During the 2014 season, Richard Patterson spent countless hours in the sugarhouse, boiling down sap collected from the 86,000 trees on his Sabinsville, Pennsylvania, farm. The long hours and late nights led to a single realization: It was time to upgrade his evaporator.
“We did a lot of all-nighters to get all of that sap boiled,” recalled Patterson, the third-generation sugar maker at Patterson Maple Farms. The following season, Patterson traded his turbo evaporator for a master model, increasing production from 500 to 780 gallons per hour, leading Patterson to note, “Upgrading is the best investment we could have made.”
Whether a sugar maker is considering trading in a cast iron kettle suspended over an open flame for a basic evaporator that can handle sap from 50 taps or replacing an outdated 2×6 model for a 2×10 evaporator with high-tech features, upgrading requires careful thought and evaluation of options.
“Evaporators are just like vehicles: Once they get a lot of mileage on them, it’s time to start thinking about upgrading,” explained Ruth Goodrich of Goodrich’s Maple Farm. “But just like buying a car, there are a ton of options on the lot and it’s not a simple decision.”
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Assessing the need
The old evaporator on Goodrich’s Maple Farm had been in use since 1990 and started to show its age. Rather than push it another season, Goodrich purchased a turbo evaporator in 2013 – but choosing the right model for the farm proved challenging.
Although most sugar makers decide to upgrade their evaporators to increase syrup production or boost the efficiency in their operations, it’s often possible to make modifications to existing rigs to achieve the same goals.
Retrofitting an evaporator with an insulated air tight front for wood-fired arch, parallel flow sap preheater, reverse osmosis or steam away units can help speed up evaporation rate without a significant investment in new equipment, noted Goodrich, who sells and services sugar-making equipment and taps 45,000 trees in Cabot, Vermont.
The homemade evaporator Derek Patry used to boil sap on his Berlin, New Hampshire, farm was the perfect starter solution when he tapped his first trees in 2010. As his operation grew from 30 to 350 trees, boiling sap in buffet trays perched on cinderblocks was no longer sufficient to keep up with the flow or demand for Patry’s Sugarhouse syrup.
After his first season, Patry invested in a commercial 2×4 divided pan evaporator to increase production, noting, “We could get up to 10 or 15 gallons on a good night,” but most of the time the small evaporator still boiled just eight gallons per hour – and burned a ton of wood in the process. Patry upgraded again in 2016, purchasing a 2×6 drop flue evaporator. It wasn’t as efficient as the 2×6 induction models on the market but spending upward of $3,000 while the sugarhouse was still a fledgling operation was not in the budget.
To increase production, Patry got creative, cutting the back of the arch in half and extending it out 2 feet to add a 2×6 drop flue high-output pan. Increasing the surface area of the pan allowed him to achieve higher temperatures and increase the evaporation rate; he also fashioned the blower from a broken bouncy house into an air induction system for the firebox. He called the modifications “game changers,” explaining, “This season, I was boiling 45 to 55 gallons per hour and didn’t boil more than four hours at a time.”
With his current setup, Patry estimates he can handle up to 400 trees; additional taps would push the limit of the pan size but he believes adding a steam away hood could increase production without upgrading his evaporator. He’s willing to make additional modifications to extend the life of his existing evaporator. These kinds of creative solutions are often part of the conversation Goodrich has with producers looking to purchase new equipment. “We encourage people to improve the efficiency of their current equipment before going bigger because new equipment is expensive and it might not be necessary,” she explained.
Questions To Ask Before Investing In A New Evaporator
It’s tempting to surf the internet, flip through equipment catalogs or visit booths at trade shows and imagine how a new evaporator could transform production at your sugarhouse. Before making a major investment, ask these four questions:
Why do I want to upgrade my evaporator? Understanding what is — and isn’t — working with your current setup will help guide decisions about what you need in a new evaporator.
Could I make modifications to my existing evaporator to keep up with current sap flow? Making small, inexpensive changes is a more cost-effective alternative to upgrading to a new evaporator.
How will I cover the cost? Budget will likely be a major factor that affects whether an upgrade is possible. If there is a difference between the evaporator you can afford and the one you need to run the sugarhouse, look for ways to bridge the gap, including selling used equipment, purchasing a secondhand evaporator or financing the new purchase.
Where do I see myself in five years? Thinking about the future of the operation, which could include purchasing or leasing more land and tapping additional trees, will help forecast what your evaporator needs will be beyond the current season. An evaporator upgrade should be a long-term investment, not an impulse purchase during a booming season.
Choosing the right rig
Depending on the model, upgrading from a 2×6 evaporator to a 2×7 evaporator can increase production from 30 to 35 gallons per hour, according to an analysis by Penn State University Extension. For a small producer, boiling up to 200 additional gallons of sap during a 40-hour week is a significant bump in production that doesn’t require investing in a significant upgrade.
In evaluating options for upgrading, Patry knew a 2×6 drop flue evaporator offered more than enough capacity for his current operation and future expansions, which meant he could invest now and not have to upgrade again for the foreseeable future.
Operators with fewer taps and a lot of available labor but limited funds might favor smaller, less expensive evaporators but there is a risk of outgrowing a small evaporator too fast. For this reason, Penn State University Extension advised sugar makers to factor expansion plans into their decision, noting that those with aspirations to tap increasing number of trees and plans to remain in the business long term consider larger models, as the additional equipment costs will be recouped in labor savings over time.
Goodrich suggested attending trade shows and visiting showrooms to check out available options.
Calculating the costs
One of the biggest drawbacks to purchasing a new evaporator is cost. Although most manufacturers offer financing to allow sugar makers to spread out the cost of a new evaporator over time, it is still a significant investment.
Selling existing equipment can help offset the cost of an upgrade. Goodrich suggested talking to local dealers about consignment options or listing used evaporators on Craigslist or Maple Trader instead of letting them gather dust in the back of the sugar shack. Purchasing used equipment is also an option.
“Some people get evaporator fever and want to over-expand and overspend,” she said. “You need to listen to the reviews and get educated about whether buying a new evaporator is the right decision before taking out your credit card.”
The cost of upgrading is about more than just the price of a new evaporator. There is also a time investment.
Goodrich often fields inquiries from producers who are flooded with sap and working with evaporators that cannot keep up. She appreciates their enthusiasm for taking operations to the next level but explained, “Going from a 3×10 to a 4×12 might seem like a great idea but it can be very stressful to do such a big jump even for an experienced sugar maker.”
Patterson admits it took time to learn how to use the master evaporator he purchased in 2015. High-tech features such as automatic draws, gauges to monitor the evaporation process and self-cleaning functions ended up being significant time-savers – once Patterson learned how to use them. Though the evaporator represented a significant investment for Patterson Maple Farms, it helped decrease boiling time and labor costs. With the old model, Patterson Maple Farms needed up to five staff members to keep the fire burning and monitor the sap; one person can run the new evaporator. Fuel costs went down, too.
“We went from spending $30,000 per year on fuel to under $20,000. In four years, the new evaporator will completely pay for itself in fuel savings alone,” Patterson said. “We’ve upgraded our evaporators several times over the years and we’ve never regretted it.”
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