When the Season Comes to an End

The season has come to an end and now you are faced with the arduous task of cleaning up you maple operation. Where do you start and what do you use? For most equipment, the answer is simple – lots of hot water and elbow grease. A good place to start is with the tanks that hold both sap and syrup. Most are stainless steel and are easy to clean with a pressure washer. We found that a tank washing nozzle that fits your pressure washer is a valuable tool. The specially-designed nozzles enable you to spray to the side and reach areas that a standard spray tip cannot reach. There is no substitute for stainless steel equipment if you can afford it.

Plastic totes and poly tanks have become popular because they are relatively inexpensive but they are harder to clean. Plastic totes, while affordable, may only last about two or three seasons if you get off your cleaning schedule. It does not take long for the plastic to become so contaminated with bacterial spores that you have to discard and replace. However, if you keep poly tanks cleaned they will last for years. Another simple tip is to clean as soon after the season ends as possible. Allowing totes and tanks to sit dormant allows bacteria to build and grow making cleaning more difficult.

Your evaporator needs to be sugared off and flushed out as soon as possible. I often flush the pans with clean water and then refill them with permeate from the RO and let them soak. If permeate is not available, use water. I will drain and refill the pans with clean water and then add the proper amount of pan cleaner following label directions. Once the pan cleaner has done its job, I drain the pans and use a high pressure washer to finish the job. Do the process correctly and your pans will look brand new. Make sure all your float boxes are clean, replace gaskets if needed. Soak your auto draw off temperature probe and your hydrometer in a 5% vinegar solution to remove any residues or films. The thermocouple in the auto draw off probe works best when there is no niter on the probe. Clean your filter press thoroughly and lubricate parts with a food grade lubricant. It is good practice to remove all extra filters from your sugarhouse and store them in your house, somewhere dry and rodent-free. If you use a filter tank, you will need to clean filters and make sure they are completely dry before story to ensure no mold will develop over the off-season. Any filters with problems, even minor, should be discarded, and you should purchase new inventory for the next season.

Reverse osmosis units (RO) should be soap washed and thoroughly rinsed immediately after the last time you use them. Make sure all of the permeate is drained out. Once you break down the RO, return your membranes to the storage vessels with a cup of permeate in each one. Once everything is clean, you should send the membranes in to your dealer for cleaning and testing. There is nothing worse than starting a season with a bad membrane that is passing sugar. Make sure your high pressure pump and your feed pump are free and fully drained. Inspect the membrane housings and get them as dry as possible. Many times with the recirculating motors and pumps on the bottom of the membrane towers, dampness can cause the pump shafts to seize and seals to deteriorate. Because evaporators and ROs require the use of chemicals that are incompatible – phosphoric acid and basic soap – keep them separate and out of reach of children. Be careful when you mix pan cleaner and always follow the directions on the label.

The most controversial portion of a maple system to clean is most certainly the tubing. It seems everyone has his or her own way of dealing with the miles of tubing stretching through the woods. I have cleaned tubing just about every way possible over the years. We have sucked water, pumped water and air, water only, air and tubing cleaner, and just plain did not clean at all. In my experience, using water and air worked well until we tried to pump up too steep of slope and had a blowout that may have had enough force to launch a satellite. Sucking water through the lines left a lot of liquid in the lines that eventually turned to green snot. The method we now use seems to work. We pull taps with the vacuum, nip off each old spout, and immediately use a Stars Company (out of Quebec) line plug to seal the drop line and maintain vacuum on the system. Done properly, the sap in the lateral line will not suck back into the drop line. We then use a paint marker to mark the old tap hole which greatly speeds up next season’s tapping process. Once all of the taps are out, we back flush the mainlines with clean water. Next we close all of the main lines and open the end of each lateral opening long enough to pull air through the lines and keep vacuum on the system. Doing this should remove 80% of the liquid from the lateral and main lines. At this stage, we successively open the ends of each main line and let air in with the vacuum on. Once the vacuum on the entire system drops to zero shut off the pump. At some point before the next season, we then install new spouts on all the drops and let the lines air out completely. This method may seem excessive but it does work. We have a small amount of green sap at the start of the season, but nothing we could not easily filter and could possibly have been avoided by flushing the system again before the season.

A word of caution when it comes to using tubing cleaners. They have to be completely flushed from the lines before the next season. Never use Isopropyl alcohol – it is illegal in the United States. Also be aware that some cleaners attract Mr. Bushy Tail and his friends – never a good thing for tubing operators.

Once your system is cleaned, bring in all releasers and clean and sanitize them thoroughly. They are made of PVC which makes a good home for bacteria. Go over the mechanism and use lubricant provided by the manufacture to lubricate all of moving parts. The last task is to care for your vacuum and transfer pumps. Change the oil or drain out the water on liquid ring pumps. On the new rotary claw pumps change the oil and fog the pump with a pump oil. You need to make sure rust does not build up. The same is true for rotary vane pumps which are more maintenance-free but putting some oil on the vanes never hurts. All gasoline motors should be drained and the gasoline replaced with SeaFoam or a similar product. Never leave gas with ethanol in the tank. Drain the crank case oil and replace it with fresh motor oil and you will be ready to go for next season. Lastly, make sure you transfer pumps are drained and stored somewhere that will not fall below freezing.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Maintaining the Quality of Maple Syrup Through the Proper Handling of Maple Sap

The taste of pure maple syrup is one of nature’s most enjoyable flavors. If it is produced properly, the taste ranges from sweetly delicate to a pronounced robust, uniquely maple flavor. However, maple syrup that is improperly made or handled can be just as unforgettable for other reasons. Maple producers need to be very conscious of how easy it is to destroy the quality of the product they are producing. They need to take every precaution to preserve the integrity of this unique product. How sap is handled during the course of the season will determine the volume of high quality syrup produced.

Maple syrup is made up of 98.5% sugar. The level of sugar is measure in Brix or a percentage of the sugar present in the product. For all practical purposes, we simply say that the product is maple syrup when it reaches 66 Brix or contains 66% sugar. For this reason, maple syrup in Ohio and elsewhere must be finished at 66 Brix.

Simply stating that syrup is all sugar smooths over some of the important details. The primary sugar in maple syrup is Sucrose; however, there are small amounts of Glucose and a trace of Fructose present. Glucose and Fructose sugars are referred to as the invert sugars, and invert sugar levels can determine if a specific batch of maple syrup is usable to make certain value-added maple products. The remaining portion of the syrup is composed of various minerals, amino acids, and organic acids. The most common organic acids are Malic and Fumaric acid, the same found in many fruit juices. The presence of these acids is a relevant fact and has a bearing on how maple syrup is processed.

The quality of maple syrup normally declines as the season progresses. The sap that comes from the tree when the weather is cold and the taps are fresh will most often produce the lightest and the highest quality syrup of the season. The primary reason for this is the relatively low level of bacteria found in the sap. Research done at the University Of Vermont by Dr. Mariafranca Morselli documented the fact that sap inside the maple tree is essentially sterile; however, because sap is normally 1.5 to 2.5% sugar, it becomes an ideal medium for bacterial growth. Once a tree’s sap reaches the taphole, environmental conditions cause bacterial colonies in the sap to flourish. This bacterial growth is responsible for two processes, one inside the tree and another outside. First, bacteria will cause the taphole to dry out and heal thus reducing the flow of sap from that tap. And second, sap containing large concentrations of bacteria will produce darker grades of syrup. A study by Legace, Petri, Jacques and Roy found that:

The presence of microorganisms in the sap has the ability to breakdown the sucrose molecules, the main organic component sap, into glucose and fructose subunits. These subunits react with the heat in the evaporation process to cause the darkening of the syrup and an intense, caramelized flavor.

Morselli & Wahlen also found that if producers can keep sap from being contaminated with bacteria, trees will produce light colored syrup almost to the end of the season. Maple producers can learn much from these studies. Best practices, such as not blowing in the hole to dislodge wood chips, drilling holes straight and clean, properly seating the spout, and regularly replacing or cleaning spouts and drops, all help prevent bacterial growth.

Bacterial growth that starts at the taphole will multiply and flourish as the sap is collected and stored prior to evaporation. This is the reason that sanitation is so important during the collection process. Tubing systems have solved many problems when it comes to collecting sap, but they have also created a few. Sap being collected with a vacuum tubing system moves sap quickly away from the tree to the collection point. It creates a cleaner environment for sap collection unless it is improperly maintained. Unfortunately, poorly maintained tubing presents one of the highest risks for increased bacterial growth. Stagnant sap sitting inside of tubing warms quickly, and research done by Morselli and Wahlen at the University of Vermont, found that bacterial populations sitting inside warm tubing systems double every twenty minutes. Therefore, tubing systems need to be installed properly and maintained with tight lines all sloped toward the collection point.

Changing spouts every season and rotating drop lines on a regular interval enables modern-day producers to achieve a high level of vacuum line sanitation. The invention of the Check Valve Adapter (CVA) by the researchers at Proctor Research Center has totally changed the way we think of taphole sanitation. The research done at Proctor documented that sap actually siphons back into the tree in the absence of vacuum. CVAs prevent that back siphoning from occurring. The other important revelation was that if we can maintain vacuum on the lines even during periods of minimum flow, lines are kept cooler and bacterial growth is minimized. The result is that in many maple operations the only time that vacuum is turned off is when the temperature goes below freezing for a prolonged period of time. We are definitely changing the way we run our vacuum tubing systems and it has not only improved syrup production but also syrup quality.

At the end of the season all collection lines need to be thoroughly cleaned and drained. If possible they should be rinsed again before the start of the next season. Sanitation is no less important in bucket operations. Buckets should be washed before the start of every season. During the season sap needs to gathered often, and buckets should be washed, dried, and stored quickly at season’s end.

Once the sap arrives at the sugarhouse it should be processed quickly. Do not allow sap to sit in open tanks for long periods of time. Collection tanks need to be drained and washed down between runs. To speed up processing, evaporator capacity should be properly matched to the volume of sap coming into the sugarhouse. Producers who struggle to keep ahead of the sap flow and allow large volumes of sap to sit unprocessed for long periods of time often struggle to make top quality syrup.

There are several techniques that can slow bacterial growth and speed up the processing time. Sap can be exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. Morselli and Wahlen found that sap treated with in-line UV lamps reduced bacteria by 99.4 % early in the season and reduced bacteria 86.2 % later in the season. Evaporation rates can be increased by using pre-heaters or enhanced evaporator units such as the Steam-A-Way or Piggyback. By far the most popular means of cutting down on processing time is by using a reverse osmosis (RO) machine. The invention of the RO has revolutionized the maple syrup industry. Because of the use of modern RO technology, extensive expansion of maple operations is now possible. Modern RO machines can concentrate sap from 2% to over 20% before it ever goes through the evaporator. However, a word of caution, sap that has been run through the RO process is subject to increased bacterial growth, therefore concentrated sap needs to be processed as soon as it comes out of the RO to prevent darkening of the finished product. Of course, the final step in the syrup-making process is proper setup and operation of the evaporator and the maple syrup filtering systems. Once again proper sanitation of all the processing equipment is very important if quality is to be maintained.

The purpose of this post is to get you to thinking about the importance of sanitation and the role sanitation plays in the process of making high quality maple syrup. The beginning of the season is the time to adopt good sanitation practices.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Tips on Using Vacuum and Maintaining Tap Hole Sanitation

Looks like Ohio Maple Producers may be headed into another sugaring season with unusual weather patterns. As of February 5th, 2013, there has already been a significant amount of new syrup made in NE Ohio. The real challenge is setting up your production system so that it can deal with the changes in the weather. You may say that there is nothing we can do about the weather; we have to accept what comes. That is right, however, you can change the way you produce syrup to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way.  If you take a look at what happened in Ohio over the past several seasons you will notice some definite trends. Yield per tap dropped from .286 gallons of syrup per tap in 2008 to .169 in 2010. Last year, we once again lead the nation in Yield per tap (.244).  One of the main reasons for this was that favorable weather patterns enabled producers on vacuum tubing systems to collect a greater volume of sap on more days over the course of the entire season.  The end result was a huge average yield per tap. How you manage your system during the season is key.

Taphole sanitation has become the buzz word of the industry. Taphole sanitation is all about keeping your drop lines and spouts free of bacterial contamination. The piece of technological equipment that may have started it all is the Check Valve Adapter Spout. The warm weather in Ohio over the last several years has proven to be a good test for the new spout that is designed to prevent a back flow of bacterial-laden sap back into the tree. It works well in warmer climates like Ohio.

Solutions for taphole sanitation are based on research done at Proctor Lab in Vermont and the work done at Cornell University. What it comes down to is that you need to be replacing your spouts every year. Plain and simple. You should be replacing your drops every other year. And if you shut off your vacuum for extended periods of time during the season when it is not frozen, then you should consider using the Check Valve. The newest model goes directly on the line without the stubby adapter and looks very promising. If you run your vacuum continuously then one of the new polycarbonate spouts may be the answer. Check your drops frequently looking for bacterial buildup. Also this is a prime area where squirrel damage occurs so watch for leaks.  At the end of the season, make sure you get all of the sap out of the drops. The best way to do this is to clean under vacuum if you can. This removes the maximum amount of liquid out of the lines.

One question that comes up a lot is whether you should shut down your vacuum pump during extended periods of warm weather or let it run? Many producers are finding out that when you run the vacuum pump continuously, you will continue to collect sap even when the temperatures remain above freezing for several days. In most cases, the sap you collect will produce enough syrup to offset the cost of running the pump. In fact it is better to keep the pumps on and keep something moving through the lines. This cuts down on bacterial growth in the lines and the moving sap will keep the lines cooler. But it takes a good vacuum pump to run under warm conditions. The average vane pump (dairy pump) struggles in this environment. They are not designed to produce high vacuum over long periods of time. They are designed to work comfortably at 16 inches of vacuum. This is the vacuum that you use to milk cows. The best pump choice for extended high vacuum use is a liquid ring pump. They are cooled by water or oil and they hold up well under long periods of continuous use.

The last several years should have convinced everyone that tubing on vacuum pays. The Financial Analysis Guide released in Winter 2012 by The Ohio State University shows that the cost of production can be improved by installing and running a vacuum tubing system. It is clear that technology is and will continue to drive profitably and production in the maple industry regardless of what Mother Nature throws our way.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension