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How to Keep your Espresso Machine off my Work Bench

Five Senses CoffeeAshley Brian 8 March 2011

While we spend a lot of time maintaining the smooth running of commercial espresso machines, our tech team also have a regular line up of home espresso machines coming through the workshop being given some TLC.

Domestic espresso machines come through the Five Senses workshop for repairs all the time. They generally present with the same problems. Some are a result of general wear and tear, but some repairs are totally preventable. So we thought it was time to broadcast some of the common preventable problems to not only increase the longevity of your machine, but also to help your beloved friend produce liquid gold like it did the first week it arrived in your home.

We get all kinds of espresso machines through our door (Gaggia, Cimbali, ECM, etc) but we mostly deal with Expobar Minores and Isomacs so the following advice is mainly related to these machines. However it is still relevant to other machines. Each machine has their own intricate and unique problems, but all can start producing terrible coffee if you don’t love and care for them. Now the title of our article may make it sound as if we just want to get out of doing some work (which is completely true), however nothing saddens us more than having to charge someone for fixing a problem that could have been avoided completely, or at least delayed, by following some simple steps.

You bought the machine in the first place because you wanted to make coffee at home just as well as they did in the cafe, right? Well, doing everything a good cafe does to make your $4 takeaway so exceptional is required at home too.

This includes maintenance. Let’s face it, you’ve spent all this money on a sweet machine and you don’t want to have to fork out more cash for potentially unnecessary repairs.

Please note: this is not a maintenance manual. It’s just a few tips, things that we noticed over the years from common issues we see with machines that come across our bench.

Big tip # won! Back flushing
Backflushing is an essential weekly cleaning task for all espresso machines with a solenoid valve (three-way valve)

Yeah, that’s right, ‘won’, because that’s the direction you’re heading when you start doing this regularly. You’ll be a winner! If your machine has a three way or solenoid valve (check your manual) then back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush, back flush!! Have we got that point across yet?

Most home machines make one or two coffees a day, then sit idle for 24hrs. If you don’t back flush it’s like eating a bowl of cereal, leaving the bowl on the bench and using it again the next day. Gross — and eventually you’re going to run into problems.

Daily: After every coffee making session, you should back flush with water. Most machines come with some kind of cleaning disc or blind basket. Pop this into your normal handle and run the group until you build up some pressure and turn off to get that spurt out into the drain. Do this a few times. You should be able to see the water becoming clearer in that discharge.

Weekly: Run the same process, this time with some espresso clean (1/4 tsp) and before taking it out, let it sit for a few minutes. This will give the cleaning product a good chance to soak through the oils and allow you to rinse them away when you run the cleaning process again, this time without a cleaning product. If you turn out more than a couple of coffees, you’re certainly not going to do any damage by a more regular detergent clean.

Tip # 2 — Premium vs. regular.

Put good water into your machine. Filtered water. When using bottled water, make sure it doesn’t say ‘spring water’ though, as that’s not filtered water. Australia’s water supply contains a large amount of ground water and, particularly if you’re in Perth or Adelaide, heed this warning as tap water can be devastating to your machine. Combine heat, pressure and whatever makes up our regular tap water, and you’ve got a cocktail to make the strongest metal weak at the knees.

So if you want longevity from your machine, find the best quality, softest water possible. Good water will also make a dramatic improvement to your coffee quality. If using filtered water is a little pricy, a small water filtering jug like those made by Brita is a great start, but make sure you change the filter regularly.

Tip # 3 — Clean and open workspace

The cleaner you keep your workspace, the more your machine will love you. Roaches love warm electronic boards, and if they get in there, they can cause havoc. Quite simply, a dirty workspace will attract them, and the warm environment will make them call it home. So keep it all clean.

Tip # 4 — Don’t panic and do some reading

You may think you don’t know anything about that shiny thing on your bench, but hey, neither do many professional café baristas when they first get started. Coffee machines are pretty simple when you break it down. Take some time and learn a little about how your machine works. There are plenty of online forums out there; have a browse and see what you can learn! Of course, remember that you can also head along to our Five Senses Barista Academy to get some hands on experience.

Tip # 5 — Troubleshoot

When you understand your machine and something goes wrong, step back, put one hand under your arm and the other on your chin and have a think about what’s going wrong. Here’s a few trouble-shooting examples combined with some very common issues:

Example 1 — Your machine suddenly pours shots very slowly or not at all.

  1. Is there enough water in the reservoir and is the water or any hose inserted properly?
  2. Check your grinder setting. It may be the same as yesterday, but do you have different beans in there that require a coarser grind setting?
  3. How long since you last made a coffee? Many cheaper domestic machines come with a dual floor/wall/pressurised basket (Might be worth googling, but basically these baskets have many holes on the inside, but only one hole underneath for the coffee to escape. This combined with the oils and consistency of espresso, multiplied by a lack of basket maintenance, equals: blocky blocky.
  4. Take the handle out to see how the water flows without the handle in. If it seems restricted, the shower screen could be blocked. (If you have an espresso machine, you should also invest in a stubby screwdriver, so you can easily remove the shower screen and clean it regularly).

    Top: pressurised baskets. Bottom: non-pressurised baskets.

    Top: pressurised baskets. | Bottom: non-pressurised baskets.

Example 2 — None or only a small amount of steam

  1. Isomac/Expobar — Check the steam gauge. If it’s anywhere from 1 to 1.7 bars and stable (depending on where it’s set) that means the machine is doing its job and you can start looking at other possible causes.
  2. All machines — Check the steam tip. Yes, we’ve actually had a few machines come to us after going through an entire warranty process, and it has taken us all of 15 seconds to stick something pointy in the tip and have the machine working again.
  3. Always remember to purge the steam wand before and directly after use to remove any milk which may be in the wand.

    Use a Pallo Coffeetool or paperclip to ensure the holes in your steamtip are clear

    Make sure the steam tip is clear!

We hope you find these tips an inspiration to not only go on a sudden cleaning rampage, but also to implement a five minute weekly cleaning routine. Investing just five minutes a week will help to improve both the longevity of your espresso machine and the quality of your coffee. Your tongue and wallet will both be grateful.

Article originally written by Ash Schofield.

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