Sunday, January 27, 2019

Revisting the Keurig

I was asked to fix a broken Keurig coffee maker and it confirmed to me that these machines are no bargain.

I wrote before about the Keurig, the coffee machine that turns something as simple as a cup of coffee into a subscription model.   Rather than buy coffee beans, grind them, and make a pot of coffee, you buy a Patented and licensed (and royalty paid) cartridge called a "K-cup" and insert it into the machine and it makes one cup of coffee - which is perfect for today's living alone generation where everyone wants to do their own thing and can't even share a pot of coffee.

The problem is, of course, cost, and the limited options.   With regular coffee, you can buy coffee anywhere from any vendor.  But with Keurig, you can only buy cartridges from people who agree to license the technology, and these by and large are the big corporate brands.   Oh, sure, you can buy the little do-it-yourself cartridge and load it with your own coffee - that sort of negates the whole "hassle-free" argument about the machine, though.

The resultant cost increase basically doubles the cost of making coffee, which is a huge cost delta, taking aside the staggering cost of these machines.  And the machines are complicated and can break down (hence my being asked to fix one) and they do require regular cleaning, lest they turn into a mold and mildew nightmare - as the one I worked on was.   And in terms of cleaning, they have a number of oddly shaped parts that are difficult to clean - we're talking spending hours with Q-tips, or as our Australian friends call them, "ear buds" - not to be confused with Apple head phones.

So the argument that the Keurig is "easier to use" and requires no cleaning is utterly specious.  If you don't regularly clean your Keurig, you'll end up in a world of woe.   And by the way, when you are done with it, you might want to leave the cartridge holder in the open position to let all that dry out.  Otherwise - mildew.

From an Engineering standpoint there are a number of flaws in the design, in my opinion.   First of all, it is incredibly complicated.  You have a removable water tank - which some regular coffee makers have - which can be a source of leaks.   A built-in tank is plumbed directly into a coffee machine and there is no failure modes possible.  But with removable tanks, you have a one-way valve on the tank, another on the machine, (both with seals) and a seal between the tank and machine.  If any one of these seals or valves fails, the thing will leak or not work.   And getting repair parts and installing them is nearly impossible, so you have to toss the whole machine.   Sure, it is "convenient" to remove the tank and fill it with water - I guess.   But it is just as convenient to pour water into a fixed tank.

And by the way, the tank on this thing is tall and narrow.  Set it in the sink to fill it and it tips over - a good way to break it.   The fact the bottom isn't exactly flat doesn't help.   Whoever designed this never had to use it regularly.   So you have to hold the tank while it is filling.

Our machine was leaking, and I removed the front face plate to investigate whether it was an internal leak or a leak (as I suspected) at this tank valve.   The thing is difficult to disassemble, and I would not recommend doing so - no user serviceable parts inside!   Inside there is a pump, a motor, an internal water tank with heater, and a circuit board.  Four wires connect to an RJ-11C jack underneath the machine, for what I am not sure (accessory items?  Internet interface?  Telephone extension?).  The inside of the machine was damp but not wet.   Cold water coming into the machine via hose causes condensation on the hose in humid climates.   But all in all, it seemed to be in good shape from what I could tell.

I realized that the tank, when inserted into the machine, was level with the countertop.   I wondered whether this award-winning design feature was causing the tank to not seat properly.  I placed some felt stick-on pads ($1 a sheet at Dollar Tree) under the feet of the device to raise it up.  This seemed to allow the tank to "seat" on the valve and the water stopped leaking.

The big problem was it wasn't making coffee.   You turned it on, pressed the button and the pump merely stalled.   Not even hot water would come out.  And this was because of the other Achilles heel of the device - making coffee pour through needles.

The way the device works is that hot water is pumped, under pressure, through the "K-cup" via two  hollow needles.  One pierces the top of the cup to allow the pressurized water to enter.  The coffee is located above filter material in the cup.  A second hollow needle pierces the bottom of the cup, and the coffee travels through this very, very narrow opening into a tray (which is removable and needs to be cleaned regularly) and out into your coffee cup.

It all sounds good, except these hollow needles are tiny and can clog easily.   YouTube is full of videos of how to use paper clips or toothpicks to unclog the needles.  I found it was the upper needle that clogged with coffee - which makes no sense, as this is where the pressurized hot water enters the device.   I suspect that somehow the pump, at the end of the cycle, is pulling a vacuum and sucking coffee grounds from the top of the cup back in.   I never found the bottom needle to clog - the needle that actually dispenses the coffee.

I cleaned the whole machine thoroughly and ran a diluted solution of lime-away through it and than ran a dozen or so cups of hot water through it (Keurig sells a "cleaning solution" and you should probably use that).   It made coffee OK, but them almost immediately jammed.   I cleaned the needles again, finding coffee grounds in the upper needle.  It may be this machine is ready to be junked, as somehow it is sucking coffee up into the upper needle - the pump is worn or something.

But after three cleanings, it seemed to work OK, and after four cups of coffee, I was quite jittery and also regular.   I noticed that if you ran hot water through it after making coffee, you would see coffee grounds come out - somehow the thing is sucking coffee grounds up into the machine.  This was particularly noticeable when I tried to re-use a K-cup (which makes a particularly weak cup of coffee the second time around!).   There may be a problem with the K-cups I used, as they were quite old.

(By the way, this is another issue I have with these machines.  "Fresh Ground Coffee" is really of unknown freshness if it has been sealed in a cartridge for God-knows-how-long in a warehouse somewhere.   Some of the cartridges I was using were "vintage" K-cup, and were sort of bulging at the top.  This may be related to the problem).

Another YouTuber opines that some cups have a thicker bottom which prevents the bottom needle from penetrating all the way.  As as result, pressure builds up, the machine shuts off, and the pressurized coffee back-feeds into the top needle.   This indeed may be the problem - or the bottom needle may have seated (sagged) over time and isn't extending as far as it should.

All I know is, this is an awfully complicated way to make coffee.  The best coffee makers are the cheapest kind.   The Braun that we found on the sidewalk in Charleston nearly a decade ago continues to work fine, because it has no moving parts.   It was probably a decade old when the previous owners discarded it.  I wash it with Lime-Away about once a year and that's about it.   It has a heating element and a switch, and when one of those goes South, that will be the end of it.  Such coffee-makers can be bought new for under $20 at Wal-Mart.

I found the Keurig to be useful, oddly enough, in group situations, such as an office or conference, where you would think a big old Bunn-O-Matic would make more sense.  But old-school commercial coffee makers leave huge pots or carafes of warm or cold coffee that is almost undrinkable.  Making coffee involves heating water to the boiling point and passing it through ground roasted beans to release the oils and aromatics from the coffee beans.  It is an olfactory as well as taste experience.  When coffee "sits" even in a heated carafe, it loses this "freshed-brewed" effect rather quickly.

Thus, at 10:00 AM, you go to the break room and pour some of that coffee left over from the morning, and it tastes like crap, even if it is hot - the aromatics have long since evaporated away.  So you throw away the coffee (which is waste) and make a fresh pot and pour one cup for yourself.  An hour later, someone else in the company repeats the process.  So in situations like that, I can see where a single-serve coffee maker might make sense and maybe even save money in terms of less waste of coffee - and produce better coffee as a result.

I note that even truck stops are going to this model.  We stopped at the Flying-J on the way back from Florida, and noticed that instead of warming carafes of hours-old coffee (or worse yet, those "tank" machines that hold gallons of the stuff) they had a machine that would grind coffee on demand, and then make one cup, like an automated barista (you 20-somethings, take note - those slacker jobs are being automated!).   The result was, of course, a better cup of coffee, but I suspect the complexity of such a machine is a nightmare compared to even the Keurig.

Of course, the cheapest and best "cartridge" hot beverage maker is the tea bag.   And after doing a cost analysis on this, we switched to tea (Trader Joe's Irish Breakfast Tea) which we drink about five out of seven mornings a week.   We still make coffee on occasion (with the old Braun) but just not every day.

Tea bags are even less "muss and fuss" than a Keurig or any other kind of coffee maker.  All you need is hot water and the bags are easy to dispose of, with no machine to tear down and clean.

The Keurig came from the pot shop, which already bought a new machine to replace it.   But I will be taking it back there shortly in any event.  The thing is a horrible counter hog, worse than a bread machine.   I doubt I will need to drink cartridge coffee anytime in the near future.  And the needle clogging thing seems to be chronic at this point - I suspect that unless the potters are religious about running hot water through it every fourth or fifth cup, it will clog again in short order.

At which point, it will end up at the curb, and unlike the Braun we snagged, I doubt anyone will pick it up.   In fact, now that I mention it, I notice a lot of these Keurig 2.0 models at garage sales, offered for sale, with the owner confiding they "already bought a new one."   Once the needles start clogging, maybe that is a sign the pump is shot and the end is near.

Everything has a design life, and often more complicated things have shorter service lives than simpler things.   It's just an inexorable law of nature - and Engineering.

UPDATE:  I put the Keruig back in the pot shop.  I noticed a toothpick and a bent paper clip where it was sitting.   Apparently, this clogging problem has been going on for some time.  I made several cups of hot water and coffee grounds were in the bottom of the first two cups.   I made a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee and it worked, but when I went to remove the cartridge it "spit" coffee from the top of the cartridge.  As expected, when I ran hot water through it, more coffee grounds came out.

For some reason, the cartridge is pressurizing and forcing grounds back up into the upper needle once the brewing is complete.  If not rinsed out (by running hot water through it) it will clog, usually with the next cup.   Methinks the device is ready for the trash.  But I will research further.