Boilers in the Distillery: Gentle Giants That Pack A Punch

By: Gerald Dlubala

Boilers are rarely glamorized in any distilling discussions. The end product is the star, whether swirled, stirred or shaken in the able hands of a local mixologist. However, any boiler manufacturer will tell you that a reliable boiler affects every facet of the distilling process, including the cost of production. During fermentation, the mash is heated with steam to transform the carbs to sugars. The wort gets removed and transferred to a fermentation vessel to cool and get ready for the introduction of yeast. Steam provided by a boiler generates a gentle, consistent heat, very conducive for vessel heating, temperature maintenance and successful fermentation. Once fermentation is complete, the product is moved to the still, using steam heat to separate and remove the impurities.

Distillery Environment Matters

  “You always have to be aware of any unique requirements due to installation environment,” says Mike Bonjo, Sales Manager and Brewer for Columbia Boiler Company.  “Boilers are mandated to be a certain distance away for safety, but in general, it’s best to have them within eyeshot. Low-pressure boilers generally provide enough energy for craft distilling. However, if the boiler is situated a long distance from the other equipment, high pressure reduces heat loss during long runs in between distillery equipment.”

  In addition, when it comes to boilers, the type of building where the distillery is located makes a difference.  “The current trend of renovating historic buildings into rustic craft distilleries and breweries is aesthetically very cool, but these old buildings require custom installations because of building materials, floor strength and utility availability,” says Bonjo. “Professional consultation is needed to determine floor strength, layout viability and fire ratings. Also, you never want to situate a steam boiler directly on those old wooden floors. We have custom stands and risers for these situations.” 

  Columbia’s boilers are popular because of their performance and compact design. Their flagship units—the MPH boiler series, manufactured to fit through a standard thirty-six-inch door opening, provide up to eighty horsepower. Columbia also offers the CT line, a vertically-designed, tubeless boiler created for the dry-cleaning industry, now repurposed for artisan distillers.

  “Our boilers are easy to install, easy to use and a breeze to service,” says Bonjo. “They are operable right out of the box and come with everything needed to get up and running. Anyone with a basic mechanical aptitude can operate and maintain our boilers. We use standard industry controls rather than custom or proprietary controls. Parts are standard, so you don’t have to find a certain distributor in the area and hope that they have your part in stock. We also feature a copper coil inserted into the boiler to carry and heat city water—to be used as potable water—for cleaning or any other domestic water situations around the distillery. We fire up and thoroughly test our units before shipping to the customer for, what ends up being, a plug and play installation. If there are issues, we can relay our test settings and compare them with the customer’s running settings to make sure the boiler is in an optimal run state.”

  Maintenance on Columbia boilers is minimal. In addition to the mandatory annual state inspections, the boilers should be “blown down” at the end of the day, flushing out the silt and sediment that naturally forms at the bottom of the boiler. If that sediment isn’t regularly flushed out, it congregates and sticks to the steel, forming scale. Over time, scale causes the affected steel to fail due to improper heat retention and metallurgical issues. Blowing down takes 10 to 15 seconds, transferring the water to a blowdown separator to cool the liquid before disposal, nullifying any potential damage to drains and plumbing lines. Monthly water chemistry level checks should be performed to keep it compatible with the steel. For steel boilers, the pH should remain a constant 10 to 11.

  “If by chance, the proper maintenance has not been kept up with, the tubes on our boilers can be replaced independently, saving money on repairs and reducing downtime,” says Bonjo.

Safety Is Always The Priority

  “Your boiler is the one piece of equipment in your distillery that is more powerful than dynamite,” says Dave Baughman, President of Allied Boiler & Supply Inc. “It can relocate your whole business in an instant.”

  Let that sink in, and you’ll understand Baughman’s emphasis on boiler safety before selling you a boiler.

  “Boilers are truly the heart of the distillery, but there’s a critical need for training in daily boiler operation,” says Baughman. “When I ask potential customers if they’ve had any training on boiler operation, even if it’s just about keeping daily operational boiler log sheets, their answers reflect a need for training. We don’t expect boiler experts in these craft industries. They know the biological processes of distilling and rely on others for boiler recommendations, and frankly, the competence out there is lacking. The end-user is being thrown to the sales wolves.”

  This incompetence may even extend to the sales wolves themselves, who are often aware of the national codes but may not be as educated on those closer to home.

  “[Distillers] may need certain, critical support equipment with their boiler, depending on the environment and local code requirements. Do they need water treatment? What type and how much? What about chemical injection systems, blowdown separators, boiler feedwater systems with steam preheat, or condensate return systems? These can all be critical components that may or may not be necessary. Sales representatives may follow national code, but if they’re not aware of the local regulations, you’ll end up with a boiler that’s not code compliant,” says Baughman.

  Distilling is a cost-driven industry, but Baughman believes decisions should still be made based on technical specifications related to distillery needs. Some boilers are better at heating, some better at boiling. Older cast iron sectionals are great at heating but inadequate for production environments. Vertical boiler units were introduced for the dry cleaning industry, and when that industry dried up, manufacturers started pushing those high-pressure units into the next expanding market. That happened to be brewing and distilling, even if it wasn’t a perfect fit.

  “My best advice is to be diligent in research, and never buy based on cost alone,” says Baughman. “Instead, buy based on the technical needs of your situation. For smaller batch distillers, low steam boilers are sufficient. Larger production distillers with continuous columns need more steam, so high-pressure boilers with regulators that hold a constant temperature for longer periods are beneficial.”

  Purchasing the boiler is only the beginning. Baughman tells Beverage Master Magazine boiler training is an absolute necessity because manufacturers have a legal and moral responsibility to sell safe units to trained users. Allied Boiler & Supply offers a three-day, no-cost, on-site boiler training school and startup with every boiler they sell. Water chemistry, a significant contributor to boiler failure, takes up one of those days.

  “Everyone worries about the effects of scale, but most failures are attributed to improper oxygen levels,” says Baughman. “It becomes a very aggressive situation when heated and must be treated by the use of a deaerator or with chemical injection systems. Water softeners won’t treat the oxygen component. Underwater injection systems or sodium sulfite are used and should be administered by professionals, along with consistent tests for pH, conductivity and oxygen levels.”

  All Allied’s boilers come equipped with troubleshooting display modules and forced draft systems, which are more efficient and less prone to backdrafts.

  “These things add to the bottom line cost, but they are legitimate safety features,” Baughman says. “Our after-sale support is unmatched in the industry. Every sale comes with two emergency phone numbers, one being a service employee and the other being mine. We are serious about becoming a partner with your company and will never just sell you a boiler to make a sale. There is too much at stake personally and professionally for both of us.”

  Baughman runs his business on a motto that his father taught him.

“Consider service ahead of reward, and the reward will come because of the service.”

Boiler Choice Based On Technical Specifications and Business Goals

  Correct sizing without upselling is always the best for the customer, so before getting a recommendation for a boiler from Jack Coe, President of Rite Engineering & Manufacturing Corporation and manufacturer of Rite Boilers, there will be some technical fact-finding.

  Affordable Distillery Equipment is an OEM of stills and packages Coe’s Rite Boilers with their stills. Affordable Distillery’s CEO Paul Hall says, “We are sticklers for right-sizing because it can take four-to-five years to recoup the boiler cost, but if you get too large of a boiler, you can end up paying for that system for the next ten to fifteen years. Every boiler situation is unique and has different needs depending on the equipment used and the business goals.”

  Rite Engineering offers multiple boiler lines that maintain their efficiency, provide one hundred percent access for inspection and cleaning to help avoid costly repairs, and remain field repairable.

  When deciding what boiler is best, Coe recommends looking to your existing equipment. “To determine if you need a low-pressure versus a high-pressure boiler, look at the equipment you already have or are planning to use and see what the highest duty application will be,” says Coe. “In the craft distillery, it’s usually the wort boil. Subsequent pieces of affected equipment should be labeled with a steam pressure recommendation. If they are all rated as 15 psi or less, you’re good to go with a low-pressure boiler. If pieces of equipment are rated to handle higher than 15 psi, then you can consider a faster, high-pressure boiler, but boilers can use large amounts of fuel, so be aware of that when choosing components.”

  Speaking of support components, Hall says, “You absolutely need a condensate return to bring the condensate back to the boiler, or else you’re constantly pumping fresh water into the system. Additionally, a blowdown system used at the end of the day or when you’re finished with the boiler session will hold the blowdown water until it cools down to 140 degrees or so. [This is the] temperature that municipal discharge systems feel is safe to allow down the drain lines into their sewers. If you’re not using a municipal system and just have your own discharge pool on the property, you don’t need this component. Each of these components can run an extra three to four thousand dollars on top of the boiler.”

  Hard water will no doubt shorten your boiler’s life span. If testing shows hard water in your system, Coe recommends a Zeolite salt exchange type, and steers customers away from a deionized or reverse osmosis systems, as they can lower water’s conductivity and pH to unsafe levels.

  “After that, boiler professionals need to be brought in for consistent cleaning, checks and inspections,” says Coe. “Some of these are mandated by codes and laws and are in place to prevent small issues from turning into big problems. These professionals can also [help with] monitoring water pH and treatment options.”

  Whatever boiler system you decide to work with, both Rite Engineering and Affordable Distillery Equipment recommend installing them in a separate boiler room when possible.

  “That way, the boiler fire is isolated and kept from any equipment, and you’ll have some type of vapor barrier,” says Hall. “By rule, distillery equipment is classified as a Class 1 Division 2 Hazardous Environment, meaning boiler placement must be at least six feet away from any still parts that are 18 inches or less off of the floor, and at minimum 24 inches away from any still parts above that 18-inch mark.”

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