Owning a kiln is a little bit like owning a car. With mindful operation and a little bit of routine maintenance, your kiln should last for decades! Proper kiln maintenance ensures your kiln remains safe and operational during that time.
The good news is that kiln maintenance is much simpler (and less expensive!) than maintaining your car. While a car has a gazillion different parts that will eventually need to be replaced, kilns have far fewer points of potential failure. And while it can be a good idea to occasionally enlist the help of an electrician or a kiln engineer (especially during installation), most kiln operators will be able to perform regular kiln maintenance by themselves!
Better yet, today’s programmable digital kiln controllers like TAP Controllers by SDS Industries include advanced diagnostics features and preventative maintenance alerts, so that you know when it’s time to replace kiln elements, thermocouples, and relays. That way, you’re able to maintain optimal performance without having to worry about your kiln conking out on you mid-project!
Routine Maintenance: Component Replacement
Just like with cars, there are certain kiln components that will wear down over time and will need to be replaced on a regular basis, so we’ll start with those first. These components include:
- Thermocouples: Thermocouples – the probe that measures the temperature of your kiln – are regularly subjected to high temperatures. Over time, thermocouples become corroded and start crumbling at the tip and will no longer be able to accurately record temperature. You’ll need to replace your thermocouples on a regular basis – typically every 30 to 50 firings for Type K thermocouples.
- Kiln Elements: Elements are the metal coils that line the inside of your kiln and heat up when they receive electric current. Over time, kiln elements become corroded and their resistance increases – meaning that they begin to become less efficient and require more electric current to heat your kiln. The lifespan of kiln elements can range anywhere from 1 to 5 years. Their lifespan depends largely on the type of kiln you’re using, the temperatures you regularly fire to, as well as firing frequency and duration.
- Mechanical Kiln Relays: Kiln relays regulate the power to the elements of your kiln, allowing them to heat up or cool down. Mechanical relays, which come standard on most kilns, are subject to failure after around 200,000 cycles and will need to be replaced every 12-24 months. Alternatively, investing in mercury or solid-state relays can reduce kiln maintenance costs, since those relays last much, much longer. Mercury relays last around 5 million cycles and will only need to be replaced every 15-20 years. Finally, solid-state relays don’t have any moving parts and can last over 1000 years (TAP Kiln Controllers are compatible with all three relay types!).
Replacing these components is an inevitable part of kiln maintenance. TAP Kiln Controllers calculate health and life expectancy for each of these components based on user defined thresholds, letting you know when it’s time to replace each component to maintain optimal kiln performance.
Other kiln components that may require replacement include kiln bricks, kiln lids, electrical wires, and kiln controllers. However, there are steps you can take to monitor and prolong the lifespan for all of these components:
- For kiln bricks, be careful when moving your kiln or when placing or removing objects from your kiln. Regularly visually inspect the interior of your kiln. Kiln bricks will need to be replaced when they’re no longer able to properly support kiln elements or when significant chunks of kiln bricks are missing affecting the thermal efficiency of your kiln.
- For kiln lids, be mindful when opening and closing your kiln to prevent denting or damaging the lid. Do not lean on your kiln or use it as a shelf for storing objects.
- Regularly inspect electrical wires for discoloration, brittleness, or corrosion. Immediately replace these components if necessary.
- For kiln controllers, make sure they are properly installed and regularly keep the screen clean and free of debris. We’ll be going more in-depth on how to care for your TAP Controller further below!
TAP Kiln Controllers give users a detailed error log that helps them identify component failure. For a breakdown of error messages and troubleshooting steps, check out p. 12 of the TAP II Controller User Manual.
Kiln Maintenance: Installation
Ben Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is definitely true when it comes to kiln maintenance. Proper installation will prevent a ton of potential problems later down the road. Below are a few principles for kiln installation that will prolong the life of your kiln:
- Select a space with adequate clearance and proper surfaces. Heat is a common cause of kiln component failure (or worse!). When installing your kiln, make sure your kiln has at at least 18” of clearance from non-combustible surfaces and 36” from combustible surfaces. Make sure the kiln is installed on a level surface that’s non-combustible and able to withstand high temperatures.
- Install your kiln in a dry area. Water and electricity don’t mix! Installing your kiln in a dry area prevents shorts and surges and protects your kiln from corrosion, which will significantly reduce the life of your at home kiln components.
- Follow manufacturer guidelines for installation. When you purchase your kiln, you should receive manufacturer guidelines for installation and kiln safety. Make sure to adhere to these closely when installing your kiln. If you purchase a used kiln, contact the manufacturer for installation guidelines.
- Get any electric work done by a qualified electrician. At home kilns, especially larger ones, utilize a lot of electricity, so it’s important to make sure that you use a dedicated circuit with a properly rated power outlet and never use an extension cord. Enlisting the help of a certified electrician during installation helps reduce the likelihood of kiln maintenance problems down the road.
- Make sure thermocouples are properly installed. Thermocouples help your automatic kiln controller precisely regulate the temperature of your kiln. However, thermocouples will only give you accurate temperature readings if they’re properly installed! Thermocouples should be inserted an inch or two into the interior or your kiln and should have at least 1″ clearance from any shelves, components, or any materials you place inside your kiln.
- For DIY kiln builds, make sure relays are properly installed. Kiln relays ensure the safety of your kiln by cutting power to the elements if the kiln gets too hot. For DIY kiln or oven builds, it’s important to choose the right type of relay; for instance, solid-state and mercury relays will have far more longevity and reliability than mechanical relays. But it’s even more important to make sure that relays are properly rated and installed and that you utilize a safety relay to add redundancy in case one relay fails.
- Don’t store your kiln outside. Since indoor kiln installation for ceramics and glazing requires proper ventilation, it might be tempting to keep your kiln outside. We strongly, strongly advise against that. Exposure to the elements will reduce the lifespan of your kiln and all of its components.
Kiln Maintenance Tips Before, During, and After Firing
While proper installation and regularly replacing necessary components can prevent a host of kiln maintenance issues down the line, there are also steps you can take before, during, and after firing to prolong the life of your kiln. Below is a list of tips for kiln care and maintenance!
- Regularly clean your kiln. Debris, dust, and glazes in the interior of your kiln can reduce element efficiency, ultimately reducing their lifespan. Carefully dusting around the element grooves and regularly vacuuming your kiln’s interior helps prevent this. Just be careful not to damage the elements or the surrounding brick! If melted glaze gets on your kiln brick, make sure to gently scrape it off to avoid it absorbing into the kiln brick. You can also use kiln wash to minimize potential damage from dripping glaze (just make sure not to get it on the kiln’s elements!). Additionally, you should only clean your kiln when it is powered off to avoid causing electrostatic discharge if you accidentally hit the thermocouple and other mishaps.
- Keep your lid closed between firings. Leaving your kiln’s lid open leaves it susceptible to dust, debris, or wildlife getting in (yikes!). Make sure to keep your lid closed when you’re not using the kiln.
- Do not lean on your kiln. Leaning on your kiln can cause dents or stress fractures, reducing its efficiency.
- Don’t use your kiln for storage. Storing items in your kiln can easily damage the bricks or elements of your kiln.
- Be careful opening and closing your kiln. Be gentle opening and closing the lid of your kiln to avoid damaging the lid or the top-edge of your kiln.
- Don’t open the kiln for prolonged periods when it’s still hot. While it may be necessary to occasionally open your kiln to monitor the status of your work during firing, prolonged exposure to abrupt changes in temperature can cause cracks and fractures in your kiln brick.
- Regularly inspect kiln elements. Regularly visually inspect your kiln’s elements for debris buildup or corrosion. Occasionally, kiln elements may become dislodged from the grooves in the brickwork and may need to be repositioned. Additionally, you can use a multimeter to test their resistance. Once they exceed 10% of the recommended resistance in your kiln’s user manual, it’s time for them to be replaced.
- Invest in a safety relay controller. The biggest threat to your kiln’s lifespan (as well as your safety and the welfare of your household and personal property) is too much temperature. Occasionally relays fail. If they fail in the open position, your kiln will keep heating up indefinitely. This is no bueno! Investing in a redundant safety relay controller like the TAP Monitor ensures that your kiln safely shuts off in case of relay failure.
Caring for Your TAP Controller
TAP Kiln Controllers are carefully manufactured from high-quality components and backed by an industry leading 3-year warranty. However, like any advanced electronic device, they are subject to failure, wear and tear, and their lifespan can be prolonged by proper care. Below are tips for caring for your TAP Controller:
- Make sure your controller is properly installed. You can find tips for kiln controller installation for DIY builds here, but if you have any questions we encourage you to contact us.
- Regularly clean your screen to keep it free from any dust or debris.
- Avoid wearing jewelry or watch while using your TAP Controller, as these can result in scratches on the screen.
- Again, we cannot stress this enough, do not store your kiln or your controller outdoors.
- Regularly review diagnostic errors so that you can spot and troubleshoot potential errors with controller output.
- Make sure your controller is updated to the latest software. If you’re connected to WiFi, updates will be downloaded automatically and you will be notified via pop-up. Simply follow the on-screen instructions. But you can find instructions for manually updating kiln controller software for your TAP Controller here.
Additionally, SDS Industries is always working to improve our kiln controllers and provide users with new features that improve their kiln firing experience. We’re currently working on an automated device monitoring software for TAP Controllers that monitors device performance and health. By monitoring various controller metrics, the software will be able to detect potential controller degradation so that we can be proactive and inform you if your controller needs repairs.
Tips for Cleaning Your TAP Controller
TAP Kiln Controllers use a resistive touchscreen for user inputs. As mentioned earlier, to maintain optimal performance, you should regularly clean your TAP Controller to ensure it’s free of dust, debris, smudges, and fingerprints. Below are a couple dos and don’ts for cleaning your TAP Controller:
- Before cleaning the display, use a dry, lint-free microfiber cloth to gently wipe away any dust from the touchscreen.
- Use distilled water to dampen the microfiber cloth to gently clean the touchscreen display.
- Do not use the following cleaning agents: tap water, ammonia, acetone, ethyl alcohol, methyl chloride, or ethyl acid, as these can cause damage to your screen.
Explore Programmable Digital Kiln Controllers by SDS Industries
The TAP and TAP II Controllers by SDS Industries provide users the most advanced, precise, and easy-to-use programmable digital kiln controllers on the market today. With responsive touchscreen controls, an intuitive graphical UI, and integration with the TAP Kiln Control Mobile App, TAP Kiln Controllers can pair with any relay-controlled kiln or oven.
We invite you to explore our selection of programmable kiln controllers, standalones, and conversion kits on our online store. You can also purchase TAP Digital Controllers or TAP Controlled Kilns and Heat Treat Ovens through one of the following distributors:
- Hot Shot Oven & Kiln
- Mobile Glassblowing Studios, LLC
- Jen-Ken Kilns
- Kiln Frog
- Sheffield Pottery
- Delphi Glass