Are you excited to start kegging your homebrew instead of washing bottles every time you brew? A kegging system can save you time and it's great for impressing family and friends, but it can be a little more complex than using low-tech bottles. Here are a few details you'll have to check to get your system working perfectly.
Checking for Leaks
As soon as you keg your first beer, you'll want to check the whole setup for CO2 leaks. Even the tiniest leak will quickly drain your CO2 tank within a day or two. Bigger leaks could empty the tank in a matter of hours. Once the beer is in the keg and all the hoses are connected, turn the regulator dial to about 20 psi. The higher pressure will help seal the lid tightly and you should quickly be able to identify if there are any large leaks around the keg.
After about 10 seconds, listen for hissing coming from around the lid or the keg posts. If the lid is leaking CO2, turn down the regulator, release the pressure in the keg by lifting the ring on the lid, and try to open and close the lid to reset its position. Sometimes it helps to rotate the lid 180° to get a good fit. Turn the pressure back up and check for hissing again.
If you're still having trouble getting a good fit, or if you have hissing coming from the posts where the hoses are connected, try spreading some food grade keg lubricant on the rubber gaskets. A little bit of this jelly-like stuff goes a long way in sealing stubborn gaskets.
Once you take care of the major leaks, it's time to check all the hoses and the regulator for smaller problems. I go through this process every other month or so, just to make sure I'm not wasting any CO2. Start by setting your regulator to whatever pressure you will be carbonating at, which is usually about 10 psi. Mix liquid dish soap and water in a spray bottle, and spray a light mist of soapy solution onto every joint and connection in your setup, including the sealed keg lid. Any little leak will slowly start to "blow bubbles" through the soap solution.
If you find a little leak, they're pretty easy to fix. Most of the time tightening a clamp will do the trick. If there's an issue at a threaded connection on the regulator, use a crescent wrench to unscrew the offending piece, clean off the threads and apply a few wraps of Teflon tape. Reassembled threaded connections should be tightened firmly, but don't apply too much pressure on the wrench. The Teflon tape and the CO2 pressure will create a better seal than you could get by overtightening any of the threads.
From time to time, you might notice that the gaskets get small tears in them or they might get beat up a bit. Also, newly acquired kegs sometimes come with gaskets that should have been retired long ago. Each time you plan on filling a keg, you should check the gaskets to make sure they're clean and damage free. If they're not, replacing keg gaskets is an easy and inexpensive job which only requires a small amount of mechanical skill.
Your local (or online) homebrew shop should carry a gasket rebuild kit for $2 to $3. I typically keep a couple of these kits on hand in the event of a gasket emergency. Of the 5 rubber seals included, the largest sized gasket is for the keg lid which will need replacing less than once a year. The two medium sized rings are for the outside of the keg posts, and seem to be the most often damaged. The two small sized gaskets are for the inside of the keg posts around the two dip tubes, and I replace these about every 4 to 6 keg refills to be safe.
Changing the large gasket is simple. Simply pull it off and put a new one on. The medium sized ones are almost as easy, but you may need a small pliers or tweezers to grab it off the post.
In order to replace the smallest gasket around the two dip tubes, you will have to unscrew the posts using either a crescent wrench or a 7/8 deep socket. Inside the post you'll find a spring assembly (called a poppet) and the dip tubes. There's a short dip tube on the input side, and a long tube on the output side. Pull out the tube, take off the old gasket, replace it with the new gasket, and reassemble the same way you took it apart. The posts should be tightened firmly, but it's not necessary to put a lot of pressure on them.
Dress to Impress
Those plastic picnic taps that come with a standard kegging system are cool for about 10 minutes before you start dreaming of your own in-house bar.
I'm not going to go into detail about creating the ultimate beer serving system (you can do a Google image search for "homebrew kegerator" or "homebrew keezer" for ideas), but switching those frat-party plastic taps with bar quality faucets is a pretty simple process. The first thing you'll need for an upgrade is a faucet—these come in all shapes and price ranges. Faucets connect to a shank, and the shank connects to a tailpiece, connecting directly to the output hose of a homebrew keg.
The only tool required to assemble this setup is an inexpensive specialty wrench used to connect the faucet to the shank. All other pieces of the faucet are hand tightened, and the rubber seals are designed to last years before needing replacement.
Every three or four keg fills, I completely disassemble my faucets and soak them in hot water to clean off any old, sticky beer. This regular maintenance keeps the homebrew tasting as fresh as possible.
So what are you waiting for? Getting a keg system is one of the most fun upgrades you can make to your homebrew setup. There's a small learning curve but it will save you time in the long run, and it really improves your presentation. We'll keep posting kegging tips and techniques from time to time to help you along the way.