Maintenance an overview - protecting your investment
OK you have your nice shiny machine for making espresso, there are a few tips that will help you protect that investment. In general here I am referring to "E61" machines or machines with an E61 bottom group. I think it’s best to start with the principle enemies of these machines, the things that subject them to the greatest stress in daily use.
- The operator….yes that’s right, you!
- The water you use…(mainly lime scale problems)
- Old age….the machine (not you)
The operator is one of the biggest causes of machine failure, through either incorrect operation, or more usually, opening the machine up and making adjustments, with little or no knowledge of how it works. The best way to avoid these errors is use the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach; this is especially valuable if you know nothing about how it operates. The other approach is RTFM, that’s read the manual, read information available in forums and Wikis like this. Learn how to use your machine properly.
Operator Problems that can usually be avoided
- Rapid snapping movements of the controls
- Water being poured inside them
- Showing the machine just how strong you are when locking the portafilter into the group
- Keeping the portafilter tightly locked into the group when not using the machine (especially true if you leave it on all night)
- Never cleaning the group and gasket of old coffee between shots, or groups of shots
- Backflushing rarely or never
- Leaving the machine on all the time, especially all night, it’s totally unnecessary
The second biggest enemy of your machine is the water you use
Unless you live in a very soft water area. This is because water contains “crap” to use a non scientific term. This “crap” is stuff you never intended to drink and the manufacturers definitely don’t design the machines to take into account the fact that, most of our water is full of it. Lime scale (the espresso machine killer….fail to descale regularly at your peril) even if you use soft or softened water gums varnishes and sediments don’t help things. Luckily most descalers when run through the machine do a reasonable job of stripping gums and varnishes from internal valves etc. as well. Just remember when descaling, not to be too aggressive, descaling more often is better than very infrequent, but aggressive descales (for the simple reason that scale doesn’t always deposit evenly, so exposed metal areas are subjected to very strongly acidic solutions). Some commercial preparations are far too powerful for domestic espresso machines and some are really for drastic remedial action on machines that haven’t been descaled for a very long time. Manufacturers recommended descalers, or citric/tartaric acid based descalers are potentially the safest to use.
If you leave the machine too long between descales, rather than dissolving lime scale, the process causes it to break up and small and large bits can remain. This can actually create blockages and problems, where there were none before. Often this necessitates another descale (of course a blockage in a small pipe/hole is quite difficult to clear once scaled!).
I know that people say that distilled or reverse osmosis water gives your espresso a bitter taste, but really, think about the level of “crap” in say London water, and I think it’s fair to say, that REALLY doesn’t help the taste of espresso. The difference in taste will be so marginal, you are unlikely to notice and I would strongly recommend you consider using distilled or RO water in your espresso machine. You will avoid a whole heap of problems. In general here we are talking about “pour over” or “tanked machines”, not those directly plumbed into the mains (which have their own special problems).
A huge mistake people make is to only use bottled or spring water in their machines, in the belief that this is “softer” and won’t scale the machine up. This may be true, but usually it isn’t. Check out the level of dissolved Mg and Ca (Magnesium and Calcium) in those waters first. You might be surprised to find out it can be quite high….they don’t often call them “mineral water” for nothing.
Oh and Jug filters, many people have an unswerving faith in these devices ability to remove crap from our water. I think it’s fair to say that their ability to prevent lime scale is limited and the filter needs changing a LOT more often than the usually optimistic and maximum recommended manufacturer’s intervals. Read the small print carefully, you may be surprised. If you must use these things, change the cartridge at least every 2 weeks. You are still going to need to descale though (just keep an eye out on your kettle).
Other devices that work on magnets, electricity, coils of wire around a pipe, and possibly magical incantations, I don’t think they work, I wouldn’t recommend you even bother trying them…but hey it’s your machine.
There are certain in-line water cartridges and filters that will effectively remove a lot of the scale, you will have to do your research, just remember, other stuff causes problems eventually.
The last bit of good advice, you paid a lot of money for your espresso machine….unless you absolutely have to, don’t use it as a kettle. Oddly enough kettles work far better as a kettle than expensive espresso machines and cost less than £20. There are a few reasons for this;
- It wears out your machine quicker (the hot water valve, the pump, the autofill solenoid, the pressurestat, the heating element, all work harder and the harder things work, the faster they wear out), stuff has only so many duty cycles. If anyone tells you that’s crap, ask them why light bulbs, or switches, don’t last forever.
- You have to descale more, if you don’t use it for hot water, you may only need to descale the Hot Water/Steam boiler every 6 months to 1 year. The brew path you will of course need to descale more often.
Lastly there is a sometimes a “thing” that hangs of the end of many a water tube, leading from the internal tank to a Vibe pump (hopefully never a rotary). This is euphemistically called an “in-line” anti scale or softening filter. Best thing you can do with this, is remove it (cut the end of the tube to a V, if it’s not like that already. I hate these things, they restrict flow and often the little “beads”, pass through the filter pad and get into the machine and it’s valves! I think they are about as much use as a candle in a hurricane and probably cause more problems than they solve.
The machine simply doesn’t last for ever, although most of it will last a very long time, other parts have a shorter life. Common parts and typical lifetimes are shown below
- Group Gaskets – about 6-18 months depending on the abuse (and lack of cleanliness) you give the machine
- Shower screens (many years, if you keep them clean)
- Vacuum Breaker Valves (3-7 years)
- Pressurestat (3-7 years)
- Vibe Pump (3-5 years, they also weaken with age)
- Heating element (3-10 years)
- E61 group, but 3-5 years before service advised see here, this is mainly springs, o’rings, seals and gaskets and should cost less than £20)
- Electronic 3 way solenoid valves (about 5-7 years, unless you let them scale up and burn out!)
- Gicar/Giemmie control Boxes (and similar) about 5-7 years
- Cable ties, holding wiring together (about 2-3 years! They get brittle and perish, but easily replaced)
- Water and steam valves (conventional type) a long time if you are gentle (3-7 years), the no compression ones eventually wear as well and have a similar lifetime. Replacement of the conventional ones is the usual remedy as they are very inexpensive.
You might be forgiven in thinking that you will have built a complete new machine every 7-10 years, but this is not true, most of these parts are very cheap and easily replaced. The major expense components of your machine, if properly looked after should last a “lifetime”, if you’re very young, then make that a really long time. Also forget any exaggerated claims of reliability, from any source. These components are all pretty standard in domestic machines and are usually sourced from the same place regardless of who manufactured your machine. So best gain an understanding of your machine and if you do the motoring equivalent of checking the oil water and tyre pressures on a regular basis you will be fine. Minor repairs and maintenance repairs are also easy, unless you want to pay a lot of money and send your machine away every 3 or 4 years!