel. These are nice-to-have, but definitely aren’t mandatory. I like the concept as well, as it definitely adds a bit of ‘bling’ to the final panel. Since I’m going for more of a contemporary look with my panel though, I thought it might be cool to use analog current and voltage meters, like you see on many high-end tube amplifiers.

In terms of parts to accomplish the features above, I determined I would need the following for the control system:

  • 3 – PID controllers
  • 1 – Countdown timer
  • 2 – 25A+ Solid State Relays
  • 1 – Power switch, either key or maintained push button
  • 2 – Pump switches
  • 1 – 3-position selector switch to choose which heating element is enabled (or none)
  • 3 – 240V contactor, 120V coils. One for the mains power, and two for the heating elements
  • 1 – Heat sink for SSRs
  • 1 – Analog current panel meter
  • 1 – Analog voltage panel meter
  • 2 – 22mm Indicator lights for the heating elements
  • 1 – 22mm Alarm buzzer

Choosing The Control Panel Enclosure

Years ago I started work on a home audio tube amplifier design that I was eventually going to put together and have in my living room. I never quite finished the design, so it’s been on hold for the last few years. But I did accumulate quite a bit of knowledge with regards to audio components.

Audio Amplifier Chassis

Audio Amplifier Chassis

That’s why I ultimately decided to use an audio amplifier chassis as the basis for my control panel, and to use a horizontal layout as opposed to Kal’s vertical one. I figure in terms of usability it will be quite similar, and it will also look pretty sweet resting on a small stereo stand or even a small fridge next to the brew table.

I’ll likely have a bit of left over room on top of the chassis when it’s all done, and I’m considering adding a little 500mA USB port and an iPad Mini Stand so I can follow my beer recipes from my iPad while I brew.

Laying Out The Components

I spent some time recently playing with various different options in Photoshop for how I wanted to lay everything out. It’s actually a fairly difficult problem, trying to balance aesthetics with usability. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed tinkering with various layouts and components to see how it would look and then to imagine using it in my head.

After a few hours, I eventually settled on the following layout:

Front Panel Layout

Front Panel Layout

The white sections on the left and the right are the analog voltage and current meters, and they are positioned similarly to how VU meters are sometimes positioned on tube amplifiers. I ordered a few meters from eBay the other day that I will likely use, but I’m still looking for something else (in my mind these two components should be round and also include illumination, something that I haven’t been able to find yet). But the ones I ordered should work for now.

All buttons and indicators are the 22mm versions as opposed to the 30mm ones for space and aesthetic reasons. The power switch can either but a push button or a key switch like Kal uses. I ordered both, so I’ll decide later which to use. The key switch is a cool idea, but it’s not really needed I don’t think, and I’m leaning towards using a maintained illuminated (red) push button.

Back Panel Layout

Back Panel Layout

The back panel uses standard NEMA receptacles for connecting to the mains, heating elements, and pumps. Kal used female XLR jacks for the probe receptacles, but right now I’ve designed my layout based on the panel mount connectors I previously ordered with my RTD temperature probes. Switching these to XLR jacks would be easy though, and I still might do that before the final assembly.

Control Panel Labels

Kal used engraved labels for his control system which seem to work quite well. But once again, I think it just re-enforces the industrial look, and it’s not something you’d typically see on a household component. So I am considering calling in a favour or two somewhere to get mine silkscreened, or possibly getting some custom decals made.

Custom Labels

Custom Labels

Bobby from BrewHardware.com has a service where he can create custom white or black decals for your project, and I’m currently talking to him via email about doing the ones for me. His non-custom ones are only around $7 for a set, and his custom ones are around $13 I believe via his website.

When you get the decals you can cut out each phrase individually and them transfer them to your enclosure by rubbing. I’ve heard some people that then apply a thin coat of clearcoat to the enclosure to help seal the labels at that point.

Parts List

I still haven’t built this yet, but I’ve already acquired or ordered everything I will need to start putting it all together in a few weeks. Right now the parts list for everything is as follows:

Control Panel Front

  • 3 – SYL-2352 PID controllers with SSR output [Auberins]
  • 1 – JSL-73A Timer for beer events. Kal uses an Omega timer for usability reasons, but I decided to stick with the same brand as the PIDs just for visual continuity. [Auberins]
  • 1 – 120V 22mm Flashing Buzzer [Auberins]
  • 2 – 240V 22mm Yellow Lamps (to indicate which heating element is being driven activate for the PID) [Amazon]
  • 2 – 120V blue maintained push-button switch for pumps [Auberins]
  • 1 – 120V red maintained push-button switch for mains power [Auberins]
  • 1 – 22mm 3-position maintained selector switch [Auberins]
  • 1 – 30A analog panel meter [Amazon]
  • 1 – 300V analog panel meter [Amazon]

Inside Control Panel

  • 2 – 40 amp solid state relays. Our system will only draw about 23 amps, but a 40 amp SSR will likely last longer at that current and is marginally more expensive. [Amazon]
  • 3 – 2 pole, 240V contactor (120V coil) [Amazon]
  • 1 – 40A black anodized heatsink [Auberins]

Control Panel Back

  • 2 – Leviton 2626F 30 Amp, 250 Volt, Flanged Outlet Locking Receptacle, Industrial Grade, Grounding, White (for connections to heating elements) [Amazon]
  • 2 – Leviton 4715-C 15 Amp, 125 Volt, Flanged Outlet Locking Receptacle, Industrial Grade, Grounding, White (for connections to pumps) [Amazon]
  • 1 – Leviton 2715 30-Amp, 125/250 Volt, Flanged Inlet Locking Receptacle, Industrial Grade, Grounding, White (for mains connection) [Amazon]
  • 3 – Panel mount connectors for RTD sensors [Auberins]

I’ll update this list as I build it, as there are quite a few small odds and ends I’m sure I’ll need, such as wire clips, spade connectors, etc. But these are the most expensive items for the build by far.

The next step is to get all the parts together and start assembling it – stay tuned for more updates!