The Blichmann Tower of Power

I’ve implemented a mash recirculation system before.  Recirculation takes the liquid that’s in the mash and, surprise!, circulates it out of and back into the mash tun.  RIMS takes it a step further by heating the liquid during its travels and putting it back into the mash tun at a higher temperature than when it left.  RIMS is a great tool for brewers like me because it helps to keep the mash temperature stable and the sweet wort clear when you’re not luxuriating in a climate controlled environment.

My last recirculation system employed my retired immersion chiller, a pump, and my first-ever five gallon boil pot.  This method is known as HERMS.  I submerged the “chiller” in a pot of hot water and recirculated the mash liquid through it.  It worked, but it wasn’t elegant or consistent.  Keeping the pot of water at the right temperature was difficult, and of course there was plenty of heat loss through the tubing and pump.  It certainly wasn’t “set it and forget it” and ultimately it proved a bit too unwieldy to use regularly, so it was relegated to the realm of experimentation.

So imagine my glee when I saw that Blichmann Engineering was releasing a self-contained RIMS system called the Tower of Power.  ToP is modular, meaning that you can pick and choose from a few different configurations.  You have the controller, an optional second controller, an optional stand with a pump mount and flow meter, and an optional pump.  In its fully decked-out form, you can control the temperature of your liquor tank and mash tun individually, as well as control power to the pump and direct the pump output to three different destinations, all without having to swap hoses.

The controllers are responsible for temperature maintenance. If you just want to automate the HLT you can buy a single controller and not have to futz around with a pump.  Controllers come with a temperature sensor, an igniter, a solenoid valve, and programmable electronics.  The igniter attaches to the burner, and the valve attaches to the gas line.  You don’t even need Blichmann burners — it all works fine hooked up to my unaltered Camp Chef cooker.

If you want to control the mash temperature, you will need a pump to recirculate.  You can buy a March pump through Blichmann, but I already had a couple of Little Giant pumps I’d been using.  Except for differing angles of the intake/output ports, my pumps are basically the same as the March ones.

The controller’s temperature sensor can easily be adapted to any DIY recirculation setup, but I think the tower unit offered by Blichmann is worth it’s price.  If you buy the stand, the pump is mounted low on the tower with a splash guard, and is powered via three wires provided.  The pump is controlled by a single on/off switch with a bonus third position that enables a flow sensor alarm.

ToP FlowmeterA hose connects the pump to the flow meter.  The flow meter is great for timing the sparge and maintaining the proper recirculation speed.  The attached flow sensor is a bonus if you want to walk away but ensure your flow rate doesn’t drop below an acceptable level (like with a stuck mash).

From the flow meter, liquid can be steered to three different destinations using two different valves.  The bi-directional valve offers the ability to plumb your mash recirculation hose on one side and your outlet to the boil kettle on the other side.  The one-way valve can function as a sample port or just another place to direct the flow.

Just above the flow meter, there is a port for the mash temperature sensor.  When the recirculating temperature drops below the target value, the controller sounds an alarm, fires the igniter, and opens the gas valve to the burner under the mash tun.  Once the burner is lit, the igniter stops firing.  If the flame goes out, the igniter fires again automatically.  If a flame isn’t detected within 10 seconds, the system shuts itself off.  Pretty awesome!

You can configure the controller using the input pad on the front, but an optional data cable allows you to program the controller using a PC and Blichmann’s free software.  The software also allows you to save temperture profiles for repeated use, and you can graph your temperatures for monitoring and record keeping.  Being the data whore I am, this has tremendous appeal to me.

It’s pretty slick, I have to admit, but it’s not cheap.  I’ve paid a high price for what I hope will be more consistent beer.  There are also a few issues worth considering.

One problem I encountered was on my first live run with the data cable and controller software.  I’d set up a program and executed it, but the connection between the computer and the controller seemed to keep breaking.  The software would stop responding and the only way to fix it was to kill the application and reopen it.  Fortunately, the controller was designed to deal with communication failures, so it continued to run the program with no fuss.  I, on the other hand, was spending a lot of time starting and stopping the software, which is not how I want to spend my brew day.

A similar issue arose during my last brew session.  As a matter of fact, the complete failure of the software to detect either controller wasted the first two and a half hours of my day.  I tried three different computers, two different operating systems, and both of the controllers, yet was never able to connect.  I assume the issue is with the cable, though I have yet to confirm that.  The cable has a chip-controlled USB connector for the PC and an RJ-12 connector for the controller.  Thanks to the chip, the cable is detected by the Windows operating system regardless of whether or not it’s connected to the Blichmann controllers.  There’s a whole other technical discussion there that I’ll spare you, but suffice to say, there was no computer interface last session.  Update:  The cable does not appear to be the problem.  I ordered a new one and am still experiencing problems connecting to the controllers.  I’m mystified why the software says “COMM established” even when it’s not.  It’s done that since I first installed the software, before I ever connected the controllers, and I was still able to get it to work the first time, but it doesn’t seem right.

As I mentioned above, the communications cable and software is optional.  The controllers function fine without programming them, however, an issue comes up when a controller has already been programmed and you want to clear it when your communications software is no longer working.  I couldn’t figure out how to clear the program from the front panel of the HLT controller and so I was stuck monitoring the temperature and manually turning off the burner when it reached the target.  So, other than a fancy digital temperature readout, I was still using my old process.

My frustration mounted when I couldn’t find any comprehensive support for the controller units.   I watched the Blichmann videos on YouTube.  I searched and searched and re-searched Google for some indication that someone else has already had the same experience.  I even re-read the documentation!  At the very end of the ToP user guide, they provide instructions on how to use the input pad to set the temperature controller for Celsius instead of Farenheit, so it’s clear there are functions that can be performed from the control pad that can further tweak the configuration, but good luck finding any information about that.

Blichmann is very clear that they do not provide support for the unit — questions are supposed to go through the reseller, but I was brewing on a holiday, so my LHBS was closed.  There a couple of ToP posts on the homebrew forums, but they didn’t have anything to do with the functionality of the controllers.  I would be super-impressed with any Blichmann reseller who provide support for one of these controllers.  Aside:  I see a need for a Blichmann community forum.  Perhaps it will start here.

I’ve also found that the flow meter tends to get gunked up easily.  It doesn’t necessarily prevent the liquid from flowing, but it certainly does eliminate precision.  It happens with the mash recirculation, sparge, and when draining the kettle.  I did my best to clarify the mash and the wort before running them through the pump, but ultimately it didn’t prevent the buildup of stuff on the float.  I don’t know how I’m going to mitigate this issue — some sort of pre-filter, I suppose, but I’m concerned that doing that will clog the flow completely.

There are some minor improvements that can be made, too.  With a suggestion from the ToP user guide, I bought a stainless ‘T’ connector to which I attached two hose barbs opposite each other, then attached the whole of that to the Blichmann Auto Sparge mounted on the mash tun. That’s really cool because I can have the hose from the HLT connected to the mash tun at the same time as the hose from the pump.  A turn of the valves is all that’s necessary to switch between doughing-in, recirculating the mash, and sparging.

Another improvement I think Blichmann could make is to offer a stainless tube that can be mounted in the same position as the Auto Sparge, but on the boil kettle instead of the mash tun.  Just like the Auto Sparge, a hose from the pump would connect on the outside of the tank, and a tube would run inside the tank, down to the bottom, and would output “parallel” to the wall of the kettle, directing the flow along the edge to create a whirlpool.

It would also be nice to set up a system that allows both the mash tun and boil kettle to be simultaneously connected to the pump inlet, but individually controlled via valves.  Doing this would push the convenience level over the top.  You could set up the entire sculpture and would not have to connect or disconnect anything until its time to chill the wort, and you could probably engineer around that, too.

All in all, I’m really encouraged by the Tower of Power.  Yes, with some know-how and a lot of time, all of these functions could have been achieved by DIY projects.  I already have a ton of things to do, one of which is actually brew beer, so I’m okay not building an automated system all on my own.