What are the advantages and disadvantages of steam vs. direct fire vs. electric?

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There is no "best" heat source.  We make equipment that works with all kinds of heat sources according to our customers' needs.  Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages, which I will do my best to describe below.

Direct Gas Fired, Advantages

    Can be lowest up front cost (depending on installation)
    Many brewers are accustomed to gas fired kettles
    Some brewers prefer the caramelization that can occur with gas fired systems

Direct Gas Fired, Disadvantages

    Probably the highest long term cost – it is typically 25% to 50% efficient
    If in an enclosed space, you need to provide make-up air and provide an exhaust system (your city may require a professional mechanical engineer to provide a plan for your building and installation)
    Some buildings will need fire suppression systems
    In some states (e.g, CA and TX), the emissions regulations and requirements on gas burners result in significant added costs and reduced efficiencies

Electric Heat, Advantages

    Highest efficiency:  100% of heat generated is transferred to the water or wort
    Predictable cost
    No concerns about carbon monoxide or open flames or explosive gases
    Cost effective at 2 to 10 bbls
    Can be highly automated if desired
    Excellent control of the brewing process, temperatures

Electric Heat, Disadvantages

    Cost of electricity is typically higher than gas, but it is often offset by much better efficiency
    Up front cost is usually higher than gas fired, but lower than steam boilers and steam piping
    Your building needs to have enough amperage available to heat the kettles and operate everything else (varies according to the system size)

Steam Heat, Advantages

    When combined with gas fired boiler, you get good (but not best) efficiency and low energy cost

    I agree that it is the only option above 15 BBLs.

Steam Heat, Disadvantages

    Highest cost of brew kettles and heat source (boiler system)
    Generally not very cost effective at a small scale
    In some states (e.g, CA and TX), the emissions regulations and requirements on gas boilers result in significant added costs and reduced efficiencies


We often get asked about scorching, especially when discussing electric systems.  As long as you use low density or ultra-low density elements, scorching will not be a problem.  On a gas fired system, you only need to ensure that the gas burners to not directly heat an outlet pipe or some other feature that has "trapped" wort in it.  Steam isn't hot enough to cause scorching. 


Every customer and installation is unique.  In general, I think the gas fired systems are more likely to be optimal for home brewers and small commercial operations.  Electric is most likely to be optimal for small commercial systems (2 to 10 bbls), and steam heat is most likely to be optimal for larger systems.  All that said, we sell equipment with all kinds of heat source capability for all sizes, because of individual circumstances and brewer preferences.
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