For the ultimate homebrew experience, the ne plus ultra of beer, you need a draft system. I wanted to build two taps into the bar in my home, but after much head-scratching, I concluded that it couldn’t be done in the space I had to work with. The next-best thing is a kegerator, a mini refrigerator with a draft tower on the top.
Ideally, I wanted a design with two 5-gallon Cornelius kegs, two faucets on the draft tower, and all the plumbing (including CO2 bottle) inside. Such a design would be nice addition to my bar. I was able to acieve it quite nicely.
- Must be able to run the plumbing through the top. That will be very awkward for any design that has a freezer compartment at the top, as most do.
- Must be able to accomodate the height of a 5-gallon Cornelius keg, with room for the plumbing.
- Must be able to accomodate the footprint of two Corny kegs, side-by-side.
- Ideally, must be able to accomodate a 5-lb (at least) CO2 bottle and regulator as well.
I needed to test how well the components would fit inside the various fridges I was looking at. Rather than carry around two kegs, I made a cardboard template of the footprint of two side-by-side kegs (looks like an infinity sign), and cut a piece of wire represent the height of a keg. These were easy to use at the shops to test the fit.
I looked at many mini bar fridges from various manufacturers, and settled on a Danby DAR452BL. It has these benefits:
- There is no freezer compartment at all. The evaporator of the cooling system (ie, the part that gets cold) is a flat panel at the rear of the fridge compartment.
- Plenty of height to accomodate the kegs and plumbing.
- Room enough for two kegs, if the fancy door lining (with all the shelves and stuff) is removed.
- Room enough for a 10lb CO2 bottle, sitting at the back on top of the rectangular intrusion that houses the compressor.
- Very elegant appearance, the condenser (ie, the part at the back of a fridge that gets warm) was somehow hidden away (details later), so the fridge looked pretty good even from the back.
- The top of the fridge features a plastic trim piece that looks very elegant, and has a slight concavity which can contain regrettable spills of precious, precious beer.
This part is pretty straightforward: just buy one. Lots of vendors on the Internet sell them. I got a chrome two-faucet tower through Paddock Wood. It was actually shipped from the manufacturer, Canadian Beverage Supply, in Mississauga, just down the road from me. Maybe it’s possible to order from them directly, but they don’t seem to have any web presence. The tower is lined with insulating foam, useful if you want to blow cold air into it to keep the beer lines cool all the way to the faucet.
A drip tray is fairly essential, if you want to keep the kegerator looking nice in use. There are again lots of Internet vendors, but they’re all bloody expensive for what you’re getting. I discovered that Danby themselves make a kegerator (more on this later), and it comes with a drip tray. I ordered the drip tray alone from a Danby parts distributor, Reliable Parts (“The House Of A Million Parts”) and got it relatively cheaply. Note that the tray comes as two pieces (the bottom tray, plus the top grill that fits into it), which have to be ordered separately. I didn’t know that, and had to make an extra trip to Toronto because of it.
The part numbers are 445.03 (“DRIP TRAY, DBY”) and 445.02 (“DRIP TRAY, GRILL, DBY”).
The draft tower I purchased comes with fairly long beer lines with a 3/16″ID, which provides enough restriction for a fairly well-balanced draft system. But the lines were terminated with professional “beer nut” style fittings, which won’t connect to a Cornelius keg. I ordered (from Paddock Wood as usual) a pair of ball-lock (ie, Pepsi-style) to MFL (male flare) quick-connects. As usual, I gravitate toward flare fittings instead of hose-barbs, for ease of disassembly.
I cut off the “beer nut” fittings from the end of the lines, and installed a copper tubing flare and flare nut. TODO: write a page on flare fittings.
Again I used ball-lock to MFL (male flare) quick-connects from Paddock Wood to connect to the kegs. The regulated CO2 pressure needs to supply two kegs. I wanted to be able to swap one keg, or run with only one keg if I run out of the other beer. The quick connects have a built-in shut-off feature when they are disconnected, but I don’t trust it not to leak slowly, so I wanted valves to shut off the CO2 supply to either or both kegs.
I assembled a distribution manifold out of pipe fittings from the local hardware store. I used rather expensive “steam cocks” to shut off the CO2 flow. I also used quick tubing connects (used extensively in the automation industry with compressed air) to connect the CO2 tubing to the manifold, for easy dissassembly. I just happened to find these at the hardware store, so I used them.
Preparing the Fridge
Because of the need to drill holes, I thought it might be prudent to contact Danby first, to confirm that no important plumbing would be in my way. The droid I got on the phone was uncooperative. All I got out of her was the standard schpiel about voiding the warranty, we can’t be held responsible, blah blah blah. Whatever. I’m doing it anyway.
The fridge comes with a parts list in the manual, which includes an illustration that shows tubing coils in the side walls of the fridge. This explains the mystery of where the condenser is, since it isn’t on the back of the fridge like they used to be back in the day. There’s a condenser coil inside each side wall. The sides of the fridge do in fact get warm when it’s in operation. So, there it is: do NOT drill holes in the side walls of this fridge! I wonder what catatastophe it is that Danby believes they averted by not telling me about that when I phoned them?
Get to Work
The door will need to be modified to remove the shelving. As I recall, it’s just a couple screws on the bottom holding the door hinge on. Remove the hinge, and the door will come off easily. This, incidentally, is also how you would switch the door to open from the other side if you wanted.
The plastic molding on the top can be removed by some screws at the back of the fridge, and under the overhang at the front. There’s a metal bracket under it that can also be removed, I don’t remember whether that was necessary or not.
Layout the Hole
I took some measurements on the outside of the fridge, and the inside of the fridge, and produced a template that showed a kind of X-ray view from the top of the fridge, and 1:1 scale. The lighting fixture on the top inside of the fridge must also be on there. There is enough space behind the lighting fixture and in front of the evaporator for the large hole required to mount the draft tower. This puts the tower rather towards the back of the fridge, but it looks very nice there, and leaves space in front for the drip tray.
I used the chrome cap of the draft tower to outline the hole. The hole needs to be big enough to allow cold air to circulate inside the tower (keeping the beer lines cold), but small enough to leave a good margin for the tower mounting screws.
I attached the template to the top of the fridge with tape, so that the features depicted lined up.
Cutting the Hole
There are three layers we have to cut through: the outer sheet-metal, some foam insulation, and the inner plastic lining. The metal is the hard one. I used a “nibbling” tool to cut the large circular opening in the sheet metal. Nibbling tools are great for cutting irregular or large shapes in sheet metal or other thin materials. They work by using a hook-like hardened metal punch and anvil, taking a small bite out of the material with each squeeze of the handles. I bought it many years ago at Radio Shack. With their slow, steady transformation from a hobbyist shop into a cheap consumer-goods shop, I don’t know if they still carry it.
To start the tool, drill a 1/4″ hole near the boundary of the hole, on the inside. Then poke the jaw of the nibbling tool into the hole, and start nibbling. Wear gloves, or you will get a blister. Nibble, nibble, nibble… it takes a while. It won’t seem as long if you have a homebrew.
Actually, at this point I discovered that the paper template actually was getting in my way. Preparing it was a useful exercise in getting to know my way around the fridge (the rear wall is thicker than you may think), so it’s still in these instructions. I scribed the circle outline into the paint with a nail instead.
While you’re nibbling, you’ll notice that the space under the metal is entirely filled with foam insulation. It’s fairly soft, the nibbling tool can just push it out of the way.
After a couple beers, you’ll have a nice hole. When you finish cutting out the circle, pry off the metal disc (it will be stuck to the foam insulation. Then use a knife to carve out the insulation. It’s about an inch thick. Carve it all away, until you reach the plastic lining.
To continue the hole through the plastic lining, I just did something quick and dirty: I used a saw drill in my hand drill, using the existing hole as a guide. A saw drill is like a regular 1/4″ drill bit, but it can cut sideways. It’s a very blunt instrument. The result is rough, but servicable.
Here’s how it looks from the inside of the fridge. Pretty ugly, but nobody will ever see it. That’s the evaporator on the top of the picture, and the light fixture on the bottom. Notice how we conveniently avoided damaging the thermostat capillary tube (the thermostat is also mounted in the light fixture.)
It is generally important to protect the insulation from condensation using a vapour barrier of some sort. Insulation loses it effectiveness if it gets wet. I improvised a vapour barrier here with some plastic sheet and packing tape.
The same hole must also be cut in the plastic trim we removed earlier. I replaced the trim on the fridge. Reaching through from the inside of the fridge, I used the existing hole as a guide to scribe the circle on the trim piece. This is a bit tricky, because the trim does not actually sit flat on the top of the fridge cabinet, there’s about a 1/2″ space that is normally occupied by a piece of styrofoam. I didn’t transfer the line very accurately, so when I cut it out, it didn’t come out quite right. Fortunately, it all gets covered up by the draft tower’s mounting flange anyway. The plastic trim was too thick for the nibbling tool, so I used a spiral bit in my Dremel.
At this point, I test-fit the tower to see how it looks. Pretty sharp! But we’re not done yet.
As I mentioned before, there is a piece of styrofoam filling an approximately 3/8″ gap between the sheet metal top and the plastic trim piece. The draft tower will have to be screwed into something solid, clearly styrofoam won’t work. And if the screws bite into the sheet metal, they’ll compress the foam when tightened, bending the trim piece. I decided to replace the 3/8″ foam with something more substantial: 3/8″ plywood. We’re going to have cut that damn hole one more time! I found a suitable scrap piece that would fit nicely into the underside of the trim piece. Marked out the circle on it, and cut it out with a jig-saw.
It is not yet time to install the tower mounting screws, however. There is still the small matter of the door.
Modifying the Door
The fridge door has shelving built into it which takes up too much space inside the fridge compartment. We can fit even a single keg in there with the shelves. If you pull aside the rubber gasket on the fridge door, you will find screws holding the plastic panel in. Remove them all (there are quite a few). Inside the door is more foam insulation, which will require a new vapour barrier. And, with the the lining removed, the door is very flimsy, it needs to be stiffened up. I did both jobs by replacing the original shelf lining with a sheet of thick plastic.
The best would be Plexiglass (“Perspex” for you Brits), about 3/16″ thick. But that’s expensive. A much cheaper alternative, available at Home Depot, is the light diffuser sheets used for commercial fluorescent light fixtures. They’re dirt cheap. Just find one that reasonably smooth on one side. In hindsight, if you can spare the change, get the Plexiglass. The light diffuser panel is made of an astonishingly brittle plastic, I had a lot of trouble drilling holes in it without shattering.
Carefully remove the rubber gasket from the original door lining. Using the lining as a template, cut the Plexiglass to size. The score-and-snap method is easiest. Then, again using the original lining as a template, mark out all the mounting holes on the new lining. Drill them all out. Test fit on the door.
Carefully install the gasket on the new lining. Install on the door, and replace all the screws. The door should now be much more rigid.
Reinstall the door on the fridge now. There should now be lots of room inside for two beer kegs.
With the original door lining removed, there is nothing to press the light switch when you close the door, so the light will stay on all the time. The easiest way to solve this is to just remove the light bulb from the fixture. You won’t have to look inside the fridge very often anyway.
Installing the Draft Tower
We’re almost there now. Reinstall the plastic trim on the top, including the new plywood spacer. Test-fit the draft tower. Mark through the mounting flange holes. Pilot drill the holes through the plywood. I also piloted (with a slightly smaller bit) into the sheet metal top of the fridge. Install the rubber gasket that came with the draft tower, and install the mounting screws.
Looks pretty good! But there’s something missing…
The draft tower came without any handles. You can buy them, or you can make them. I made a pair of handles out of red oak on the lathe. Turned by hand, I somehow managed to make two almost identical handles. I tapped the standard tap-handle thread (8-32 NC, I think. TODO) in the bottom. Sanded with fine grit paper, rubbed in a little teak oil, and screwed them on. Sharp!
When I was nearly finished this project, I discovered (at Home Depot, surprise surprise) that Danby actually makes their own kegerator, the DKC445. Their’s is designed to handle a single brewery keg. I took a close look at it, and found that it’s almost identical to my own. They started with the same base model, and made basically the same modifications to it. They have the CO2 tank outside the fridge on a shelf on the back. They added a nice little railing around the edge of the top. I think mine is better, for homebrewers. It holds two Cornelius kegs, and all the plumbing is inside. And, to top it off, I think mine is cheaper. Danby’s model was around CDN$800, I think. My cost was probably closer to $500, including the draft tower.