Saturday, January 15, 2011

Kiln Maintenance Costs

I spent a few hours yesterday replacing elements on 2 kilns for a customer up in Wisconsin. This customer needs her elements replaced every 18  months or so because she fires a lot, and fires to cone 6. This got me thinking about kiln maintenance costs.

Before I get into this, I should mention that I do repair work on every brand of electric kiln, and have a business relationship with most kiln manufacturers. I only sell L&L kilns, but I buy parts from all the kiln makers.  In order to maintain a good relationship with these companies should they read this blog, I'm going to try not to say anything bad about any specific brand. If you would like a recommendation on a new kiln, feel free to contact me and I will be happy to assist you in choosing one. Or if you're thinking about buying a used kiln, I can help you decide if it's going to be worth the money. So here we go:

The purchase price of a new kiln doesn't vary much from brand to brand, for the same size kiln. A 23 inch wide, 27 inch tall kiln is approximately the same price whether it's a Skutt, Paragon, L&L, Evenheat, Amaco Excel or Blue Diamond. There is some variation in pricing, but only a couple hundred dollars. The main differences are in the features you get for that price, and the quality. But what most people don't realize is that there can be a huge difference in maintenance costs after you buy the kiln in regards to both parts and labor.

The cost of replacement parts should be a factor in choosing a new kiln. You will have to replace the elements, relays and thermocouples several times in the life of a kiln. New elements for the 23 inch kiln mentioned above can vary in price from $42 to $90 depending on the brand. That's a $288 difference for a full set of 6 elements! A production potter who needs new elements every year will spend an extra $2880 over ten years. That's the price of a new kiln! Prices on replacement bricks, thermocouples and relays can also vary widely.

Another big difference is in the amount of labor needed to replace those parts. Some examples:
  • Some kilns require putting a pin in every corner of the bricks to hold the elements in place. That doubles the amount of time it takes to put in elements compared to those that don't use pins.
  • Some kilns use crimp-on connectors to connect the elements to the feeder wires. These must be cut every time you change the elements, and the wires must be stripped and re-crimped. This takes longer than screw on connectors, and really causes a problem if you make a mistake in connecting all the wires, because they cannot be easily removed. 
  • Some brands are very difficult to change out parts in the control box, such as the relays. It all depends on how everything is laid out in the box, and how they are mounted.
  • Kilns that don't have a hinged control box are much more difficult to repair and require more time because it is harder to get access to the parts.
  • It takes much longer to replace bricks in kilns that have sections that are more than 2 bricks tall, because you have to remove more bricks to get to the broken ones.
Labor is a factor whether you're paying someone to do the work, or doing it yourself. You don't want to spend a fortune paying a repair guy like me to do the work, nor do you want to waste your own time.

All new kilns come with a warranty, but the length of the warranties vary. And most only cover parts, not labor. If you're buying your kiln from a local shop, ask if they offer a labor warranty. I offer a labor warranty to all my local customers where I will cover the labor to install all parts claimed on the warranty.

Finally, there is the durability factor. Some kilns are more durable than others, and therefore will require fewer replacement parts in the long run. This is mostly an issue with the bricks. Some brands have deep grooves for the elements that don't require pins, but the deep grooves tend to break out easier. Some brands just seem to have more durable bricks for some reason. Others use hard element holders that are nearly indestructible and make the bricks last nearly forever.

So there's a lot to think about beyond the purchase price of the kiln. Feel free to email me if you have any questions, or contact your local kiln repair guy for his opinion.

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