Maintaining Brewery Equipment: An Interview with Justin Farmer, Facilities and Maintenance Manager for Rhinegeist Brewery

    Automated valve bank at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati, Ohio.

    Justin Farmer has worked in food and beverage processing more than half his life. As a teenager, he learned from his father, who was a master electrician and an industrial maintenance manager and engineer. He started at the bottom, but quickly earned the experience and knowledge to work his way into a leadership role at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he is transforming the maintenance and reliability programs of the historic brewery.

    By Michelle Segrest

    Justin Farmer has seen maintenance and reliability from every angle. While working with his father in the maintenance department at a tortilla plant at the age of 16, Farmer had the opportunity to learn all about maintaining pumps, valves and transfer systems from senior mechanics.

    “They taught me the basics like motor replacement, gear replacement, and how to repair failed transfer systems,” the 35-year old Facilities and Maintenance Manager says. “There was a great deal of knowledge to be learned. I started at the bottom working in the water treatment pit. Most of my friends were out having fun, and I was working my tail off. But this was how I could spend time with my father.”

    Farmer spent the next 16 years working primarily in the bakery industry. After graduating from high school, he studied for three years at the Military College of Georgia in Dahlonega, GA, and then it was off to Arizona State to complete his electrical engineering degree. While there, he worked at Papa John’s Pizza as an industrial maintenance technician. “I was one of the few there who had a controls background, so they worked with my crazy school schedule for three years,” he says.

    While at Papa John’s, Farmer’s primary task was to build the maintenance department from the ground up. “I had a lot of leeway. I was able to decrease the downtime and set up some solid procedures. Then I went to Café Valley and spent two years building that maintenance department—contributing to improvements in inventory control, PM management, scheduling, automation, and capital projects. When we began to get efficient, the company went through a management change, so I went to Schwan’s pizza in Kentucky before I found Rhinegeist Brewery.”

    Facility and Maintenance Team

    At the turn of the 19th century, Over-the-Rhine, a historic neighbourhood in Cincinnati, was home to nearly 45,000 inhabitants—most of them of German descent—and 38 breweries. Leading this vibrant brewing scene was Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, the city’s largest brewery, which extended over three city blocks and produced more than 300,000 barrels (bbl) annually. While the company closed its doors in 1919 due to prohibition, its old bottling plant is now home to modern-day Rhinegeist Brewery.

    The facility holds about 30 fermenting vessels, eight bright tanks (where beer is stored before it is processed), and a small JV deck (which is like a micro-brewery). The main brew house runs 60-barrel batches. Farmer makes the most of his six-member maintenance team, which includes an inventory/parts/CMMS specialist (who handles PM planning, inventory management), a fabrication technician, one universal technician, an experienced pump and boiler specialist, and Farmer.

    The building is old, which presents many maintenance challenges, however most of the processing equipment is less than two decades old. The oldest equipment includes some processing tanks, a kettle and whirlpool that are 20 years old. The company invests in stainless steel piping, which is ideal for beverage processing because it doesn’t expand and contract, creates less wear on joints, has fewer leaks and doesn’t stress as easily.

    Farmer and his team are responsible for maintaining the brewery’s numerous types of valves and pumps, as well as hose lines and connectors.

    “We have all different kinds of butterfly and ball valves throughout the facility,” he says. “Many are still manual, so we just installed a completely new raceway of transfer piping—all with pneumatic modulating valves which are controlled by a central CPU. We use modulating valves on the batching system as well, for mixing and processing the beer. We have a few slide gate valves that are also pneumatic, and are used to drop in the grain when switching from different silos.”

    High-purity hoses, including braided nylon and thick-walled washdown hoses, and stainless steel flange fittings make up the brewery’s hose lines, the care of which also falls to Farmer’s team. Some are made in-house from the brewery’s internal inventory, but most are prefabricated by a local supplier. “For our larger transfers,” says Farmer, “hoses are prefabricated, meaning they are molded and crimp pressed at the ends so they don’t come loose when we are transferring beer between tanks. All of our hoses are sanitary hoses, standard food and beverage, and are used in all kinds of transfer systems for food grade materials.”

    The facility also has hose pumps for chemical dosing in the CIP loops, centrifugal pumps for transferring the beer from tank to tank, CIP recirculation pumps, load pumps to transfer in our cider-based entities like apples for brewing different flavored beers. There are progressive cavity pumps used to transfer spent grain, pneumatic diaphragm pumps used for transfers, and metering pumps for chemicals.

    Maintenance and Repair for Valves, Pumps and Hoses

    In terms of valves, says Farmer, the most challenging aspect of maintenance is there is no way to see the wear until it fails. “All of a sudden, it just doesn’t actuate. Then we must drop it off and use a replacement valve. Sometimes it’s a control issue since everything is moving over to centralized controlled CPUs. It’s difficult to find maintenance technicians with controls experience, even when it comes to basic troubleshooting.”

    When trying to diagnose a pump, the team monitors pressures with gauges on the inlet and outlet and collects daily readings. “We can put this data into a graph and identify trend lines that show fluctuations,” he says. “Pressures may decrease, which means the impeller is starting to wear or a mechanical seal is starting to fail. We plan to put these monitors on more of the pumps, so we can monitor them on a more regular basis to predict failure rather than react to failure.”

    The team performs visual inspections on hoses and connectors, and rely heavily on brewery operators to alert them to possible failures in the line. “They work with them on a day-to-day basis,” explains Farmer. “If something doesn’t look right or feel right, they bring it to our attention and we perform an inspection as soon as possible. We aim to respond within a couple of hours; we want to make sure they are going to have the tools they need to do the job to prevent any disruptions in the process.”

    Preventive maintenance has become the name of the game at Rhinegeist Brewery. Farmer’s team ensures there are functional pressure and flow switches in place. “We are starting to implement new systems that have flow sensors that help to ensure that the pump will not run dry. This is a nice safety net. Amperage alarms on the drives will throw an alarm. If the top drive motor starts to fail or have heavy binding, it will alert us as to an amperage fault or an over current.”

    Farmer also believes in the advantages of having a solid CMMS system. “We must manage our critical spare parts inventory carefully,” he says. “If you don’t have the right parts, you will experience extreme downtime, especially since most of our parts come from Europe with long lead times. This puts you at the mercy of having to hold a lot more parts in stock. We went through an asset identification process and now we are writing work orders within the system. Anything we may have to work on is now labeled with an asset number. We are starting to input standardized PMs. This will be a growing and constantly evolving entity because we’ve identified the PMs from the manufacturer, but we’ll add in other things we identify on a daily basis. We are trying to switch from being firefighters to having a preventive maintenance mindset.”

    “As our inventory grows,” he continues, “we’re going to lean further away from having to purchase products on an emergency basis and have more in stock to meet our demands.” Of course, finding storage space for a large in-house inventory can be a challenge, limiting the team to only a few of the larger items they might need for its critical systems. “Some of the larger industrial hoses, we can only keep a small inventory, maybe two or three, because there is only so much room in the brew deck.”

    Image courtesy of Rhinegeist Brewery. 

    To read the full interview with Justin Farmer, including advice to young technicians on key focus areas when it comes to maintaining valves, pumps and hose lines, please contact the Editor.