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Tasting, teaching, and testing at Seattle Coffee Gear
May 2013

When the damp winter winds sweep in off the chilly North Pacific, grabbing a great cup of coffee is not just a matter of life and death for the people of Seattle. It’s more important than that.

No wonder that Seattle, the home of Starbucks and Seattle’s Best Coffee, has also nurtured Seattle Coffee Gear (SCG). Since its founding in 2006, SCG has become a leader in selling and repairing the sophisticated home espresso machines that java aficionados rely on.

Founder Victor Gehlen didn’t set out to sell coffee machines. He simply wanted a better cup of joe. As he tried one maker after another, however, he realized there had to be better ways to help the thirsty of this world find a great coffee machine. Today Victor and partner Gail Williams sell dozens of different models, and focus intensively on education. The SCG YouTube channel boasts more than 600 instructional videos, 11,000 subscribers, and 7 million video views.

The Ferraris of coffee

The espresso machines they sell and service are the Ferraris of coffee. Many of the 26 brands are made in Italy, and bear names like Saeco, Breville, DeLonghi, La Pavoni, Rancilio, and Rocket Espresso. Whether sleekly streamlined or festooned with chrome-plated knobs and spouts, they have the looks to stand proudly in any kitchen. Prices range from less than $100 to more than $6,000. Advanced features even include fingerprint recognition. After all, you want your machine to know you, and custom-brew your favorite shot.

Below their glossy skins the most advanced machines, called “superautomatics,” work like miniature factories in a six-step process (see article) to produce a beverage any barista would be proud to pour. And like any full-size factory, these mini-plants require maintenance and service.

And this is where Patrick Crogan, chief service technician for SCG, takes control.

Before the Great Recession, Crogan worked as an electrician, wiring new houses. As the stock market collapsed, however, so did housing . . . and he was unemployed. When he learned that SCG was looking for a tech, Crogan won the job.

Patrick Crogan, chief service technician for Seattle Coffee Gear, gets a view of what’s going on—or not going on—within a coffee machine.
Photo courtesy of SCG.

Ten brands, many models

The service challenge starts with the wide range of products SCG services: some ten different brands (other brands are serviced by the makers), each with many different models. Though some machines haven’t changed a lot since the 1980s, Crogan said, others have advanced, delivering more precise temperature control and new features. They fall into three categories:

  • Superautomatics, which do everything from grinding beans to producing the espresso
  • Semiautomatics, which have no grinders
  • Double boilers, which include both a water (coffee) boiler and a separate steam boiler for foaming milk

Inside is a service technician’s delight: electric motors for grinding, heating elements, temperature controllers, solenoid valves, solid state relays, and more, all controlled by a power board. A proportional-integral-derivative controller (PID controller) works to adjust such important factors as process temperature. All these complex systems operate in an environment where water, steam, and particulates (coffee grounds) are just part of the job.

Manufacturers provide service specifications (“some more than others,” Crogan said with a smile), but complexity is the game here. “There’s one machine now that’s got like six solenoid valves that work in conjunction,” Crogan said. “It steams milk for you. They have two pumps, two boilers, a grinder, a brew unit motor, as well as the switches that control that, and it has one huge i/o power board.”

Owner misuse and shipping damage are frequent causes of trouble. When a machine arrives for tune-up or repair, Crogan starts by opening it up and running it through its paces to get a view of what is going on inside—or not going on. A problem could be a leaking gasket or o-ring, or mechanical or electrical trouble. “Heating elements go out, grinder motors break,” he said. “Least frequently, a power board or control board fails. With each class it’s totally different, because they’re just totally different beasts inside.”

Patrick uses his Fluke digital multimeter to measure the parameters that count most inside these espresso mini-factories: continuity, resistance, and voltage.
Photo courtesy of SCG.

“When the multimeter comes in handy”

Troubleshooting can be tough. “It can be difficult to know,” Crogan said. “We hear ‘it’s not heating,’ let’s say, and there are four or five different reasons that could be. No water in the tank. The water sensor isn’t reading water. The pump’s not working; it’s not filling up the boiler. When you have that many elements, that’s definitely when the multimeter comes in handy.”

Crogan’s go-to test instrument is the Fluke 114 Electrical Multimeter, which measures the parameters that count most inside these espresso mini-factories: continuity, resistance, and voltage. Common electrical issues include control board capacitors that run through their life cycle and fail, preventing the board from sending power where it’s needed. Loose wire crimps are another common problem. “The wire is in its lead,” Crogan said, “but it’s not actually making contact.” The Fluke 114’s continuity test determines what’s really at fault.

Resistance testing is very useful. “We know the resistance of a lot of parts that we use,” he said, “so if something’s not working properly we can check the resistance. That’s a big help. We test voltage, especially to find out if whatever’s not functioning is actually getting power. If it is, then we have a pretty good idea of what’s wrong. If it’s getting power and the neutral and ground are solid, we know the problem’s probably with the element itself.”

Test everything

In a business this personal, customer satisfaction is just as important as a perfect latte. Making sure customer equipment is returned spotless is one part of the formula. Another is testing every machine function to find and fix every problem. As Crogan says, “nobody likes to have things repaired.” Especially not twice.

Like many technicians, Crogan has fond memories of the time he overcame an especially tough repair challenge. Working on an old machine, whose maker had been bought out by another firm, he replaced a faulty pressure stat, only to have the control board go out. No replacement was available. So he installed a newer control board from a different model, then rewired it to run the old machine.

“I traced all the wires from the original board to find out their functions, and ran a couple of jumpers that weren’t on the old board,” he said. “It was a lot of headaches, a lot of continuity tests. But I finally got it working.”

A job well done—and a perfect espresso moment.

Go to “What happens in your countertop factory (aka superautomatic espresso machine) »


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