Hands on Review: Blichmann Engineering Riptide Brewing Pump Upgrade Kit – Upgrade Your March or Chugger Pump

This review is by Homebrew Finds Reader Benji S.  Benji has been brewing for 10 years.  His favorite style is Festbier.  He’s an all grain brewer and member of WIZA (Whidbey Island Zymurgy Association).  Check him out on Instagram at neon_hop

Tell anyone that you spend hours cleaning as part of a hobby, and you’ll probably get a few odd looks. Unfortunately this is our reality as Homebrewers. Planning, prepping, cleaning, and waiting take up large percentages of any given batch. We often chase new ingredients, techniques, equipment, and short cuts in an effort to reduce the time we spend on these areas. Sometimes introducing new equipment into your process can make some parts of these tasks easier, while introducing new steps to others.

Pumps help move around lots of liquid in a short amount of time, reducing the need to lift heavy kettles or pots. They also introduce some additional planning needed for connecting vessels in a loop of hosing and cleaning after use. This has essentially been the summary experience I’ve had with my Chugger X-Dry [Hands on Review]. In the never ending quest for reducing the time and effort needed to use it, I looked at what changes I could make to my setup to make using it even simpler.

Blichmann Engineering is well known for high quality and well designed equipment targeted at Homebrewers. It should be no surprise then that their Riptide pump is a fairly feature packed model compared to others on the market. Particularly their TC clamp attached pump head with built in flow control and priming valve. In recognition of their audience, Blichmann also produces an upgrade kit that offers these same features to anyone with a Chugger or March pump.

Upgrading my Chugger X-Dry with their kit seems like a perfect way to take a good pump and make it even better, hopefully shaving some steps off of the prep and cleaning process in the meantime.

Criteria

My original criteria when looking for a pump were largely satisfied by the Chugger X-Dry, but there were a couple of criteria that were lacking, namely:

  • Head assembly should be fairly easy to take apart to aid in cleaning]
  • Flow control valve for use when sparging
  • Easy and intuitive to prime and get started

As the Riptide conversion kit is meant to solve many of these things, it made a natural candidate for trying out an upgrade to see if I could improve the usability experience. Additionally, my experience with the X-Dry suggested it was fairly easy to get into a state where it was cavitating. My hope was that the purge valve would help alleviate, or solve, this issue.


Get the Gear, Review Continues Below


Process

As I’d been using the out-of-the-box X-Dry setup previously, I had a couple of CIP runs on my conical and a brew day behind me. This gave a good baseline experience to compare against after upgrading the X-Dry with the Riptide head. To keep the comparison fairly equal, I did two complete brew days using the upgraded pump head and then two CIP cleanings from those brews. My results are aggregate from these runs, rather than based on any single experience (except for one time activities, like unboxing and assembly).

Results – Hands on Review

The Good: Things that I found were of good quality, value, performance, or experience. These are generally things that match or exceed expectations.

Well Packaged

Blichmann does a great job packaging the Riptide Conversion parts. Screws are individually bagged, and labeled, for the two pump styles the head is compatible with. All stainless parts are wrapped in heavy stock paper and cardboard to prevent scratches and dents. Best of all? No styrofoam!

TC clamp affixed head

The primary feature of the Riptide head is the ability to seal the head using a 3” TC clamp. This makes it quite easy to disassemble for cleaning or examination. Coming from using a screw attached head, it’s great to not have to worry about eventually stripping the screws each time I want to remove and then re-attach the head. The time savings is also firmly in the win column.

Purge valve

Most pumps available to homebrewers are not self-priming. The head needs to be flooded with liquid before the pump is activated, or you get cavitations (and no liquid movement). Most of the time this means working out some tricky angles to have liquid flow into the head space and air to come out. The Riptide head introduces a built in purge valve, greatly simplifying this process. This is fairly unique on the market (at least at the homebrew scale).

Flow valve

Homebrew pumps generally have two flow settings, on and off. This works just fine for doing things like CIP, which aren’t flow rate sensitive. For sparging, and in some cases transferring, you typically want to be able to have some control over flow rate. In most cases that means attaching a separate valve to either the intake or output ports. The Riptide head comes with this built in, reducing the extra hardware you need. The action of screwing it open or closed is really smooth and a clip on the end prevents unscrewing it to the point that the valve comes off. This is great to ensure that you don’t accidentally screw the valve off completely, resulting in liquid pouring out. This made reducing the flow rate for sparging really simple.

Metal Impeller Washer

The X-Dry comes standard with a plastic washer for the impeller shaft. The Riptide Upgrade Kit swaps this out for a metal one, which likely means less chance of wear and tear. It’s a small addition, but one that seems to be targeted towards ensuring the pump has a long life ahead of it.

The Bad: Things that I found were of poor quality, value, performance, or experience. These are generally things that don’t meet expectations or create problems with usage.

Rubber feet continuously pop off

The provided pump base comes with 4 rubber feet that attach to holes in the base itself. These are fairly hard to attach, and once you do any slight dragging of the pump easily pops them off. I had this happen continuously while I was using the pump and eventually just gave up on them entirely.

Attaching head base

In order to use the TC clamp for attaching the head, you need to screw the TC Adapter Bracket onto the pump itself. The upgrade kit comes with screws specifically for the March and Chugger pumps. However, attaching the gasket made a high pitched squealing sound on every turn of the screws once they were past half tightened. Looking at the back of the holes, small metal shavings could be seen coming out. This makes me think that attaching the Adapter Bracket has now stripped or permanently altered the screw holes on the pump itself. This likely isn’t a huge deal if you never need to remove the adapter bracket, but it didn’t make the experience of attaching it in the first place a great one.

Purge Valve & Open Body Pumps

While having the purge valve on the head makes priming much easier, some caution should be noted for doing this upgrade on open body pump designs. Once the head fills with liquid, it will stream out of the purge valve, especially if you pump is lower than your kettle. This comes a bit too close for comfort to the openings of the X-Dry body. Some caution needs to be taken when purging to try and limit liquid possibly getting into the pump itself.

Could by Improved: Minor things that I found could have been a better experience, were small quality issues, or reduced the perceived price to value of the equipment.

Instruction Booklet

I found a number of minor issues with the instruction manual that could easily be fixed. This one contrasted quite a bit with the X-Dry, which came with a great full color and well designed booklet.

  • The GFCI socket warnings mention the pump having a closed body; these were clearly copied from the regular Riptide instructions.
  • Instructions for attaching the TC adapter bracket mention using a flathead screwdriver, but the screws given and ones shown in the pictures are Phillips.
  • All images are in black & white in addition to being very dark. This made it fairly hard to tell what is actually being shown.

Base Attachment

The Riptide conversion kit comes with a base (not the same one pictured coming with the full Riptide) for the pump you’re upgrading. This lifts the pump high enough off the ground so that the head can be rotated into certain vertical alignments, while still providing enough room for hoses. The base attaches to the pump through 4 screws, unfortunately these need to be tightened in the small space between the base bottom and top. Given how narrow this gap was, it took a couple of false starts before I was able to use two wrenches to hold the nut at the right angle and tighten the screw.

Rubber Gasket

The Riptide head has a red rubber gasket that provides the internal liquid seal once the TC clamp is tightened. It fits into a groove in the metal of the head, but seems to be just loose or ill-fitting enough to constantly pop out. It’s a minor inconvenience, but one that can make attaching the head a bit more troublesome.

Impeller Material

The impeller material appears to be the same as the X-Dry, which seems to suggest it is resistant to seizing when run dry. However this is never actually stated anywhere I could find in Blichmann’s marketing materials or manuals. From some forum research it seems that Blichmann changed the material of their impeller at one point and that brown are the newer models which are more resistant to seizing. Not being able to find concrete information on this is definitely a bummer.

Conclusions

The Riptide Upgrade Kit brings some really solid features to Chugger and March pumps coming out of the box. Having the ability to purge air, control flow rate, and easily remove the head for cleaning have greatly simplified my use of the X-Dry. At $99, this is a likely a bit steep for these features if you already have added a flow control valve and are comfortable with your pump cleaning process. This also sits at an odd price point for those looking to buy new pumps, as you’d be much better off just purchasing a full Riptide package.

One data point I did not expect to find when investigating this route, is that nowhere does the Riptide mention it has any sort of run-dry protection like the X-Dry claims. I did come across some reports of seized impellers for the Riptide, but it was unclear if these were with the older impeller material Blichmann replaced. The fact that they don’t lean into the run dry marketing makes me wonder how good the protection is on the Riptide. In that sort of situation, the upgrade kit could be a better route to getting the Riptide features with a more beginner friendly pump in the X-Dry (albeit a much higher total cost; $160 for the X-Dry + $99 for the upgrade kit).

For those more experienced with the use of pumps, the upgrade kit at face value provides a solid set of features given that it brings many of the main draw features of the Riptide. The pump head is extremely durable and well made, including the valves. So if you have a cheaper March or Chugger pump, are comfortable without run-dry protection, and have been eyeing a Riptide, the Upgrade Kit provides a nice cheaper option of getting you there.

 

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Thank you to MoreBeer for providing the unit used for evaluation in this review.

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