There is a science and an art to designing and setting up tubing systems. For every sugarmaker who swears by their methods and their setup, there are dozens who will say that they do some things differently and there’s simply no other way. But for all of the small adjustments, newly-developed fittings and research into different tubing sizes, there are some basics that every sugarmaker should know when considering making the leap from buckets to tubing.

First things first

A thorough survey of your sugarbush is the most important first step. The layout of your tubing system will depend upon where maples are most concentrated, which way the land slopes and what compass direction the slope faces. It is well worth using a level or an inclinometer, since it is often hard to tell by sight which way the land slopes, particularly on sites that are uneven. An ideal spot has a consistent grade toward a spot where the collection tank will sit – hopefully near a road, for ease of access with your collection vehicle – and faces south, where the sun will thaw out the trees and tubing early to get runs started. Drawing a map, indicating where trees are and how many taps you’ll set in each, will help determine where your mainline will be, along with how much of each type of tubing you’ll need.

Mainlines are the trunk of a tubing system, ending at the collection tank. They are usually ¾-inch (inside diameter) or larger. The ideal mainline setup is a steady, straight slope of between 2 and 5 degrees. To avoid sags, mainlines should be attached to a rigid wire. Depending upon the climate of your area, you may want black mainline, which warms faster and helps to thaw frozen sap, or lighter colored tubing to keep the sap inside from getting too hot, which can ultimately reduce the quality of your syrup.

Photo courtesy: Lurin/istock

Lateral lines are the branches, passing by each tapped tree and bringing sap to the mainline, and are usually 5/16-inch in diameter. Ideally they are no more than 150 feet long with no more than 10 to 15 taps on each, and run as straight as possible from the farthest tree on the line to the mainline. These lines should also be stretched tightly to avoid any sags, and should have a steady downward slope toward the mainline. They are attached to the mainline with special fittings, usually saddle fittings.

At the trees, each tap connects to a dropline which, in turn, connects to the lateral line. Droplines should be at least 30 inches long, and attach to lateral lines with a Tee fitting. Special tools are made that facilitate cutting the lateral line, inserting the fitting, and tightly connecting the dropline and lateral lines over the barbs of the fitting.

Routine maintenance necessary

Once installed, your system will require periodic inspections and maintenance. Adjustments may be required to eliminate sags, which allow sap to pool and spoil, and leaks, which reduce the efficacy of either natural or mechanical vacuum necessary to pull sap through the lines. Some sugarmakers clean their lines at the end or beginning of the season by running water or a mild acid solution through them.

Tubing and fittings from maple equipment dealers specifically for these purposes are all made of food-safe materials and will last many years. Trying to set up a tubing system with conventional hand tools or using parts not intended for sap collection will prove more frustrating and less functional, rendering moot any potential cost savings.

This description is intentionally basic, to give an overview for those considering setting up their first tubing system, and there are many other considerations to keep in mind. There are calculations that take into account the number of taps and distance between lines to help determine the proper size for mainlines, for instance, as well as guidelines for the number of taps per tree. This description also assumes a gravity system. Adding a vacuum pump will alter the setup significantly. For greater step-by-step details on tubing systems, refer to the “North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual,” or enlist the help of a local sugarmaker with experience in tubing systems. Your state maple producers association may also have educational resources.

Finally, get ready. You’re likely to have more sap and a longer season, since tubing systems keep tapholes open longer than buckets do. You’re going to have more time, now that you don’t have to gather sap from buckets at each tree anymore. And you’re going to have cleaner sap, since the closed system of a tubing setup keeps debris out. The additional labor and cost of setting up a tubing system more than pays for itself overall.

Cover photo: Murdo/istock