Yesterday, I talked about the changes that have been made to the Harvest Right Freeze Dryer in their new model that made it worthwhile to upgrade. We also reviewed some of the annoying things about the unit that make it difficult. Today, I’m going to review some of the “uglier” aspects of this unit. SurvivalBlog holds a high standard when it comes to product reviews. You’re going to get the bad with the good here. If you purchase this unit based upon our reviews, you’re going to know what to expect. I already covered the major changes that Harvest Right made to the new unit. These “uglier” aspects deal mostly with just owning and operating this type of device. Unless otherwise noted, it applies to both the older model and the newer model.
The Elephant In The Room – Price
Let’s get this out in the open right up front. Most people complain about the price on this machine. But it’s really a matter of perspective. Prior to Harvest Right, you had basically two options: 1) Make your own, or 2) Spend more than $10,000 (and usually closer to $30,000) for one of comparable capability. Is price really an issue then? If you purchase this unit at full Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Pricing, you will still be paying less than half of what any other freeze drying unit I’ve found costs. Sure, we want it all. I’d love to have the capabilities of this unit for the price of a good kitchen appliance. I don’t think that’s being very realistic.
New and Used
I’ve seen new units sell with everything for more than the MSRP of $4495. (I’m not sure why people would spend that much from shady outlets, but they obviously do.) I’ve also seen units sell at prices well under $2000 for the smaller unit. Harvest Right seems to be running sales very often. You can also pick used units up off of Ebay and Craig’s List. Your local newspaper want ads might have one too. I don’t see used units very often, because most people won’t turn loose of them once they get them though.
However, no matter how much you spend on one, it’s most likely going to have a hefty price tag. This is not a small purchase. Therefore, unless you have lots of disposable cash, you are probably going to have to plan this purchase. When I speak to those who complain over the price tag, it always seems to come down to “buyer’s envy” or “buyer’s remorse”. They either want one and can’t afford it, thus are badmouthing it, or they bought it on impulse. Occasionally, I find where a person had expectations that were different than reality. That brings us to the next “ugly”.
Not a Kitchen Appliance
This is not a kitchen appliance. It is a piece of industrial machinery that has been built as inexpensively as possible to make it more affordable for more people. I’ve had many conversations with Harvest Right over the last three years regarding this issue alone. It’s a simple technology, but it’s expensive to implement. In the first few years, Harvest Right emphasized this concept heavily. But they received unrelenting pressure from those purchasing the unit. No matter how many times the company said, “This is not a kitchen appliance”, it almost always fell on deaf ears. I’m guessing, based upon their new offerings in multiple colors, that they have succumbed to much of this pressure. People want it to match their other appliances, and no matter what you tell them, they seem to believe in their heart that it will be a kitchen appliance for them.
I can’t state this enough. If you buy this unit and expect the ease of operation that you have with your normal kitchen appliances, you will be frustrated. A minimum amount of maintenance must be regularly performed on this unit. While the basic operation of freeze drying food has been reduced to set-and-forget, the maintenance required to keep the unit operating is anything but that. If you treat it like a standard kitchen appliance, it will give you problems.
Toyota vs Lamborghini
For those of you who like cars, you can think of it like this: If you buy a Toyota truck, you can expect a high quality car that will give you reliable performance at a reasonable cost of ownership. That’s the kitchen appliance. But if you buy a Lamborghini LM002, you are going to pay a much higher price to obtain it and your monthly/yearly maintenance costs will be much more expensive compared to the Toyota. Of course you get a high performance machine, but if you bought the LM002 expecting the same operating cost of a Toyota, you are in for a rude awakening.
Industrial Automotive A/C pump
The vacuum pump is really the weakness of the system. Every part of the machine is very reliable and easy to maintain except the vacuum pump. Harvest Right did it right by separating this most problematic piece of equipment out from the rest of a very stable platform. This makes it easier to work with it. If you search on YouTube, you will find a plethora of modifications you can make to the vacuum pump that attempt to deal with the most problematic issues. Harvest Right does not support any of them! Some of them will actually void the warranty of the pump, and all of them introduce an additional point of failure to the system.
You can be as innovative as you want in attempting to solve your frustrations with this piece of the puzzle, and you might even be able to convince Harvest Right of the benefits of your particular solution. The company is open to improvements of their product, and they regularly incorporate changes to the system that make it better. Or you can just follow the manufacturer’s advice. Maintain the pump manually, accepting that it is the cost of operating the machine.
Fine Mist of Oil In Two-Foot Radius
This fine mist of oil is my second biggest complaint but the most persistent one. The newer unit with the larger vacuum line exacerbates the problem as well. When the pump first starts up to pull a vacuum, the chamber is at atmospheric pressure. For the first 30 seconds of operation, you can hear the load on the motor as it begins to remove all of that air. The motor roars, and you can audibly hear the atmosphere boiling inside the pump through the oil. After the initial 30 seconds or so of operation, most of the air has been removed and the motor begins to settle down, quieting in its operation and smoothing out.
During this time, you will see the door seat against the seal. But also during this massive movement of air, the vacuum pump literally breaths a fine mist of pump oil that you can visually see exiting the exhaust port. At first, I didn’t realize why this was happening and was very concerned that everything within a two-foot radius has a fine coating of oil on it. We were running the unit in the kitchen, where it coated the wall, the cabinets, the counter-top, and even the floor. Since we live in a fairly dusty environment, this immediately attracted dust and the area became filthy.
Having the oil level correct will go a long way to helping the situation, but you will still get it.
I worked with Harvest Right quite extensively trying various fixes and modifications, attempting to cut down on this issue, but it was all to no avail. This is just a drawback of operating the unit. I can think of several ways that I could mediate the issue, but none of them are convenient:
- I’ve considered running the exhaust port to the outside of the house, but that means the location of the unit is more permanent. This might work in the garage but not in the house.
- I’ve considered a secondary diaphragm pump to remove the bulk of the air from the chamber, but that entails some exterior switching/timing mechanism along with automatic vacuum valves to switch between the pumps, and unless you already own the industrial/lab diaphragm pump, it adds considerable expense.
- I’ve tried multiple designs of mufflers to allow the oil to settle out of the exhaust before exiting, but the size required to obtain satisfactory results is ungainly large.
Until a satisfactory solution is discovered, we’ve resorted to just making sure nothing is close in the disastrous two foot radius that can’t be easily wiped down after every vacuum start.
Rebuilding the Pump (Rust, Parts Available Online)
Since the pump was never designed to handle the moisture load that it does, there are several parts that you will have to replace on a regular basis. Primarily, there is an internal baffle plate that keeps oil from splattering out while you fill it (when it’s running) that is made of what appears to be cold rolled steel. It corrodes badly after about a year of use. The pump body is aluminum, and most hardware is either brass or stainless steel. So most of the pump really isn’t an issue. But you will either need to keep spares of this part on hand or replace it with a homemade aluminum plate. You do not want to operate the pump without this baffle in place!
All spare parts for the pump can be purchased online at Century Tool. Because you will have to eventually rebuild the pump, I recommend these parts always be in your spare parts bin (My machines use the JB Industries DV-200N pump. If your pump is different, check the part numbers):
- PR-1 Sight Glass
- PR-311 Cover Seal
- PR-315 Intake Trap O-Ring
- PR-40 Splash Guard & Screw (baffle)
- RT201B NYLOG BLUE Gasket/Thread Sealant.
The sight glass is there because we run alot of herbs through the machine which really gunks up the oil and pump. I have broken the sight glass before while trying to clean it out. That is a show stopper if you don’t have a replacement, just like the gaskets are. Take a look at this oil after a series of batches of herbs. You can see how the oil is super contaminated from chlorophyll and the sight glass will have to be cleaned as well.
Blown Out Pump Seals
For reasons that I don’t really understand, both pumps have blown the main gasket multiple times. You discover this when you check the system and there is a puddle of oil surrounding the pump. It’s messy to clean up and frustrating. You definitely don’t want this pump anywhere near carpet.This is one issue that will make you want to cuss when it happens. If you don’t have spare gaskets on hand, you will be down until you get the parts. Changing the gasket out only takes about 15 minutes, but I can’t express how frustrating it is. This issue has to rank as my number one complaint.
Recommended Cleaning Operation is Very Messy
Harvest Right provides you with access to a video along with instructions to properly purge the pump. The process is messy and must be done manually. If you skip this, you will be prematurely dissasembling the pump to scrub it out. You may also destroy the vacuum cartridge, which is expensive to replace (about $120 as I write this).
Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s a pain in the neck. But you must do it regularly or you will regret it.
The Bold and The Beautiful
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Individual freeze dried foods – celery, mushrooms, carrots, chicken, and onions.
Freeze dried herbs from the garden – French Tarragon, Rosemary, and Mrs Latimer’s special “herbes de Provence”
Mrs Latimer’s “Chicken and Biscuits” made from freeze dried ingredients
Green beans, peas, corn, carrots, potatoes, okra, mushrooms, celery, broccoli, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, milk, cheese, eggs, berries, herbs, sauces, meats, rice, pasta, meals, and much more get freeze-dried in our freeze dryer on a regular basis.
General Preparation Tips
- Sliced or cubed apples, potatoes, and bananas will come out brown from exposure to air during the freezing process. You must first coat them in cool water combined with some anti-browning acid, such as Fruit Fresh, citric acid, or lemon juice; ice water with Fruit Fresh with chill the fruit and help speed the freezing process; bananas can come out of the freeze dryer looking perfectly white and almost as if fresh, if properly prepared.
- Do not stack foods above the edges of the tray; good air flow is necessary above the trays
- Dense foods must be cut into small pieces– meats should be cut into cubes or strips; potatoes into cubes or shredded and placed for air to circulate between pieces; carrots cubed or shredded; mushrooms sliced or cubed; blueberries, cranberries, and other encapsulated berries should have small holes poked in them (a meat tenderizer easily does this work without tearing up the berries);
Meat and Dairy
- Eggs should be whipped smoothly, though they can be separated and yolks freeze-dried separately from the egg whites.
- Meats should be trimmed and liquid fat drained off.
- Whole milk can be freeze-dried and reconstituted successfully; sour cream can be freeze dried but reconstitutes as a flavored liquid rather than thick cream, though it can be thickened with flour, corn starch, or arrow root, but it’s different; we love having access to freeze-dried whole milk that has stored well for years in vacuum sealed jars!
- Grated cheese dries nicely in the freeze-drier and reconstitutes by soaking in water and then draining for pizza and recipes or you can just spray water over it on the moist dish in which it tops.
- Herbs are stronger flavored when freeze-dried than in the dehydrator and work beautifully.
- Cucumbers, zucchini, squash, and okra can be freeze-dried for use in various recipes, such as casseroles, soups/stews, or salad dressings.
- Prepared brown rice in broth with small pieces of meat, vegetables, and sauce freeze-dried together make for quick, healthy, and easy on-the-go meals without the unhealthy preservatives found in store-bought equivalents; just a cup or so of boiling water, stir and cover, and let sit five to ten minutes and a delicious meal is ready to eat.
Eggs and Milk!
Whats that? You say you don’t have any food to run through it this week? Time for a run to the store to get a gallon of milk and some eggs. You will find that at times of heavy garden production, the machine can’t keep up with you. But there are times when the machine sits idle. If it’s idling, it’s not saving you money or paying for itself. Make sure you have some staples that you use on hand to run in the machine when there is nothing else!
Recommended Storage Medium
Harvest right provides you with Mylar bags and a sealer, but we prefer to use wide-mouth quart and half-gallon Mason jars along with a Tilla Food Saver lid adapter and a vacuum pump. Because of an ill-informed decision I made a number of years ago about canning food, I have a plethora of jars and I much prefer them to Mylar bags.
Let’s take a conservative view on costs and calculate what it might be worth to you. These are the costs that I incurred on the new model unit over the last year or are the current costs for the volumes of product that I used.
- Initial cost of the machine: $2495 (standard machine on sale at Harvest Right)
- 4 Gallons of oil: $86 (Robinair 13204 Premium Oil, Amazon Prime)
- Food product: $300 (This represents purchased foods such as milk, but there were many more foods than what I purchased. Much of our garden produce went through the machine.)
- Electricity $480 (This represents the $40 increase in our electric bill when the machine was running. On average, the machine ran about 80% of the time.)
That comes to a total of $3181 for the year’s operating costs. What is not included in this breakdown is the amount of labor that was put into the garden growing produce, the cost of chicken feed so we had eggs and other incidentals. It also does not have the cost of food included if you had to actually purchase all the food we ran through the machine. It’s hard to put an amount on that, but the hidden cost could be as high as perhaps another $3000-$4000 if you purchased everything that ran through it. This also does not included the savings of not having to run a freezer to store the foods or the electricity/gas that you might use to can the foods.
I already owned Mason jars, but Mylar bags are not very expensive. If you use Mason jars, you may have a significant one time purchase cost. If you use Mylar, you will have a much smaller recurring cost. For the purposes of this calculation, I’m leaving those things out.
How much did I produce?
Over the course of the year, we produced 235 gallons of food product. Everything from whole milk, eggs, garden produce, meats and herbs. We produced such a variety that I cannot purchase an exact replica from a commercial company. A commercial freeze dried food offering will typically cost between $25 and $35 for a gallon of product (though some are much, much more depending on what the product is). Using this conservative number, I produced $5875 worth of food product at $25/gallon.
Did you catch that? In one year, I not only paid for the machine and operating costs of what I actually spent, but I could have completely paid for the costs had I purchased all of the food that I ran through the machine. Future years don’t include the cost of the machine, though they may include some incidental maintenance things like gaskets.
Taste, Texture, and Preference.
Not only did I produce food cheaper than buying it but I set the stage for actual savings in the following years. In addition, I put up foods that I actually like! I’ve eaten a lot of Mountain House Lasagna over the years along with other entries. I don’t like any of them, but they are edible. Now I have foods that I actually like and look forward to eating. We all ate freeze dried food on one particular campout. While my neighbors choked down the slurpy mess that passes for most entries, we ate Chicken Alfredo with large chunks of chicken and creamy Alfredo sauce. It looked and tasted like it was freshly made.
We even ate hamburgers that looked and tasted like they had just been grilled. Frankly, I’m almost surprised I made it out of that camping trip alive after seeing some of the coveting looks that were thrown our way.
Apples to Oranges comparison
To be fair, you really can’t compare costs as easily as this. Would you really spend nearly $6000 on a years worth of freeze dried foods? Probably not. If you didn’t own the machine, I doubt that you would actively purchase and use such foods in your normal pantry. But I think you get the point. The machine has the ability to radically alter how you store, prepare, and use foods. It’s like having that backup generator in your garage. Would you really use it when you can purchase electricity so cheaply from the utility company? But the piece of mind it brings is worth alot and you do actually use it to keep it in working order.
In reality, I doubt that most people produce enough food in the first year to pay for the machine, but I’ve been running one machine for almost four years now and it is still going strong. Even if you used it once a week, it would have easily paid for itself by now.
The Bottom Line: Is It Worth It?
To answer this question, you really need to make a determination on what your needs are. I see two major types of food prepping. There are those who believe in the “Food Vault System” of prepping and those who believe in the “Pantry System” of prepping. To know if the unit is a worthwhile purchase for you, you need to know how it fits into your prepping patterns.
Food Vault System
The hallmark of this system is long-term storage considerations. When people buy into this method, they purchase or make foods that will store for many years. They may not even use them. The Mormon Home Storage Center tends to cater to this method. Foods are packaged, such as beans and wheat that can be stored for 20 or 30 years. The food will sit unused in storage until it is needed.
By default, freeze-dried foods tend to collectively fall in this category, because they easily have shelf lives the reach that 20 or 30 year mark. However, if this is your preferred method of prepping, the Harvest Right freeze dryer may not be for you. For what you would spend on the unit, you can easily purchase a year’s supply of long-term storage commercially made food. This is especially true if you purchase the foods on sale.
If you fall into this category of prepping, the only real reason you might want this machine is because of special dietary needs that can’t be met commercially or perhaps you just don’t like commercial offerings and you want to make your own. I do know many preppers that do precisely that. Mountain House Stroganoff is most likely not what your mother made and you may not like it all. I’ve never seen a commercially-produced freeze-dried lasagna that even resembled one that I got at an Italian restaurant. You can, however, easily make these things on your own with this machine.
This is where the Harvest Right shines. The typical mantra of this type of prepper is: “Eat what you store. Store what you eat.” The long-term shelf life isn’t as important, because this prepper constantly eats out of the pantry. You eat the older foods while new foods go to the back of the pantry. Their typical pantry system only has foods that are as old as the amount of food you have stored. If you have a three year pantry, then the oldest food is probably about three years old. The long shelf life of freeze-dried foods is irrelevant here (unless you have a couple of packages that get “lost” in the shuffle).
A prepper following this food system would constantly find themselves buying expensive freeze-dried foods and using them in their normal daily living. Most don’t even bother because of the expense. The Harvest Right machine allows this type of prepper to incorporate freeze-dried foods into their system. This has the effect of making their storage system much more robust. It will now survive loss of power (for the food freezers).
This is the method that we use, though we use a mixture of fresh, frozen, freeze dried, and canned foods. If you fall in this category and can deal with the maintenance headaches of the machine, you will be very happy with the purchase.
Is it worth it?
For my family, the answer is such a powerful “Yes!” that we own multiple units. For you, only you can decide. Hopefully, this review has given you enough information to make that decision.
We’ve accumulated enough data that there are a couple more articles on the way. These will focus on different maintenance and operation aspects of the machine. Over the next couple of months, I’ll assemble those into a few more articles to share with SurvivalBlog readers.