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FRCN Espresso "HOW TO" Pages
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2010 All rights reserved

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Placing your Espresso Machine on a Timer

IMPORTANT SAFETY WARNING: Not all espresso machines should or can be placed on a timer. There are serious safety issues when placing any electrical device on a timer. This information is supplied as-is, where-is and by reading further you accept responsibility for the use of this information. No warranty expressed nor implied is given as to the suitability of the following article nor whether the information contained herein as to your situation nor machine is appropriate or safe. This article is neither a complete nor definitive article on the installation or use of a timer to power an espresso machine. It was created only to share my experience with the use of a timer and to help you decide if a timer is appropriate for you. It is not intended to be instructional in the safe use of a timer. The use of a timer can lead to flooding, damage to or destruction of the machine, personal injury, fire, property damage, electrical hazards or even death. Check with your reseller, the manufacturer, your machine's owners manual, and the instructions and warnings that come with the timer before considering the use of a timer on any appliance.

      I recently placed my espresso machine on a timer and shared that info on one of the many coffee forums. I have been using it for about a month this way and for me it is very handy. Whether by coincidence or instigated by my posting, a number of comments and were posted concerning the positive and negative aspects of using a timer, so I thought I would post an article on the subject. If you find some information herein that is inaccurate or some information you think should be included, please E-mail me and let me know.

Why use a Timer
      Espresso machines operate best and most consistently when they are allowed to come to temperature and stabilize throughout their heating system (boiler, brewhead, portafilter, and related plumbing). Most home machines take at least thirty minutes, and some do best when allowed to warm for an hour. For those of you who leave home early in the morning, or for those who like to have their first cup as their eyes approach full-open, a timer can allow an extra hours sleep without having to place feet on a cold floor any earlier than absolutely necessary.

      A timer is merely a time-operated switch which is plugged into an outlet. The appliance to be operated is plugged into the outlet on the timer. To operate, you leave the appliance connected to the timer and if the device has a power switch, that switch would be left in the "on" position. You preset a time for the timer to "turn on" (close its internal contacts), thus turning the device connected to it to be energized.

Dangers of Using a Timer
      The timer can start the espresso machine at any time you desire, but before running out and getting a timer there are factors which you must consider. The most critical is that the machine is going to be energized while you are not in attendance. When it is not energized by the timer, espresso machine's power switch must be left in the "on" position. If the brew switch or brew lever is somehow placed in the "on" position when the timer is off (accidentally bumped when cleaning the machine, for example), when the timer sends power to the machine the brew cycle will start. Keeping in mind that you will probably not be in attendance at the time, what will happen? The machine will start pumping water, and will continue to pump water until the reservoir runs dry, or in the case of a plumbed machine, until your utility service runs out of water. For some of the reservoir machines, once the reservoir is dry, the pump will continue to run until it overheats and a damaged pump is likely. If the boiler goes dry (remember that the heating element is on!), then the overheat protection will hopefully save the boiler and heating element... Hopefully.

      Another point that was mentioned on one of the forums was that if you always depend on a timer you will not be using the power switch on the espresso machine. This can cause problems down the line, so it is advised to cycle the power switch a few times, even if it is with the power off, to keep its contacts clean.

Can You Use a Timer?
      So, with those caveats in mind, the next question is, can you put your machine on a timer? There are a few machines which will not benefit. If your machine needs to have a valve manually opened and then closed when first warming up, such as the Nuovo Simonelli Oscar, forget the timer. This machine does not have a vacuum breaker on its boiler, so when it first heats up will build false pressure and will not warm up until the steam valve is opened to bleed off this false pressure.

      Single boiler machines like the Gaggias, Saecos, Rancilio Silvia, and others (usually selling for about $700 and less) which have one boiler and are not equipped with an auto-fill circuit for the boiler. These need special consideration. These machine are generally identified by having a separate electrical switch (or switch position) to select steam mode. These machines will begin to heat even if the boiler has no water at all and even if the overheat protection works, the heating can damage parts. Some of these have an overheat protection device that is destroyed when it does its job and so the machine may need to be sent in for servicing if you are not comfortable with replacement of internal parts. This sort of damage is probably not covered by the warranty. It is also important to completely fill the boiler at the end of each session. Keeping the machine is n a good state (no leaks) if important for machines without automatic refills or shut downs.

      Machines that do benefit from being placed on a timer are those with larger boilers, larger brewheads, and heat exchangers. The more metal there is to heat and the more water these systems hold, the longer the necessary warm-up period for best performance. The safest machines to operate on a timer are those equipped with automatic boiler level sensors which fill the boiler whenever the water level drops. Even better are those machines which also have a shut-off system to turn off the pump and the heating element if the level of water in the reservoir drops below a predetermined volume. While less critical, if the machine has a plumbed drip tray that empties on its own as well as the above safety features, then the risk of flooding is also nearly eliminated.

      Some final considerations include whether or not there are children in the home. A hot, unattended machine capable of shooting out hot steam and water, and having a large, shiny brewhead inviting a touch, without adults in attendance is certainly hazardous to young hands. It is also important to remember to turn the machine itself off or unplug it from the timer when you are not going to be home, such as when on vacation.

      For all machines, you need to be sure that the steam valve stays sealed (in the off position) going from its hot state at the end of one session to cold when the next session begins. Some valves expand when hot, then contract when they cool, and the change can be enough to cause the steam valve to leak once it cools off. And wit the risk of being repetitive, this is not so much of a problem with a machine that has a boiler that refills automatically, but can be problematic for single boiler machines.

Selecting a Timer
      So if you have not been scared off by this point, it is time to select a timer. The first consideration is the ability of the timer to handle the load that the machine will place on it. Generally speaking, for most all home and pro-sumer machines, find a timer that will handle a load of 15 amps. Home machines are generally in the 900 to 1450 watt range, and so having a timer that is a bit tougher than the load it will handle will extend its life. Look for timers that say they are for appliances and check the maximum load to be sure. If the packaging says "lamp timer" with no mention of appliances, then choose another.

      The next consideration is based on how it will be used. If you always turn the machine on and off at the same time, every day, seven days a week, then one of the basic timers with little tabs that are set for each on and off time will probably be sufficient.

This Intermatic timer is typical of the basic analog timers. The little red tab is used to turn it off. Green tabs are inserted to turn it on
(note- I use this one to charge batteries for 12 hours, so it is only set up to turn off. That is why no green tabs are presently installed.)

      These have to be manually set for the proper time, and if you have a power outage it is important to reset them for the proper time as you would for all the other clocks that depend on mains power for operation. They are also limited to the number of on/off cycles that can be set.

      If you schedule varies (such as having one time for weekdays but desiring a later time for weekends) there are digital timers available. While still affordable (in the $25 range) some of them are very sophisticated.

This sophisticated digital timer has many on/off memory locations, and even has an internal battery backup in case of power outages.

      This one which I use has 20 memory locations, each one having a choice of the day, time on, and time off. There are various selections for days as well, such as every day, Mon through Fri, Mon-Wed-Fri, Sat + Sun, etc. So I have it set for one time on Mon through Fri during our work-week, and a different time for Sat and Sun when we enjoy a bit of a morning sleep-in. At the end of my session I turn it off manually and set it back to auto mode instead of allowing the timer to automatically switch it off. This way I know that the machine was not left with the brew function on. Little habits such as that can be valuable.

      UPDATE - 7/11/2010 I Have been using this timer for about three months now and am very pleased with its performance and dependability. What a joy it is to wake up to a preheated and ready-to-use espresso machine. The only oddity I have run into is when I used the timer mode. Last week a friend was coming over and I wanted the machine to be on when he arrived, so about an hour before his scheduled arrival I set the timer mode for 90 minutes. This would leave the machine on for that amount of time, then turn it off when the time expired. That worked fine. He arrived on schedule, but he decided he didn't want coffee so I turned the timer off manually before the programmed time expired and set it back to the "AUTO OFF" mode so my espresso machine would be ready the next morning. For the next two or three days the timer would not turn the espresso machine on even if a program was set to do so. The solution was to open timer mode again and reset the amount of time in the timer mode to 00:00:00. After that it worked perfectly. I did not see mention of this in the instructions.

      To find out more about these timers, check this Google Shopping search for "Appliance Timer" or check the same search on Amazon where you can also find user reviews.

      With a little common sense, a timer can help improve you espresso. If not, it can at least give you an hour's extra sleep each morning and have your espresso machine warm and waiting.

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