Build a Recirculating Wort Chiller

by Robert French Updated on December 5, 2011

One thing that bothers me about home brewing is the wasted water.  With all the cleaning, rinsing and chilling, there is a lot of wasted water.

In the past few months I have really tried capture as much of the water from the wort chiller as possible, and use it for final clean-up. However, after I fill about 5 large buckets of water, my storage capacity is full and the wort is only chilled to about 100 degrees.

Since my system is 100% gravity I have never really considered using a plate chiller. Without the aid of pumps, I don’t really think a plate chiller is the way to go.

Although gravity might work fine for chiller, cleaning and sanitizing the plate chiller with just gravity might be very difficult and time consuming.

I have tried placing a large coil of water hose in an ice bucket with the hopes of chilling the ground water, after a few attempts it did not prove to be very effective. So my next test was to use recirculating wort chiller.

A few of my friends have used this method (or a version of) with some success.  Not wanting to invest  a lot of money into a test project, I went to the local hardware store and purchased a cheap submersible garden pump for about $25.00. The pump is low flow/low PSI and the tubing just pushes on for easy set-up and cleaning.  I set the pump into a 5-gal bucket filled with water & ice, about 50/50.

Because the pump is not that powerful, I tried to make sure the bucket and brew kettle were close together and at the same height. I have now brewed 3 times using 3 variations method:

  • Method #1 I recirculated for 100% of the time and just added ice as the water in the bucket warmed up.  This worked a little better than the traditional wort chiller method. I had to buy a lot of ice to keep up. The only real benefit was that I was able to get the wort to about 70 degrees, but it still took almost an hour.
  • Method #2 I copied the first attempt with the exception of instead of recirculating 100% of the time; I now allowed that hot water to fill buckets for about the first 5 minutes and then began the recirculation. The method was a huge improvement and I was able to get down to 70 degrees in about 30 minutes and no water was wasted. The biggest negative was that I still had to buy ice.
  • Method #3 I copied the second attempt but instead of using store-bought ice exclusively, I now used ½ gallon milk cartons that I cleaned and froze to make giant ice cubes. This method worked good, but not as good as my second method. The giant ice cubes did not seem to get the water as cold.  I did save money on buying ice, but I also ran out of my ice blocks before the wort fully chilled.

As I get ready to brew my 4th batch using this new cooling method I plan to incorporate both method #2 and #3 in hope that I can save money and water, cut time off my brew day and chill my wort both quickly and to a yeast pitching temperature. So this is the plan;

  • Prepare to use 6 – ½ gallon container for ice.
  • Start chilling my ice bath about 20 minutes before
    I start the recirculation.
  • Let my wort chiller run about 5 to 7 minutes,
    just long enough to fill my empty buckets and allow the initial hot water off
    the chiller to dissipate.
  • Buy a few “extra” bags of ice just in case.

Since the pump I bought is only a 100-155 GPH I expect that I will upgrade to a slightly larger pump soon. This is allow me to get the water through the system a little faster and the pump will be a little more forgiving as to the location and elevation. Would you go this route compared with an immersion chiller?

Robert French: Native to Southern California, Robert brewed his first homebrew with a good friend back in 1995 and has been brewing ever since. One of the driving forces that keeps him homebrewing is the sharing of beers. He gets far more enjoyment from sharing one of his brews than from just having a pint at home.