My DIY Glycol Chiller
For years now, I’ve been lusting over the commercial glycol chillers available through different companies such as SS Brewtech and Penguin, but could just never justify the huge amount of money they cost. As nice as glycol would have been, ice water was working just fine, although it was a pain in the ass! While cold crashing beer in the heat of the summer, it wasn’t uncommon for me to burn 100lbs of ice in a day trying to maintain temps. Things were working and I was making good beer, but buying ice and dumping waste water needed to go and it needed to go away fast!
Enter my DIY glycol chiller!
Not only has the ice water solution finally gone away, but temp control is truly a set and forget affair. No more draining water out of the cooler twice daily! No more buying huge amounts of ice! No more spilling water all over the garage floor! Even though glycol isn’t going to help me make better beer, it definitely makes things much more convenient and takes away 95% of the temp control baby sitting I had to do.
Building my own DIY glycol chiller was easy as well as inexpensive, but the amount of information on the internet about how to build one is pretty lacking. I found a few build logs that other people had done, but I needed more info! After months of searching for more build logs, I finally decided to just jump in head first and see what came out the other end.
My way of building the chiller may not be the best way to do things, but it’s worked for me and other than a few small details, I don’t think I would do anything different.
First things first was finding a suitable window AC unit. It needed to be sufficiently powerful, but even more important was that it needed to be an analog unit. While digital units can be used, they’re MUCH more labor intensive and expensive to make work.
After removing the covers to reveal the guts of the AC unit, the temperature probe attached to the radiator on the front needed to be unhooked so that the other parts of the unit can be moved around more easily.
Next, we need to disconnect the thermostat and trick it into thinking that it always needs to run. Plugging everything into an inkbird temp controller will keep it from actually running non-stop.
In order to do this, we need to disconnect the 2 red wires from the side of the control board and wire them together using some electrical tape to secure the connection.
Next comes the scariest part of the entire build! We need to slowly bend the copper tubing so that the cooling fins will fit into our cooler. The trick to this part is to go extremely slowly bending small sections at a time. Keep your eyes open for any kinks that might be starting in the tubing and prevent them the best you can. Kinks in the tubing will greatly reduce efficiency and any cracks in the tube will render the AC unit useless. It also helps to cut a small gateway for the chiller tubing to set into so the lid can close fully.
Go SLOWLY and CAREFULLY!
Now that we have the AC unit and cooler prepped, it’s time to build something to house the whole thing and keep dust/dirt/crap out of everything as much as possible. It doesn’t hurt that it classes things up a bit! As far as the housing goes, I opted for a plywood box with casters and handles to make it a bit easier to move things around. Complete with vent cutouts and a good black staining, it really made things look pretty nice!
With the plywood housing fully put together, I decided it was probably a good idea to glue in some screens over the vents to help keep more of the garage crud out of the system. I then refit the entire cooler and AC unit back into the housing.
Because the plywood box has a fairly tight fitting lid on it, I needed a way for the glycol lines to exit the housing and run to the fermenters. Using a hole saw and then a jig saw fixed this problem fairly quickly.
To help prevent any splashing from making its way out of the cooler, I spray foamed the spot at the top of the cooler I had cut for the copper tubing entrance. It also helps hold things where they’re supposed to be just a bit better so that there’s less risk of damaging the copper tubing.
Now that the bulk of everything has been constructed and put together, it was time to find a solution for running the actual glycol lines to the unitank and future upgrades that I have planned.
First, I cut four sets of three holes in the top of the cooler lid. One hole for the power cord the glycol pump, and one hole each for the glycol and glycol return lines. Even though I only have one piece of equipment right now that can utilize the glycol, I went ahead and cut the extra spots for easy equipment additions in the future.
For the actual glycol lines, I taped two liquid lines together so that I could insulate them together more easily. For the insulation, I just used black foam pipe insulation from Menards. I reinforced it with a heavy layer of black duct tape to keep everything together and then installed the female end of the liquid quick disconnect. Unfortunately, I only have a few pictures of this process.
On the fermenter, I also ran two short lengths of tubing connected to the male end of the liquid quick disconnect. This way, when moving the fermenter towards the brewery or towards the cleaning area, it’s much easier to disconnect the glycol system.
At this point, it was time to get the temperature controller set up!
For controlling the temperature and turning on/off the AC unit, I decided to go with an Inkbird ITC-308. I have used this particular unit in the past and getting things setup and running couldn’t be any easier.
First I had to get another small hole cut in the side of the plywood housing so I could run the inkbird wires inside towards the AC unit and power cables. I was then able to plug the AC unit into the Inkbird and also get the temperature probe installed deep down inside the glycol reservoir. In theory, the temp probe will tell the controller when to turn on and off the AC unit based off the temperature of the glycol inside the reservoir.
I also installed a small aquarium pump inside the reservoir that will turn on and off with the AC unit to keep the glycol solution moving. When the AC is running, it will be beneficial to keep the glycol moving against the fins for more thorough and even chilling of the solution.
We finally have everything built and plugged in! It’s finally time to add the glycol/water solution and get things rolling!
Glycol is a funny thing. The higher the concentration of glycol in the solution, the lower the freezing point and the lower you can chill the liquid. BUT, the higher the concentration of glycol, the lower the heat capacity. Since we don’t have to go super cold to maintain fermentation temps, we can use the super high heat capacity of water and create a happy medium of a mix of glycol and water. This way, we can get the best of both worlds. The glycol will lower the freezing point of the solution and the water will keep the heat capacity sufficiently high so we can pull heat out of the fermenter.
For my system, I shot for a 1:2 ratio of glycol to water. This should give me the low freezing point I want without killing my chilling ability. I ended up using 2.5 gallons of food grade propylene glycol to 5 gallons of distilled water. This should give me a freezing point of about 4°F
Now that everything has been fully put together and the glycol solution added to the reservoir, it was finally time to plug things in, set temps on the controller and let it do it’s thing!!
All in all, the whole project wound up costing me about $250 to get everything up and running. While not a small amount of money, it was still MUCH less that the $800-1000 for an entry level pre-made glycol chiller. It definitely took me more time to go this route, but I learned a TON and I have the pride in knowing that I built everything myself.