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Think of it this way, heat exchangers transfer (and thus, exchange) temperature from one fluid to another without these two fluids having to come into contact with each other. With heat exchanger espresso machines, brew water is pumped through a copper pipe that travels through the steam boiler and is heated. This water then circulates through the group head of the espresso machine and back down to the bottom of the heat exchange. This motion is known as a thermosyphon. While not every type of heat exchange operates precisely in this way, the basic concept is the same. Heat Exchange espresso machines heat water for your espresso by circulating water through a pipe that’s in the steam boiler. When you make espresso, the machine mixes cold water from the bottom of the exchange with hot water in the top of the exchange to create an approximate brew temperature for your coffee. Meanwhile, steam is pulled directly from the boiler; this enables you to brew espresso and steam milk simultaneously.
Pros and Cons of Heat Exchanger Espresso Machines
Simultaneous brewing and steaming: Heat exchanger machines allow for simultaneous brewing and steaming, and do so while maintaining the same brew temperature (+-5 degrees F). This means it’s great for most high-volume environments.
Compact design: Heat exchanger machines are usually more compact than multi-boiler machines, making them a good choice for smaller cafés or mobiles coffee shops where space is limited.
Cost-effective: Heat exchanger machines are generally more affordable than multi-boiler machines, making them a more cost-effective option for those on a budget.
Temperature stability: Heat exchanger machines can provide relatively stable brew temperatures, especially when equipped with temperature stability features such as PID controllers. These can yield consistent, high-quality espresso shots when using medium-to-dark roast coffee. Heat exchange espresso machines typically do best when they’re frequently used and may need to either warm up or cool down if they’re sitting for long periods of time.
Maintenance: Heat Exchanger espresso machines generally have lower maintenance costs over the life of the machine. This is due to the fact that there are fewer parts that can fail, the preventative maintenance on them are simpler than multi-boiler espresso machines, their parts are more common, and finally, because more people know how to work on them. Heat exchanger espresso machines are like the Toyota Camery of the espresso machine world. You could probably find an auto technician to work on a Camery. However, you might not have as much luck with the latest Lamborghini or Ferrari model. And you certainly wouldn’t expect the service cost to be less on those higher-end cars. The exception to this rule might be La Marzocco dual boiler machines as their design has minimally changed over the years and their vast market penetration has led to parts and technicians being widely available in spite of it being a higher-end machine.
Temperature stability: While heat exchanger espresso machines can provide relatively stable brew temperatures, they’re not as precise as dual boiler or multi-boiler machines. They have a temperature curve that decreases or increases during extraction. This can be a disadvantage for espresso aficionados who require absolutely precise temperature control for their preferred brewing parameters.
Heat management: Heat exchanger machines require a little management of temperature. Some brands will be too hot at rest and will need to be purged to cool down. Others are too cool at rest and need shots pulled to heat up. In either case, these machines need to be purged when resting for long periods of time. Overheating or underheating the machine can affect the quality of the espresso shots, so it's important to monitor and adjust the machine's heat levels as needed.
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