The moment I heard the pop of the circuit breaker, I saw in my mind’s eye exactly what had happened:
I had stepped away from the brew kettle for just a moment, but I’d left the drain open and forgotten that the heating element was on. The kettle drains fast, so the water had probably dropped low enough to uncover the heating element as soon as I’d walked away from it. I was away for maybe fifteen or twenty seconds, tops, but that was long enough for the heating element to get red hot. It was still glowing when I ran back to it.
I waited about five minutes for it to cool off, then filled the kettle up with enough water to cover the element, reset the breakers, and switched on the control panel.
Dammit. Well and truly fried.
Well, this has not been the best brew day ever.
Lucky Number Homebrewing is a pretty nifty setup. I’ve seen much fancier setups with a lot more gadgets, but what I’ve got works pretty well for me. There’s an electric-fired hot liquor tank that provides 9.5 gallons of hot water and another electric-fired kettle to boil the sweet wort. The only part of the setup that’s not an expensive gadget is the picnic cooler I converted to a mash tun by pulling out the drain plug and installing a ball valve with a connector that I can snap a hose on.
A lot of home brewers use picnic coolers for mash tuns because they hold the temperature of the hot mash more or less constant; just heat the water to the temperature you want and you’re usually good. And that’s the way it’s worked for me.
Over the winter months, though, I had a little trouble getting used to the colder temperatures in the basement. A colder basement means of course that everything in the basement is colder, including the picnic cooler itself. During the summer months, I poured 185-degree water into the cooler and it cooled down to about 155 degrees, which was where I wanted it, but in the winter months it got down to about 150 degrees. Mashing takes place between 149 and 165 degrees; at the high end, the beer comes out sweet, while at the low end it’s dry. To get the temp back up where I’d like it to be, I’d been experimenting with warming the mash tun with hot tap water, wrapping the cooler in a blanket, and raising the temp in the hot liquor tank.
For this brew session, I tried all three. When I checked the temp just before I drained the mash, it was about 170 degrees! Crap Crap CRAP!
After draining the sweet wort into a fermenter and rinsing out the kettle, I started cleaning up by filling the kettle with water and adding a scoop of cleanser called PBW. It works best when it’s hot, so I fired up the heating element and brought the temp up to about 180 degrees. After letting it soak for a couple hours I cracked open the drain while I rinsed down the sides of the kettle with hot water. I’ve cleaned out the kettle this way several times; the clean rinse water washes all the gunk down to the bottom of the kettle where the drain sucks it out.
All was going well. I splashed some water on my good shoes, though, and that’s when I decided to step away so I could change into my scuzzy shoes, forgetting that the heat was still on.
This happened to me once before with the heating element in the hot liquor tank, but it switched it off right after I saw the telltale puff of steam that warned me it was firing dry. I was in the next room this time, so I didn’t realize what I’d done until I heard the circuit breaker pop.
The element cost just twelve bucks to replace but, man, it took just that one moment to go from feeling pretty good to feeling pretty stupid.