Buying the crap
A Warning on Stolen Gear
|Many restaurants do what is essentially a "rent to own"
plan with a soda company. This benefits the owners, because they don't
need to plunk down $5000 to get started. It is good for the cola company,
because they make a little bit in interest on the side AND they can get
their product in the door as an exclusive.
What some restaurant owners will do, when shutting down, is just sell the equipment, even though they still owe money on it! The cola guy comes after everyone and everything else is long gone and finds the machine and equipment missing. If you buy that equipment, the serial number may show up in a police database of stolen equipment and that can mean big trouble down the road.
Look for honest and reputable people to do business with (typically, look for decent eBay feedback ratings.)
eBay is your friend
|You will spend the majority of the first chapter of your
quest trolling eBay. Use terms like "soda fountain", "coke dispenser",
"soda dispenser", and so on. Sometimes you will see a system listed by
someone who knows a little bit about these things, and they will include
"post-mix" or "postmix" in the description. Other people don't
know the difference, so you may have to ask some questions. The key is not to give up, and not to
jump on the first items you see. People are always selling these
things, so don't worry; there will be new stuff available next week.
First of all, eliminate any premix systems that you find. Next, be on the lookout for someone who has an entire working system that wants to get rid of the stuff in one whole shot - you can find some real deals that way. A new system would typically cost $5000 or more, but sometimes you can find a setup for as little as $200-$500. (I paid $300 for mine). Or you can buy the perfect dispenser for your needs and space constraints, then fill in the rest of the pieces as they are available on eBay.
Here are some of the pieces and parts you need:
Fountain Head - This is the actual unit that dispenses the soda.
It can have an ice bin built into its back, like mine, or be designed into
a stainless steel cart or counter that has an ice bin in it. See this
picture (before I cleaned the unit up). That is also something to watch
out for - often people sell these things because they are remodeling or
something, and the units will need a good scrub down before they are ready
Carbonator - The carbonator is the heart of your system, AND the
most complicated piece. Mccann's is by far the most popular maker, but
there are a few others. Expect to pay $150-$200 for a working carbonator.
Once again, this is before I cleaned the unit up.
Syrup Pumps & connections - The last major piece (or should I say pieces) you will need to buy are syrup pumps, if you plan on making use of the bag-in-box system. If you want to be able to pickup syrup locally, you will HAVE to go with bag-in-box, period. If you are content to order syrup from a company in California (Beverage Express) by the gallon, you can buy soda kegs and use those. Since I chose bag-in-box, that is what I will detail here. You can find other information on the net about soda kegs, but basically they work just like the soda canisters used from a pre-mix system, except with only syrup inside.
Flojet is a major
maker of syrup pumps (pictured below). The other type of pump is made by Shurflo.
I don't like those as much because you have hose connections on the top,
bottom, and side of the pump, whereas the Flojet pumps have everything on
the top of the pump.
You may also find pieces like this with your system, which is an
automatic selector valve. These are used by restaurants so they don't have
to baby-sit the syrup boxes and wait until they just go empty and change
them immediately; instead, you just have two boxes hooked up and the
selector will switch to the non-empty box. Such a thing is totally
unnecessary for a home system, and no harm will come from leaving them out
of your setup.
If you can, scout out the "location" field on eBay auctions, and look for stuff within a few hours drive. If you can get the seller to agree to a pickup, then you will save $100-$200 on shipping charges right away. The fountain head typically weighs anywhere from 150 to 250 lbs for an ice bin model, or even more for a refrigerated unit, and your only shipping option is freight.
My system came with a carbonator, six-head fountain, and six syrup pumps. You may or may not be so lucky, it all depends on the circumstances. Be aware that syrup pumps are hard to find on eBay, and cost about $50 last time I checked, so if you can nab some for cheap you may want to jump on the opportunity. If you have to buy them new, expect to pay $75 or even $100.
If you are going with syrup kegs, expect to pay $30 per keg, as well as about $7 per fitting.
New fountain heads, if your dispenser has broken ones, run around $90. But you may be able to find replacement parts, depending on the model and when it was made.
Fittings - Coke uses one style of fittings for canisters/kegs, and a different style for bag-in-box. Pepsi and everyone else uses yet another style for canisters/kegs. And to top it all off, Pepsi and everyone else use a fourth style of connector for their bag-in-box stuff. You will pay about $7 per fitting for used fittings in any of these cases (don't worry, the seller should have them cleaned and bleached.) Why the sheer genius of using different connectors for everything is beyond me, other than Coke saying "fsck you" to Pepsi, or vice-versa.
If you are going to use bag-in-box, you will need the appropriate fittings for the type of bag-in-box system you are using. Also, know that anywhere coke distributes for another partner (for example, if they handle Dr Pepper in your area), that beverage will use the coke-style connectors.
Syrup kegs have the similar connectors as the premix canisters, which you can get from places like Kegworks or any shop that sells home-brewing equipment. For bag-in-box systems, contact Sutherland Installations. Scott Sutherland will sell you whatever kind of connectors you need. He can also sell you parts if your fountain comes missing anything.
Left, Coke BIB connector. Right, QCD (Pepsi & everyone else BIB connector) Notice that the QCDs have two hose connections - be sure to buy extra fittings and clamps to seal off that extra connector.
Syrup - a very important consideration! If you are using syrup kegs, you will need to order the syrup in gallons online. You can try Beverage Express, though I have never dealt with them.
Since I have a bag-in-box system, I can tell you more about that.
For Pepsi and Dr Pepper products, I talked to an employee of a local Pizza Hut place. I eat there regularly, and they know me. They agreed to order me a few boxes of syrup on their next truck, and that was that. You can expect to pay about $25/box for the 2.5 gallon boxes, or $50-60 for the 5 gallon boxes. One gallon of syrup makes about 66 12 oz drinks. For Coca-cola products, the local distributor was nice enough to talk to me at first, but it seems they only wanted to make sure the fountain machine wasn't stolen (it wasn't). Update: It seems that Keith had actually gone on vacation; he wasn't really ignoring me. I was able to talk to someone else today, and they said I can pickup a box of syrup on Thursday (It is Monday as I write this). Update 2: Coke has actually come through and I have an account now.
Your best first bet is to lookup the number for the local Coke/Pepsi distributors in your area and give them a call. If they refuse to sell to home users, then your next step is to find a local restaurant that is willing to slip you a few boxes on their order. Ask to speak to the manager, as the regular employees aren't very likely to know anything about it. Also, be sure to tell them you want to pickup the syrup, since they won't deliver to homes. In fact, you may do best just to ignore the subject completely. Just tell them you want to open a new account and you will pick the syrup up. That should be enough.
CO2 - Carbon Dioxide Gas - If the carbonator is the heart, then CO2 is the blood of the system. Of course that means water is... eh I think this analogy has gone too far. Anyway, you will need a CO2 tank, a regulator, and CO2 fittings. Just for fun, CO2 gas uses a special type of flared fitting with a plastic washer inside. Do not be fooled. Despite what the guy at Home Depot says, you need fittings designed for CO2 gas that have the washer insert and a specific flare (which is different from the flare used on other inert gasses). If it doesn't have a plastic washer insert and CO2 flare, it is WRONG. You can contact Hart & Price Corporation in Dallas, TX at 1-800-777-9129 for all kinds of fittings.
The only places I needed actual CO2 fittings were on
the regulators and on the carbonator gas input. All of my T splits and
other connections were barbed with worm clamps, which makes things much
You can obtain CO2 gas and rent a cylinder from a Welding supply or Industrial gas warehouse in your area. There is no specific "food service" classification for CO2; the same CO2 your local Pizza Hut used to make that glass of Pepsi is the same CO2 the metalworks shop next door is using to weld aluminum.
Starting from the right, we have the cylinder. It is a 50lb model. I paid a $50 deposit and $16 for a fill. I also paid about $4 for the brass fittings that connect the cylinder to the regulator. There is a plastic washer that goes inside that connection, which should be replaced every time the tank is filled, or the regulator is removed/reattached to the tank. Two of the three CO2 gas fittings used in the entire system are right there underneath the regulators. (The third is the CO2 gas inlet on the carbonator.)
You will need either a double-regulator as shown in my picture, or two separate regulators. (You'll pay about $50 per regulator new.) In either case, the primary regulator to the carbonator will need to go to about 100 psi, and the regulator feeding the syrup pumps will need to operate at 30-60 psi. The gauge on the left shows the total pressure in the tank, which should read anywhere from 800 to 1600 psi. When the gas dips below 400 psi, the tank is starting to empty and you may need to think about getting more gas. When you drop below about 200 psi, it is time to get it refilled, as there is no sense in waiting until the last minute (less than 100 psi and you no longer have enough pressure to carbonate the water properly.)
Also note that you will need two eye bolts, a length of chain, and two fasteners or clips of some kind to secure the tank to a wall.
Hose and other things - Home Depot, Lowes, or a similar home improvement store will be your best bet. Your CO2 lines, syrup feeds to the fountain, and soda water feeds need to be reinforced tubing able to withstand over 200 psi. Your operating pressures will be much less - maximum of 100 psi for the soda water, but a large safety margin is a good thing.
The entire system operates on pressure triggers; if the hose of the soda water line bursts because you used the wrong low pressure hose, the carbonator will continue to produce soda water as long as the CO2 lasts, and after that it will expel plain water. In other words, it will flood your home. Thus, it behooves you to use the right stuff for the job. Similarly, if the CO2 line bursts then your tank will expel its entire contents into your home. It won't be enough to be lethal in most average sized homes, but it sure is a waste of money and a hassle to get the tank refilled. If you happen to have a small apartment that is well sealed, it might be enough CO2 to cause death or injury.
As you can see in the picture above, this is what the reinforced hose
looks like. This hose is 1/4" ID, and is rated for
250 psi, well above the pressures we will be working with. Note that all
my hose measurements are in terms of ID, or "Inner-Diameter". It is
important to keep that straight, as most hose also offers its OD,
or "Outer-diameter" measurement. I bought this stuff for about
$0.36 per foot, which is fairly cheap.
There are plenty of other pieces and parts you may need, so I recommend you read the installation page before heading off to the store. If you are absolutely sure of what you are doing and maximize your trips to the store, you may be able to get away with only three trips rather than my seven.
Now that you have all the stuff, it's time to put this jig-saw together!
Nevermind, I want to go back to the Index