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Heatstick

While my Countertop Brutus 20 has the heating element built-in, James over at Basic Brewing asked me to have a look at heatsticks. I figured why not? Having one as a backup were my element ever to fail mid-brew might just be a good idea. So, I started looking over the Cedar Creek Heatstick instructions. The tinkerer in me immediately started thinking of improvements...

I knew the grounding screw below the water line had to go - that was just silly. Using a 1 1/2" to 1 1/4" chrome slip reducer would also provide a much better fit, allowing the element's own sealing gasket to work properly. Lastly, it seems a lot of folks making heatsticks have great difficulty getting the electrical connections sealed up, and I've seen all sorts of bizarre solutions. A quick google for "thinning J-B Weld" hit on their very own FAQ which said to use acetone to make J-B Weld pourable. A perfect (and reliable) solution!

So what's a heatstick good for? Well, if your stovetop isn't quite cutting it for your boil, a heatstick can be an inexpensive way to give it a boost. A 2000W heatstick can easily boil 4-5 gallons on its own. Combined with the heat from your stove it should be plenty for a good boil on a "full" 5 gallon batch. A heatstick can also be used to heat up a mash, either to make up for a missed mash temp or to raise it to a new one.

Heatsticks are certainly inexpensive - about $25 if you can score a free electrical cord - but this is a bit of false economy in my opinion as you still need a pot. If you've already got one and aren't willing to commit it 100% to brewing, a heatstick definitely makes sense. If not, it's probably more economical to pick up a 8 gal aluminium tamale cooker for $20 and make an e-kettle out of it by mounting the element directly. $15 for an element and cap and another $30 at Bargain Fittings will get you a complete, ready to brew e-kettle with a 1/2" ball valve.

Compared to propane, electricity is highly efficient. A 2000W heatstick will bring 5 gallons of 50 F tap water to mash temps in about 45 minutes, and then go from mashout to boil in another 15 minutes or so. If you figure an hour boil, that's 2 hours x 2000W or  4 kWh. At $0.15 per kWh, that's a whopping $.60 for a brew session!
Parts List
  • 120V screw-in water heater element. Max of 200W if you're using a 20A circuit, 1650W if you're stuck with 15A. Most modern kitchens have two dedicated GFCI protected 20A small-appliance circuits per code.
  • 12 gauge, 3-prong rubber electrical Cord. Bribe your sysadmin / network engineer @ work with homebrew. They've usually got boxes of extra 20A power cords for servers, routers and the like.
  • 12" long X 1 1/2" I. D. chrome drain pipe with slip coupler.
  • 1 1/2" to 1 1/4" chrome slip reducer (every Lowe's I've been in has these).
  • 6" long X 1 1/2" I. D. plastic drain pipe with slip coupler.
  • 1" PVC end cap.
  • 2-3" piece of 1" PVC pipe.
  • J-B Weld Epoxy.
  • Acetone (wife's fingernail polish remover should work).
Assembly
  1. Cut the female end off the electrical cord (if there is one).
  2. Drill hole in PVC end cap large enough to thread electrical cord through, but make it snug.
  3. Strip the electrical cord back enough so the power leads can reach out the threaded end of the chrome drain pipe while the ground lead can double back and come out the top.
  4. String all pieces as pictured on to the electrical cord, in order.
  5. Strip and screw power leads to element securely. Don't leave any excess exposed wire that may touch the pipe (it's a snug fit).
  6. Screw the chrome slip reducer down over the element securely onto the threaded drain pipe. Do not remove the rubber gasket pre-installed on the element. Note the 1 1/2" slip coupler included with the drain pipe will be unused - the reducer replaces it, providing a much better fit around the element.
  7. Use a flashlight to make sure things look good inside. Make sure the ground wire is still hanging out the top.
  8. Securely prop up the heatstick vertically, element down.
  9. Mix up a full pack of J-B Weld, adding 1 teaspoon of acetone to thin it to pouring consistency. Acetone is recommended by JB Weld as a thinner. Carefully pour the mix into the heatstick, allowing it to flow around
    and seal the electrical connections at the bottom. Let the heatstick stand for 24 hours to cure thoroughly.
  10. Strip the ground wire and drape it over the top edge of the chrome pipe. Spread out the copper strands so the plastic drain pipe will slip over.
  11. Slide the plastic drain pipe down (it will be snug) and secure with the plastic slip coupler. The ground wire should be securely wedged between the chrome and plastic pipes.
  12. Mix up some more J-B Weld (no acetone this time), and use it to secure the PVC pipe into the end cap.
  13. Scoop a little J-B Weld down into the end cap to create a strain relief, in case the cord ever gets pulled.
  14. Dab some more J-B Weld around the outside of the PVC pipe to secure it inside the plastic drain pipe. This is probably a loose fit, but don't worry.
  15. Use masking tape to temporarily secure the end cap to the drain pipe and stand the heatstick element up overnight for the J-B Weld to cure.