Ever wondered why plumbers are paid so much?

Standard home brewing conditions

It’s a difficult job that combines working in horrible conditions with the need for multiple skill sets. But the main reason plumbers are well paid is because they know the arcane secrets of plumbing fittings. It is dangerous, forbidden knowledge, some of which I am about to share. Strap in. We are going through the looking glass…

Update: Thanks to all the good people on Hacker News for their input, from which I’ve learned a lot. I should stress that any following advice is not from a professional plumber and is purely from my own experience as an idiot making a low pressure beer handling system. It should not be read as the proper way to do anything, especially if you are working on pressurised systems and definitely totally 100% not with gas fittings. Get someone in to do that, you lunatic. Seriously. Don’t mess with gas.

This is posted from the perspective of a home brewer, so it’s just a small subset of the world of plumbing fittings – we use mainly stainless steel fittings for sanitary reasons.

The first thing to remember is this:

Nothing makes sense

In the UK, stainless steel fittings usually screw into each other, using a standard thread called “BSP” – British Standard Pipe thread. You will see 1/4 BSP, 1/2 BSP etc. A common size is 1/2 BSP – the “1/2″ is, of course 1/2 an inch. So which part of the thread is 1/2 an inch? None of it. So it’s the diameter of the pipe? Nope. The pipe’s diameter is about 3/4”. The 1/2″ refers to the inside diameter of some random cast iron pipe the fittings were originally made for. This type of pipe has probably not been used since 1834 when Isambard Kingdom Brunel rigged his privy to flush as a birthday present to his wife. Nothing in a 1/2″ BSP fitting measures half an inch – not even the inside diameter of the pipe, because modern pipes have thinner walls.

So to recap, the “BSP” measurement is a standard for the outside pipe diameter and threads and gets its number from the inside diameter of a pipe that doesn’t exist. I guess we should just be grateful that a larger number means a larger pipe – I’m looking at you, Standard Wire Gauge.

But let’s not get downhearted, it is a standard after all. At least any 1/2 BSP thread fits any other 1/2 BSP thread. It must do, right? Oh dear god no. There are two types of BSP thread and the first fits in the second but the second doesn’t fit in the first.

You can have either a tapered thread or straight thread on either the female or the male part of the fitting. Note that the picture shows the straight thread having an O ring. Nah. That’s way too easy, so we don’t do that – more later. Anyway, obviously a tapered male in a tapered female is fine, and you get a nice tight fit. Now imagine putting a tapered male in a straight female. That too is fine; the bottom few threads don’t fit properly, but the top ones do and there is enough contact to make a seal. But putting a straight male in a tapered female does not work. It will leak and you will be sad. The thread of the straight male hits the bottom of the tapered thread while the top is loose, so there is hardly any contact area.

So you need to make sure you are getting your tapers and straights correct, and naturally no one goes to any effort to tell you what you are buying. In theory “BSPT” means BSP Tapered and “BSPP” means BSP Parallel but hardly anyone uses these terms because that would make it too easy. Everyone just calls them “BSP” so there is no way to know if they are parallel or tapered, unless it’s actually stated somewhere in the description, which it usually isn’t. Some people even call straight ones “BSPT” because they think the “T” stands for “thread”. Marvellous. That really fucking helps, thanks.

Given that using a tapered female fitting means 50% of the male fittings don’t actually fit, then they must be rare, right? Nope. They are everywhere and you have to use your telekinesis because no retailer ever bloody tells you if they are tapered or straight. You might be thinking “what is the point in making tapered female fittings if you can fit both straight and tapered males in straight ones, which are easier to make?” The answer is simple – they hate you and they hate me. Or possibly tighter coupling or something, but I suspect it’s just plain spite. When buying male fittings, it’s best to always get tapered ones so they fit in either. I mean why do they even make straight ones? The only possible reason is malice. Or they are cheaper. It’s malice though.

It would be useful if manufacturers indicated the fitting type with some sort of mark, so of course they don’t. You have to squint at it and guess.

This is not a problem for plumbers, who have to have every type of fitting on the planet rattling around in the back of the van. If they buy 50 flanged wibblers with tapered threads by mistake, they can just buy 50 straight ones from somewhere else and they will all be used eventually. You and I end up with a box full of unwanted fittings, but it’s useful to have spares, I suppose.

There are other types of fitting – “G” (as in G 1/2) and “NPT” (as in 1/2 NPT) . You might see “G 1/2” used with metric push-fit connectors. Yeah, that’s BSP as well. G 1/2 is 1/2 BSP because it’s not confusing enough to just have one name for a standard that doesn’t always fit itself. At least they kept the numerical part of the name – which doesn’t actually match any dimension of the fitting,

Then there’s NPT. NPT threads are different from BSP, which actually comes as something of a relief at this point. Naturally, they aren’t different enough to be immediately obvious because that would spoil the fun. Oh yes, NPT is identical to BSP, with the only difference being angle of the valleys in the thread and that the threads are pointed. This means that despite looking the same, NPT is not compatible with BSP. Because fuck you, that’s why. Luckily, you don’t see many NPT threaded fittings in the UK and they are only sold by genuinely evil retailers.

Let’s dip briefly into the sane world of metric fittings. Ahhh… 15mm compression fittings make sense, with their sensible millimetres sensibly representing the actual diameter of the pipe. Except that… Sorry… The thread on a METRIC 15mm compression fitting is not metric, it’s 1/2 BSPP! You cannot escape the lunacy in a metric lifeboat. Actually, best not to complain because it’s quite useful that you can do things like bodge cheapo 15mm isolating valves into your 1/2 BSP pipework.

Unless it’s tapered.

Using the bloody things

Given the ubiquity of BSP threads in stainless fittings, you might think there is some sort of advantage in using this utterly psychotic standard. It must give nice leak-tight results and be easy to use? No. It’ll drip like a fucked fridge and you don’t know what angle the joint will be when it’s tightened up. On the plus side, you get a genuine feeling of achievement when you get a nice looking leak-free system. On the minus side, everything else.

Remember that picture up there showing tapered and straight threads? Remember the one on the right says it uses an O-ring? Bullshit. It’s a fairy story that plumbers tell their children (probably). In the real world, there is no flange on your typical straight fitting. Look.

A 90 degree 1/2 BSP coupling, yesterday

Where does the O-ring go, eh? Eh? EH??? No, we use PTFE tape, and it sucks. For what it’s worth, I tightly wrap the tape 10 times round the male thread and get an enraged mountain gorilla to tighten it up. Or a bloody great spanner if there are no nearby gorillas. This means, of course that it ends up with the other end pointing in a random direction. If you want your pipework to look like a Windows XP screensaver, then that’s fine. For those of us with an ounce of pride left and some vestigial will to live, there are 2 choices:

  1. Before going full gorilla on the joint, there is a small window of tightness where the thread hasn’t bottomed out, but it will still be leak proof. If your desired angle is in that window, then the gods of plumbing have smiled on you this day. Good luck finding it. Plumbers, of course, have an extra sense to us mortals and can find it easily.
  2. You use a union. This lets you connect two BSP fittings without screwing them together. Each thread is screwed in to a round flange and the two flanges push together with a PTFE washer between them. A large nut clamps the two halves tightly.
The state of the union.

This is especially useful when you are assembling the final mess.

I hope this is useful to you and good luck in your plumbing. Final comment: Don’t bother using “Dope” or “Rectorseal” or whatever the name of the compound that is supposed to magically produce a leak-free result in seconds. Just buy cheap PTFE tape, and lots and lots of it. 12 rolls might see you through a medium sized project.

Conclusion.

Fucking hell.

Chill out man

The journey of creating a proper brewing setup begins (and continues) with various pipes popping off and blasting your face with water, cartoon-style, before you eventually end up with something that works and doesn’t fill your garage with water.

The horrible mess in that picture is what I actually tried to use for my first brew with a plate chiller. It did such a terrible job that it prompted me to spend 3 months doing it properly. If your set up looks anything like that you might want to read on.

The setup shown here is pretty typical from what I’ve seen on YT videos. It takes the wort from the outlet at the bottom, runs it through the chiller, on to the pump, and then out to the whirlpool outlet at the top. Other than just looking plain nasty, there are a number of things wrong with it:

  • Each silicon pipe held on with jubilee clip is a time bomb, waiting for you to forget to tighten it up.
  • The chiller is sitting on its back, which is inefficient, and means you end up with a chiller full of wort at the end of the brew.
  • The pump is higher than the chiller. It’s not self-priming so you have to fill up the chiller first before you can start pumping.
  • Bump into the table and all that stuff goes on the floor, probably pulling off a pipe or two before putting a dent in your chiller.
  • You have to disconnect and reattach pipes when you want to change the configuration, like if you want to pump out to a conical fermenter. Each disconnect is another splash of wort on the floor. Forget to turn a tap off first and it’s a splash and a gush.
  • Cleaning it will be a pain because of all those silicon pipes flobbling everywhere. Poke them in a bucket to circulate cleaning solution and as soon as your back is turned at least one will flibbit out and start spraying everywhere.
  • “Flobbling” and “flibbit” are apparently already words in the Urban Dictionary with utterly disgusting meanings.

So, enough wibbling, here is my solution:

The Desplashinator 3000000

If you are thinking “that still looks pretty shit”, then you would be right, but it works better than it looks. From whirlpool to chilling to pumping out to cleaning, you don’t need to keep disconnecting stuff, thanks to all those valves. This is a diagram of what it is:

More valves than a 1945 radio

Before we get into how it works, let’s talk valves. It uses two different types: expensive 3 part ball valves and cheap as chips 15mm compression fitting valves. Did you know that the thread on a 15mm compression fitting is 1/2 BSP? It fits into a stainless 1/2 BSP female thread (as long as it’s not tapered), and that can lead to all sorts of fun and bodgery, as long as you use enough PTFE tape. I might do a separate post on plumbing fittings because they are a nightmare of unexpected incompatibility and unexpected compatibility.

Anyway, basically – expensive 3 part fittings are for passing wort through so they can be disassembled, and cheapo 15mm ball valves are for flushing with water and cleaning. Wort never goes through the 15mm ones, so they don’t need to be taken apart when you do a deep clean. Almost all the other parts are stainless 1/2 BSP fittings, which aren’t cheap but are pretty bullet proof.

Other features are:

  • The pump is at the bottom for easier priming.
  • The chiller is mounted vertically for more efficiency and easier draining.
  • Draining and cleaning ports have Hozelock connectors on them for cheap and easy connecting to hosepipes.
  • It’s all mounted on a sturdy wooden frame so bits don’t fall over.
  • There is a dedicated line to the FV so no fiddling with pipes. It’s essentially a sealed system to stop contamination.
  • You can whirlpool without the chiller being inline, so it doesn’t get clogged up with bits of hops before the hop cone forms.

How to use

So your boil is going to finish soon. First thing is to sterilise the equipment by running the boiling wort through it. Don’t start the cooling water yet. Open V1, V2 and V4 and wait for the pump to fill up and turn it on. You can speed up the process by pulsing the pump to shake the bubbles out.

Leave it running for a minute or two to get the hops whirlpooled towards the centre of the boiler. Then slowly open up V3 to start running the wort through the chiller. Do it slowly because it’s full of air and you’ll get big bloikking bubbles in your boiling wort. When the bubbles have stopped close V4 so it’s just circulating through the chiller.

Give it a few more minutes and then turn on the cooling water. Start off with a high flow rate and turn it down as the wort cools.

When you are down to temperature, close V1 and open V5 and pump her out! You will end up with some wort left in the chiller and pump but it’s only a few 100 ml, so I don’t worry about it.

How to clean

The Desplashinator 3000000 makes cleaning fun! If you are weird. I find it fun and I’m pretty weird. Just connect a hose to the drain valve connector, then open up all the 3 piece valves and the drain valve to empty the system – I empty it down a drain in the floor. It has to be lower than the system, obviously.

Stick a hosepipe connected to mains water on the source valve connector, close V1, V2, V3, and V5 and leave V4 open. This flushes the pump out backwards to get rid of bits of hop that might have caught in it. Then close V4 and open V3 to flush the chiller out backwards. You could probably do away with the “Aux” valve and connector because I never use it.

Clean out the boiler, put 5 litres or so of cleaner in it and reconnect it back to the chiller system. Then leave it circulating for a while before flushing with clean water. You can fill up the boiler through the source valve and V1 and flush with that out of the drain valve.

Conclusion

This is so much better than having it on a table and connecting everything with silicon tubing. It was a lot of effort to build, but totally worth it.

Next up: instructions for how to build one.

The enchanted skip

And lo! did Naich go rummaging in the Cav. skips in search of a bit of metal that would hold his reservoir securely in his chiller box.  Praying to Ceilliau Blewog, the goddess of salvage, he dived head first into the metals skip.  And in her wisdom Ceilliau Blewog did deliver unto his hand the perfect bit of metal, complete with holes already drilled in it.  And there was much rejoicing.  And Naich did praise Ceilliau Blewog and promise to offer up a sacrifice of a small annoying cat on his return home.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a dustbin?

It’s my new bike.  Behold:

My faithless steed
My faithless steed

She is a mixture of Taliban (wheels, front brakes, gears), Jedward (seat, pedals, mudguard, handlebars) and the skip-rescue bike, which I called Black Death.  In order to commemorate the unholy union of 3 shitty bikes, her name is Jelideath.  Let her name ring down through the ages whenever a shit bicycle is mentioned.

Beer Hutch!

Young William and James were the luckiest boys in Cambridge.  Their father, a brilliant inventor, had built them their very own beer hutch! Fun and adventure was never far away, thanks to their thermostatically heated shelter which was large enough to hold a pressure keg and lots of bottles.  Actually, fun and adventure were some considerable distance away, and not getting any closer, thanks to their father not giving it to them and putting his beer in it instead.  They would only have used it to have zany adventures with an ironic twist at the end anyway, and I’d rather drink beer thanks.

But why a beer hutch?  Home brew needs to be stored at the correct temperature, which is less than the inside temperature of a house, but more than the bloody freezing temperature it currently is outside; I don’t want to suck it like a lolly.  An outside cupboard or garage would normally be fine but unfortunately, at some point in its life, our Victorian terraced house had had its outside toilet and coal bunker knocked down and turned into a big kitchen.  With no thought as to how future residents would store their homebrew at the correct temperature – not very forward-thinking, eh?  For a while my beer lived outside, wrapped in a heated underblanket (found in a skip – very few stains on it but a broken switch), with its temperature controlled by a home-made (mainly from scrapped parts) thermostat:

There she is, huddled under her green blanket.  Just above is the control electronics and hanging on the fence is the temperature readout:

10.5 Degrees – just right.

This is all very well and good, but it’s a right pain actually getting the beer out – you have to lift up all the layers to get to the tap and take everything off to give her a puff of CO2.  Also, what do I do when I’ve got 40 bottles of beer as well as the keg?  So I needed a little beer hutch to keep the precious liquid at the optimum temperature.  Luckily, they were chucking out a load of under-bench cupboards from one of the labs at work:

Pretty tatty, but it’s built like a brick shithouse and it just needs a top, door, stronger back, insulation (walls and door are a chopped up Tesco Value duvet with skip-found insulated board top and bottom) and the heater blanket.  A couple of nights later…

Lots of insulation and the heated blanket installed.  What does it look like from the outside?  In a word – tasty.

The sharp-eyed might notice that the door is a) the wrong colour, b) the wrong size, c) hung wonky and d) upside down, but when you are hanging upside down by your feet from the edge of a skip, you can’t be choosy about the colour, type or which side door it is.  It shuts.  It opens.  It fulfills its purpose.

And now my beer is in her lovely new, hand-crafted home.  The end result:

Night night precious beer.

Skippy

I’ve got a hankering for some network attached storage, but no money, so it’s time for a home-made job. Jen’s laptop is a creaky old AMD K6-2 which isn’t used for anything any more, but it’s powerful enough for a router with NAS, DHCP, DNS and any other TLA I can think of. Plus, it would be handy to have an always-on computer inside the local network for a spot of WOL or as a torrent client that can slurrp stuff off the net while we kip.

The main problem with this scheme is that the hard drive is a paltry 6GB, which isn’t much storage. As luck would have it, a mate of mine recently gave me a 40GB one. Sorted. Now the problem is one of size – the 40GB one is 3.5 inches, but the laptop takes a 2.5 inch one. The easy way to do do this would be to get a USB box for it and plug it into a USB hole in the laptop. Easy, but slow (it’s USB 1) and cowardly. The macho thing to do is connect it as god intended, with a ribbon cable.

Which leads to other problems. The 2.5″ hard drive has a smaller connector than the 3.5″ one and the 2.5″ drive only uses a 5V power supply, whereas the 3.5″ needs a 12V supply too.

Right. First things first. I need a box for the hard drive. Jumping into the skip, I surfaced with a (presumably broken) CD reader. I took it to bits. With the innards removed, it was the perfect size for a hard drive. I made a plate to sit it on from a die-cast box lid and chopped up the plastic so I could almost close up the box.

Next problem is the power supply. I need to get 12 Volts from somewhere. The Laptop’s power supply is 19.5V, which was close enough to knock a few volts off the top with a regulator. While I’m mucking around with regulators, I figured I might as well put one in for the network switch (which I found recently in a box at home) too, to get rid of a wall wart.

As luck would have it I had a couple of regulators in my junk box, so I bolted them firmly down – they will be dissipating a few watts.

To connect it to the lappy, I needed a cable. A quick skip dive later and I had a nice ribbon cable with the right connector one end, but the wrong one the other. As luck would have it, I had a header the right size in my junk box (I bought it by mistake years ago), so I lopped off the connector and soldered it on to the header, with a couple of extra pins wired up for the 5V supply to the drive.

The sheer beauty of my work has to be seen to be believed. So here it is. Behold.

It just fits nice and snugly where the hard drive used to go, under the keyboard. The problem now is that the keyboard doesn’t quite fit any more and the mouse isn’t totally accessible. Oh well. Never mind. It’s going to be sitting under the sofa.

Time to fire it up. Fingers crossed, deep breath, push the button and… whir click beep. “Operating system not found”. This is actually quite promising because it’s not saying “Wrong sized hard drive attached badly by a moron”. Going into the BIOS shows that – good lord! – it can see it. Look! Well, it’s such a bad picture that you’ll have to take my word for it.

So, how does it all look with everything screwed down and the cases closed up? Cor! Are you sure that’s been modified?

This is my NAS. Lovely, isn’t it? Does it work? Difficult to tell – I have no network card for it. I have had to buy – yes, buy – two PCMCIA network wibblers from Ebay. £7.14!!!! Of real money! Anyway, hopefully I’ll be chucking Debian at it during the weekend and then the swearing can start in earnest. Keep an ear out, you’ll probably be able to hear me from where you are.

Update: It seems to be working and I’m installing Linux on it as I type this.

Update update: After it’s been on for a while I’m getting errors coming from the hard drive. Either Chez has lobbed me a duffer or my regulator is overheating and shutting down. I suspect it’s the latter, so on Monday, I plan to hit the skip for a nice big heatsink.

Update update update: The 12V line was wibbling around by 4V when the drive started up from its powered-down state. A big-arse (that’s a technical term meaning “large”) heatsink and an electrolytic cap cooled it down a bit and I haven’t had any errors since. Sadly though, last night a friend gave me an 80GB 2.5″ HDD that fits inside the case, so for the moment I’ll not be using my wonderful external HDD.

Screwing in skirting

Tape Measure

With the words “screwing” and “skirting” in the title, this post will no doubt produce some interesting search terms in the logs but sadly, it’s not as exciting as it sounds. I am, of course, referring to the stuff that goes round the bottom of your walls and the best way of attaching said stuff. Don’t worry sir, the next link down will probably about transvestite sex – just hit the “Back” button on your browser. Bye!

Right, those that are left are now either interested in DIY or twisted enough to become sexually excited at the thought of wooden planks. If it’s the latter then I am seriously impressed and I take my hat off to you for developing a truly original perversion. You must spend a lot of time in the B&Q toilets.

Now, I’m not going to cover the nitty gritty of getting your skirting to line up nicely with lovely mitred corners; I can’t even do that myself so there’s no point trying to teach others. Being useless at getting bits of wood to line up is why decorator’s caulk was invented. This is purely about the mechanics of getting it attached to the walls. “No More Nails” I can hear you thinking (no, of course I can’t really), and to some extent you are correct. If you’ve got lovely flat walls and if you’ve got lovely flat wood and if you don’t ever want to take it off again. On the other hand, if you live in a Victorian house there won’t be a flat wall in sight and the plaster will consist of sand and pebbles, bound with dried-out spit. You will probably also find that your skirting is slightly warped or, if you’ve bought it from B&Q or Homebase, bent like a fucking corkscrew. By screwing it into the wall, you can fit the wibbly wobbly line of the walls and unbend the wood as you go. You can also take it off easily, should you want to fit extra sockets, paint neatly under the skirting board line or if you get a sudden urge to dress it up in a negligee and sleep with it, you sick, sick person. So here is my method to get those screws wanged in at exactly the right position and at a phenomenal rate.

You will need:

  • Three cordless drills. Well, you don’t need three but you will be using 2 drill bits and a screwdriver, so the more drills you have the quicker it’ll be because you won’t be swapping bits all the time.
  • Red rawlplugs. Probably red. I’ve found the ones for size 8-10 screws always are.
  • Screws – Size 8, 2″ long. Or longer if you’ve got nasty plaster. Size 10 if you need more force to unbend the wood.
  • A 6mm wood drill bit and a 6mm masonry drill bit. Check the rawlplug to make sure you have the correct masonry drill bit. Use the same wood drill bit size as this one.
  • A hammer (Oh yes!)

Method:

  1. Put the skirting on the wall, where you want it fixed.
  2. Drill through the skirting with the wood drill.
  3. Make sure the skirting is in exactly the right place and then drill into the wall with the masonry drill, through the hole you just made in the skirting.
  4. Put the rawlplug into the hole in the skirting. Screw a screw into the rawlplug by a 1/2 a turn or so – just enough to hold it in place.
  5. Tap the screw with the hammer to bosh it and the rawlplug through the skirting and into the wall. There should be about a rawlplug’s length of screw sticking out when the screw/plug combination hits the bottom of the hole.
  6. Screw the screw in.

The depth of hole you drill in the wall depends on the length of your screws, but you can estimate it to start with by holding a screw up to a bit of skirting, seeing how far it sticks out the back and seeing how far up the drill bit you need to go to go that deep.

If you find that the screw stops going in before the board is tight to the wall, and just spins round in a pathetic way (“pathetic” is an accurate description – you wait until it happens to you), your hole might not be deep enough causing the screw to bottom out. That last phrase should get a few more perverts here. Or it could be that you aren’t inserting the rawlplug deep enough into the wall for it to reach anything solid to grip in. Try using a longer screw and drilling further into the wall – until you drill into the brick.

With three drills and a mouthful of screws and rawlplugs, you can get your badly-cut, wrongly sized bits of skirting screwed cock-eyed onto a wall before your wife can say “christ, look at the state of that – why the hell couldn’t we have got in a proper carpenter, you tightwad?” Good luck!