Using the used
By John Mallett, Brewmaster Bell's Brewery
So you have decided to purchase "pre-owned" brewing equipment and need your money to go as far as it can, yet still be an intelligent decision. What can you do to assure that you are not spending your hard-won money on what might essentially be scrap metal? Well, draw up a chair and let's talk about the good & the bad experiences that others have had and how to maximize your chances for success in this fluid marketplace.
In my twenty years in the brewing industry, I have been involved with the purchase, sale, deinstallation and reinstallation of a lot of brewing equipment. For a few years I was known in the industry as the "Grim Reaper" because if I came to visit a struggling brewery, chances were that I brought my tools and took the equipment. Many of my clients got great equipment at fair prices that allowed for a second life for the surplus equipment from such failing enterprises.
In many ways, the used brewing equipment world is similar to the used vehicle world: you might have great luck, but then again there are dishonest people out there who would love to take your money. If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is, but it might not be if the seller is uninformed as to what they have or is very motivated to sell on short notice. A longstanding motto in any marketplace is that your options are to get something quickly, get it inexpensively, or have top quality; you can choose only two of the three factors. This holds true with acquiring used equipment as well.
The first question you need to consider is which are the most and least important of these factors. Rarely do you have the luxury of time to sit and wait for the perfect piece to come available at rock bottom pricing. In the used equipment world it is an exercise in frustration to shop when you don't have the ability to purchase. While it can be educational to get a sense as to what is available at each price point, it is important to remember that the market is volatile, you're not the only one looking, and sometimes certain types of equipment are nearly impossible to find.
The next question to be answered is how flexible you can be with what is available. Physical space concerns may dictate that the tanks need to be short to fit under low ceilings, narrow to get through existing passageways, or of a specific size to match other installed equipment. Does the service or the location require ASME certification? This is also a good time to consider what retrofitting this equipment will require to make it useable for your operation. Do ports need to move? Are the legs adjustable? Will it need paint? Is the electrical service what you have available? Pile on a bunch of changes and your great deal may have just become a contractor's field day.
How good was the equipment to start? There is a lot of poorly made stuff out there. My biggest concern with any equipment is "Was it well engineered for safe operation?" I have seen outward opening manway doors on CIP Tank and Hot Liquor Tank, which are excellent opportunities through which to meet paramedics and learn the nuances of legal depositions. Are the Pressure Relief Valves correctly placed and adequate for the duty? Is the electrical service wash-down tight? Breweries have an inherent potential for danger; you don't need to make it worse with shoddy equipment.
Get to know the manufacturer and their reputation. Talk to some knowledgeable brewers who have no interest in the sale and also have this equipment to find out what their experiences are. Ask about performance, repairs, what they use it for and how difficult it is to get spares. Get a sense as to what the manufacturer's customer service is like. Statements like "Oh that piece of crap is the worst item in the entire brewery" are clear-cut but remember that there is also a world of grey in between the good and the bad.
See if you can find someone who worked with the equipment that might be willing to give you a candid opinion of their experiences with the pieces. Brewers are a fluid lot and someone has probably moved on to another local brewery. Offer to buy them a beer and bring a notebook.
Special consideration should be given to heated tanks. There have been many manufacturers of these vessels that have used "normal" Stainless Steel (such as grade 304 or 316 when 2205 is the US standard) and insulation and, unknowingly at best, set up an eventual problem with Stress Corrosion Cracking. This syndrome can cause the catastrophic failure of the vessel. The solution for a tank so afflicted is generally complete replacement. Think of it like you would a truck whose frame is shot-through with rust; too expensive to fix and eventually very dangerous. Hot Water Tanks, Kettles, Heated Mash Tuns and CIP tanks are prime suspects and must be examined with this in mind.
For cooled tanks, poor insulation and the cladding that covers it is a concern. If you are holding a tank at cold temperatures in a humid cellar, then unsealed insulation will attract and condense water. Water-laden insulation both provides no insulating ability and is a growth spot for mould and other microbial critters. Check to see if the cladding has gaps that may allow unacceptable water or vapor infiltration.
Assume that all soft parts will need to be replaced. My personal philosophy is that I do not need to import anyone else's problems into my brewery, so all such parts are removed and replaced when buying used equipment. Gaskets are prime areas for possible harborage of microbial contaminants. If the equipment was not to be used any longer, then the routine maintenance or periodic replacement may not have been on schedule. Old or dry gaskets are particularly susceptible to cracking and thus become uncleanable for brewing purposes. Find out where you can get the replacements for these and factor that into the cost of the vessel. Keep in mind that there are manufacturers who have since gone out of business, taking their proprietary elastomers with them. It goes without saying that a great deal on a valve for which you can no longer purchase replacement valve seats is not such a great deal in the long run. Grundie Tanks can be particularly problematic in this respect. There are actually a number of different models out there, all with some difference in what spares and replacement parts they will require.
Inquire what removal, rigging, packing and shipping charges will be. Shipping a tank cross-country on a truck can be expensive. In addition, local union industrial workers do not sell their services cheaply and may not have the experience you require to do the job in a manner that will not damage the equipment or your bank account. Always have photos taken of the tank before it moves and determine that all parties have insurance to cover any possible damage to your goods.
Finally, go and inspect the equipment before you purchase it. Crawl all over it, check the fit and finish, look for improper cleaning that may have damaged the internal finish, check to see if there have been repairs that signal it was a lemon to start with. Once I was sent to remove a pair of 300 Bbl bright tanks for a client across the country. As I prepared to lift them with the crane I noticed that one tank had been subjected to substantial vacuum forces that had caved in the top head. The client was unaware of the damage prior to this and was more than surprised that their great find was of compromised quality. Physically measure the equipment to make sure it will fit in your space. Confirm that it can be removed without having to demolish the building or unacceptably cut the equipment apart, two things that I have had to do on more than one occasion.
One option you may want to consider is to have consultant outside the deal go and look at it and give you an assessment and appraisal. While this would make little sense to the purchase of mobile pump, for larger acquisitions it is generally money well spent.
I have a real love of the process of finding and rehabilitating used equipment. I have found that I get a lot more bang for my buck when shopping on the used equipment market; in fact most of the brewery that I now run was obtained this way. Now if I could only find a late model, mint condition 300 BPM Krones labeler at a great price to replace the piece of crap we have presently I would be all set.