Product Review: Harvest Right Freeze Dryer – Part 1, by HJL

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I have to admit, I was excited when I was first contacted by Harvest Right. A freeze dryer in my own home? What a thought! This has been a dream of my family for a number of years. I have even played around with the idea of creating my own freeze dryer several times, but in the end, the work involved and the daily grind always won out.

The Dream

Our food preps have always had issues, with the solutions seeming just out of reach. When we first started, the preps simply meant two things– remodeling the pantry to hold more canned and dry goods and getting an extra freezer to hold the beef of our first slaughtered steer. That worked for a while, but the pantry was soon outgrown and extra space was sought for dry goods. Initially, purchasing in bulk from the local Mormon Co-op showed that long-term storage was going to be a problem. We are strong believers in the concept of “store what you eat, eat what you store,” so our diet has improved considerably as we merged our diet and food storage capabilities, increasing our consumption of whole grains and homegrown/homemade-from-scratch foods. Then the inevitable happened. We ran out of beef at the end of harvest. As we had used the existing beef from the freezer, we had simply filled the available space with frozen vegetables. A quick trip to the local Sears to procure a second freezer solved that problem, but my sister-in-law had just returned from traveling only to find that their freezer died while they were away and over $2500 of food had just been destroyed. That was heart breaking, and I had also set myself up for just such a disaster. A week later, finding the freezer door ajar in the garage freezer with all of the meat in a semi-frozen state because someone didn’t correctly close the door after rummaging though it, nearly made me cry. Fortunately, the meat was salvagable, except for a few wrapped packages. That fall we had an exceptionally bountiful harvest and both freezers were packed again. We knew we were running low on meat, and I contacted our regular supplier of beef-on-the-hoof to let him know we were ready to start looking for a beef. This process usually took about two months. We would then dicker on a price, and he would then take the animal to the butcher where we would place our cut order. I knew I needed to make room in the freezers and with no other option, we began to participate in the time honored tradition of canning. While not optimum, you can can the frozen vegetables relatively easily. While the texture isn’t a good as either freshly frozen or freshly canned, it is still edible. It’s certainly better than throwing food away. Our moment of panic came when the butcher unexpectedly called and asked us for our cut order. I started mentally recounting the conversations of the last few days, trying to remember when I had actually purchased a beef. Coming up blank, I asked the butcher what beef he was talking about. He recounted how our supplier had brought the beef in 14 days ago with our name on it and given him instructions to call us for the cut order. He also wanted to know when we could pick the beef up because it was too much for him to store. A few phone calls later, I began to realize the depth of the situation. Our supplier had brought a bull in with a hanging weight of 1700 pounds!

“You mean a hoof weight of 1700 pounds.“ I corrected.

“No. I said a hanging weight of 1700 pounds,” he said. “You have to get this as quickly as you can because it will take up too much room in my freezer. Man, he gave you a screaming deal on this bull.”

My eyes started to roll back into my head. I asked him to store it just a few days longer, and then I called in favors from all of the neighbors, borrowing their canning supplies. For a few days, we ran an amazing canning operation 24 hrs/day clearing room in the freezer for the beef. In the end, we managed to fit all of the beef in the freezers, but my wife had to sacrifice her frozen corn, beans, and apples. For the next two years, we ate from the frozen-then-canned vegetables. All of us began to dread them. Clearly something had to be done. I was unwilling to move to a third freezer, worried that any power event would create a crisis in our food preps.

We experimented with MREs and purchased freeze-dried foods, but the high salt content and other additives caused problems with some family members. MRE’s were out of the question because of the odiferous side effect, especially upon the male members of the household. The sheer cost of purchasing ready-made freeze-dried foods as a significant component of our food preps wouldn’t work either. It was especially painful to consider that we would basically loose our precious garden and that the prepped food often had a calorie content as low as 300-400 calories per day per person. “If only I could freeze dry my own garden produce” was a lament often heard. I began to experiment with the process and dreamed of having my own machine.

I think you can understand how excited I was when contacted by Harvest Right about their unit. Here was my opportunity to finally realize that dream. A return email was sent which was followed by several phone calls to work out the details on the amount of time I would have to play with the machine before writing the review. Then the wait began. We finalized negotiations on a sample unit on Monday. The manufacturer said it weighed in at over 100 pounds, which, in my mind, meant it was shipping by truck, so I began to mentally calculate the days until the prize would arrive. Sometimes, being the managing editor of SurvivalBlog really has its perks!

The Arrival

I spent the day after the negotiations scouring Harvest Right’s web page for information. Being a techie kind of guy, I wanted hard details on the machine. Their web site, however, is not really set up for a guy like me. It’s more of a sales brochure, with lots of useful information on the benefits of freeze drying but not much “how to” or techie stuff. I expanded my search to the whole web at that point. I’ve done this before, and while there is some pretty decent information out there, I had seen most of it, or recognized that what I was finding was obviously incorrect and questionable. In fact, there is some down right scary information out there. I actually found one web site that instructed the user to seal wet food in a vacuum pack bag, freeze it over dry ice, and then store it on a shelf. Whoever follows those instructions is going to spend some miserable days in the hospital wishing they were actually dead, if they survive. Anyone who has canned, understands that freezing doesn’t necessarily kill bacteria and that botulism can grow in an oxygen-free atmosphere (and doesn’t have a smell to it). After a couple of hours, I started to get a headache over all the bad information and decided to call it quits. Back to the regular grind I went.

On the third day, about 1100 hours, the driveway alarm went off. Looking out the window, I saw a private contract van. Hmmm. That was odd. I couldn’t remember anything ordered that was scheduled for delivery. I watched for a few minutes. The driver was obviously struggling with something. I decided I would go help. As I opened the front door, I saw what appeared to be a small refrigerator box. The light clicked on. Wow! That was fast delivery. It was a FedEx contractor, and together we moved the heavy box up to the porch. Normal OPSEC was in place. I didn’t know this driver, so that’s as far as I let him come. He was kind and offered to move it into the house, but I assured him that that’s why I keep two teenage boys around the house. As I started to leave, he informed me that there was one more box. It turns out the vacuum pump is physically separate from the unit, which, as we will learn later, is advantageous to the design of this unit.

Unpacking

My house runs like a well-oiled machine. Both my wife and I believe in the Biblical roles of husband and wife, and if there is such a thing as a true Proverbs 31 woman, I’ve got her. The way she runs this household is an envy to many families in our fellowship. She has a place and a time for everything, and I’ve learned over the years that she knows her stuff. When it comes to outside, shop, cars, work, et cetera, that’s my domain, but the house is hers. Of course, working from home, my stuff has a tendency to spill over into her domain every once in a while. Actually, it happens quite often. She’s just very understanding and patient towards me.

This, obviously, was going to spill into her domain. To evaluate it properly, I needed it set up in the kitchen area, but how many women would appreciate a small, noisy “small refrigerator looking thing” sitting on their kitchen counter? This was going to take some serious persuasion on my part. In the meantime, I decided to unpack everything and remove the packing material to the garage.

I’m apparently not the typical kind of guy who likes to tear into new things without thinking or reading the manual. Whenever I get a new toy, the first object I reach for is the manuals that come with it, and I typically don’t even touch the hardware until I have completely read and understood the instructions that come with it. My wife used to make fun of me when we first married, because I kept computer programming manuals by the bed side and would read them to de-stress at the end of the day. However, she doesn’t do that anymore, because I’m the guy that can not only utilize technology well but knows how it works and can fix it when it breaks. We don’t often call repairmen around here.

I called for my boys to come help, and we carefully cut open the large package and began the unpacking process. It turns out that this is one well-packaged product. The top and bottom have a custom fitted, expanding foam lid that is then held together at the four corners by angled stiffeners, tying the whole package together. I can admire the thinking that went into this packaging, because of its simplicity and ability to protect the contents. There is a clear air gap surrounding the sides of the unit inside the heavy cardboard container. There are three to four inches of hard, expanding foam on the top and bottom, and there is no “rattle” to the package. Because this is a loaner unit, we were attempting to remove it without damaging the packaging, so that we can return the unit when we are through. It would be much easier to simply cut the unit out of the packaging, and with the exception of the plastic door, there is nothing that could be damaged by this action. The door has nearly an inch clearance to the cardboard wall, so if you simply make sure that your knife does not penetrate more than 1/4 inch into the box, you will be fine. Normally, manufacturers pack the manual in the main box on top, which creates a problem, because when you slice the sealing tape, you generally cut the manual. As we opened the box, I could see that there was no manual there, so no problem. I then stopped the process and carefully peeked down into the sides of the packing, which is the next most common place for the user manuals. Carefully pulling back the sides and peering down, I could see no manual within sight. Okay. It’s no problem. The next most common place is to place the manual on the bottom of the packaging. This is where things got interesting. In attempting to keep the packaging as whole as possible, for returning the unit, we had to carefully lift the 70 pound unit three feet vertically, using our fingertips with virtually nothing to grip. The exterior of this unit is sleek, and there are just no natural finger holds on it. One of my boys had his fingers on the upper door hinge; the other held it by the door latch, and I used a compressive grip on the rear of the unit as we lifted it free of the packing material. I had a faint mental image of the sound of dumping a #10 can of nacho cheese as it came clear of the box– schhhlllooooopppp!

To my dismay, there was no instruction manual in the bottom of the box either. Okay. It’s still not a problem. They’ve obviously hidden it somewhere else. Could it perhaps be in the vacuum pump box? I carefully opened that box. Yes, there were manuals. So I pulled the manuals out and began to read them. They contained very valuable information on the operation of the vacuum pump, such as preparing for the first pump start, maintaining the oil, how to properly shut the pump down, et cetera. All this was very valuable information, but it didn’t tell me how to assemble or operate the whole unit. Then the light bulb clicked on again. This unit has a cavity in it somewhere for the food. That would be the next most common place to put the manual. Back to the main unit I went. The door is made from what looks to be 3/4” plexiglass that is roughly 16 inches square, and it still has the protective paper covering on it. I grabbed the handle and gave it 1/4 turn and … nothing. Oh snap! That 1/4 turn simply loosened the door; another 1/4 turn unlatched it and allowed the door to swing open. I mentally filed that way as useful information. I’m always interested to know how other engineers have solved difficult problems. That simple 1/4 turn to pull the door tight took care of a huge issue I had often pondered in my own designs. They resolved the problem of how to have a door that swung open and closed easily, yet would snug tight enough to allow a good seal to be made while the vacuum pump started. It is simple and elegant. I like it!

There we had the jackpot! There were obviously the food trays, though it took a few seconds to recognize them, as the tray holder was turned sideways, and it was stuffed full of packing. A careful inspection of the contents revealed that there was a heavy rubber seal around the chamber that needed to come off to remove them. The ring easily slid off, revealing a chamber made from roughly 14-gauge stainless steel about 12.5 inches in diameter. My mind quickly moved over some calculations. Lets see, that’s (6.25in) x (6.25in) x (3.14) x (14.5lbs/sqin) = 1778 lbs! Maybe that door was Lexan rather than plexiglass. I mentally filed away another question to ask. As I carefully extracted the contents of the chamber, I found four aluminum trays, one long reinforced vacuum hose, a whole bunch of mylar bags (both quart and gallon size), one electrical cord, and one insulating door plug but no manual. Hmmmm. That was odd. Maybe they forgot to pack it. At this point, I now had packing material and contents spread clear across the living room, and it occurred to me that I might be better off if I took a break and cleaned my mess up before my wife stepped in and discovered the disaster zone that used to be her house. I was sure negotiations would go better if I didn’t start off in a hole. I began gathering up all the packing material and stuffing it back into the box to send it out to the garage with one of my sons. Man I love having that slave labor around the house. The thought crossed my mind on what I will do when they leave. I thought to myself, “No! I’m not going to think about that right now.” I got back to business. I don’t want to look like an idiot, but I was disturbed by the fact that there was no manual in the box. Deciding to chalk it up to the fact that this is an obvious loaner unit, I decided to email Harvest Right about the missing manual and also tell them I received the boxes with slight shipping damage but that everything looks good.

In the mean time, my beautiful bride had arrived on scene and was looking at the largish black box in the middle of the living room that has obviously gotten sick and puked its contents all over the floor. Oops… too late– the negotiations began!

The Negotiations

Like any good husband, I had rehearsed how I was going to proceed at this point, knowing full well that my work was spilling violently into her domain. I even had a speech all prepared to begin the negotiations. I would carefully lay the groundwork for the freeze dryer being in the kitchen, so it could be easily monitored, loaded, and unloaded. I would tied its existence to the shortcomings of our food preps, even to the point of suggesting that when the review was done, we might consider purchasing the unit if everything worked out as I had imagined. In the essence of full disclosure, I even planned on reminding her of the noise the garage freezer made (not being designed for installation in a living space) and the noise that every vacuum pump I had experimented with had made, at times making simple conversations difficult when standing next to it.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s the freeze dryer I’m reviewing for work,” I answered carefully, trying to gauge just how deep the hole was where I stood.

She eyed it carefully and then asked, “This has to be on my kitchen counter?”

“That’s the best place for it while I review it.” I answered. “That way, I can keep an eye on it as I work, making changes, loading and unloading it, and keeping it running round the clock.”

“May I provide some suggestions for what should be freeze-dried?” she asked.

“Sure. I have a list of things I want to try, but I’m open to suggestions. Anything we can do in a month is good,” I answered.

“Okay.” She walked over to a counter that had a few knick knacks on it. “You can put it here for a month, but after the review, it has to move to the shop.” Then she walked out.

I wanted to yell, “Wait! I haven’t started negotiating yet,”but I wisely kept my mouth shut. There had been no negotiations, and I just got everything I needed without even a strange look. I felt kind of let down, almost out-maneuvered, but there was no downside that I could think of.

The Inspection

The boys and I moved the unit to the counter, where I began to look at the construction of it. The chamber was made of stainless steel, about 12.5 inches in diameter and roughly 22 inches deep. The tray holder was made of formed aluminum, with heating elements on the bottom of each tray space and one on the bottom of the top piece to radiate heat down onto the top tray. The bottom had a piece of corrugated plastic stuck to the bottom as an obvious insulator to keep the heat from radiating to the chamber walls. The tray holder assembly was riveted together with pop rivets and exhibited a bit of looseness in the joints making the whole assembly slightly wobbly front to back but rock solid side to side. The front to back wobbly is relatively unimportant, because the trays stay level as it wobbles, which keeps liquids from dumping out. If it gets too annoying, it would be simple to drill a couple of the rivets out and replace them with some 1/4 inch #4 stainless machine screws with locknuts. The wiring was in the rear of the assembly and was attached to the freeze dryer with a pigtail and connector that gave enough slack to remove the tray holder completely from the unit with about six inches of room. This allows you to disconnect the tray holder from the unit for cleaning, which is most easily accomplished by two people– one to hold the tray and one to manage the connector. (I have since disconnected the connector by myself with relative ease, but connecting it requires you to pin the tray holder under your arm while using two hands to connect the screw-lock connect– not an easy task for one person.) The pigtail exits the chamber through a port in the rear just above the vacuum port, and you must be careful not to put too much tension on it or you will destroy the seal around the wiring.

There was a third port on the rear bottom of the chamber as a drain. This particular freeze dryer is a single-chamber design. When the ice is sublimated into water vapor, the water needs to be removed from the system before traveling through the oil in the vacuum pump. Any water, that migrates to the pump, degrades the oil and makes the pump work harder to pull the vacuum. Eventually, the oil gets contaminated enough that it cannot lower the pressure enough to create the sublimation process and your system stalls until you change or clean the oil. Most commercial systems use a dual chamber design, where the food is in one chamber and then vapor travels through a secondary chamber that is cooled enough to condense the vapor back into ice before traveling through the pump. We will look more at that process later, but for now, it is enough to know that the Harvest Right design is a single chamber design. The sublimation and condensation/refreezing occur in the same chamber with the ice sublimating into vapor, leaving the food, and refreezing on the walls of the chamber. There are some drawbacks to this design, but the big advantage is that the cost of the unit is brought down to a reasonable level, making this unit truly affordable.

The casing of this unit is made from a non-ferrous painted metal. I’m guessing it’s aluminum, though a stainless steel version is available, if you prefer. The fit and finish shows that the unit is well designed, and there are no ugly sharp corners that will bite you as you work with the unit. The chamber obviously provides the stability and strength of the unit on the top, and there are two heavy bars on the bottom that the innards are mounted on, which provide the strength and stability on the bottom of the unit. This particular unit had been mishandled by the delivery agent. (There is no surprise there, given that there were at least 10 brightly colored stickers indicating fragile contents, which end was up, and not to stack or lay on its side.) The left side of the unit was bowed in at the bottom by nearly 2 inches. I was concerned about this at first, but it provided an opportunity to actually open the unit up and inspect for damage. The inside is laid out very simply. There is a refrigerant compressor/condenser unit that is designed to cool the chamber down to about -30F, a computer/display board mounted to the front of the case, and a mess of wiring to sensors/controls and refrigerant plumbing along with the drain. I was glad that I had opened the unit up, because the flexible drain line had been tucked up into the unit and was difficult to extract due to the damage to the case. After careful inspection, it was apparent that the damage was cosmetic only. (Fortunately, the damage was not on the side of the unit that contains the condenser– the right side.) I noted that information to relay to Harvest Right, and looked further at the construction. The Chamber (and cooling coils) were wrapped in foam insulation with a protective fiberglass cover over it, but the unit couldn’t be simpler. It was well thought out and had plenty of room to work on the innards, if the need arose. Nothing was “shoe-horned” in like we see in many of today’s products. Even if original replacement parts couldn’t be had, it should be easy to make repairs to the unit. I spent a few moments to bend the cover back into the proper shape, rerouted the drain line properly, and put the cover back on. Continuing the inspection, the rear of the unit had a connection for the power cord and a socket to plug the vacuum pump into. The right side of the unit had the vacuum port on it with the two knobs at the front of the unit near the display. The front of the unit had a rocker-type switch (obviously the power switch), the LCD display, and the front door of the unit. That was it. I must say, I was quite surprised. I expected a more complex unit with more knobs and switches, though I can’t say for certain why I had that expectation. Overall, I would have to say the unit was well designed, well thought out, and well constructed. It is simple, strong, and light. Again– I like it.

Assembly and First Operation.

I still didn’t have an operations manual, but the assembly of the unit appeared to be extremely easy. The pump came with a quart of the proper oil and had instructions on how to prep it. It was painfully obvious where the vacuum hose connected, both on the unit and the pump, and the electrical connections were simple. Simply plug the pump into the unit and plug the unit into the wall. I installed the tray holder, noting that the plug can only be assembled one way, and slid it into place, placing the rubber ring on the chamber and closing the door. Obviously, the insulating plug needs to be in place when the unit is operating, since we are talking about temperatures well below zero. Those who have connected F-connectors on gas plumbing know that you don’t have to be a gorilla. The connectors are designed to be finger tightened, then tightened another 1/4 turn with a wrench.

I headed back to the computer to see if Harvest Right had answered my email. Yep! There was the reply, and attached to it were assembly and operating instructions. I eagerly opened the email, planning on printing the instructions out and spending the rest of the afternoon studying them. Another surprise was discovering that there were only a few pages of instructions and most of the information was on what foods could be easily freeze dried. Could this machine really be that simple to operate? There was only one way to find out. I started scrounging around the kitchen looking for something to freeze dry and came across two items that piqued my interest. The first was a bunch of bananas my wife had purchased the previous day, and the second was six ziplock bags of frozen, chopped chives from the garden last year in the freezer. The instructions stated that you could easily start with frozen foods, if you let the unit cool down about 30-45 minutes before adding the food trays. So back to the machine I went. I pressed the top of the toggle switch on the machine and the display came to life. There was a moment where the computer booted up, the unit let out a piercing beep, then the unit showed the obligatory “Harvest Right, << Freeze // Drying >>” with two timers– one for Cooling, which showed 9 hours, and one for Drying, which showed 7 hours. Then the compressor kicked on and the 9 hour timer started counting down. There ought to be an “Easy” button nearby when you use this thing.

While the unit was pre-cooling, I started prepping the trays. I pulled them from their protective plastic wrapping and inspected them. They were aluminum, formed from a single sheet, cut and bent to shape. The corners had been welded and looked good. We are not too particularly fond of aluminum in food products (preferring stainless steel when we can), so I went on the hunt for a lining material for the tray. I considered wax paper, but wondered about the out-gassing of the wax at the near absolute vacuum this thing operated at. I settled on the parchment paper my wife uses for baking. She buys it in the large rolls, 15 inches wide as Costco. Two sheets, approximately 19 inches long, split in half, would give me the four sheets to cover the aluminum trays and at the very least, make me feel better about having aluminum contacting my food. The paper pressed easily into place, and my wife and I began to slice bananas. One bunch of bananas provided two trays worth, when they were sliced 1/2 inch thick and spread evenly without touching each other on the trays. I filled both of the remaining trays with the chopped chives to the 1/2 level, and then I placed all four trays in the freeze dryer. Knowing that it doesn’t take anywhere near nine hours to freeze the bananas, I rotated the top knob of the unit (which corresponded to the Cooling timer) to bring the remaining time down to four hours. Then I had to go find something else to do.

You know the old saying, “A watched pot never boils”? Well, it boils at lightning speed, compared to watching bananas freeze. In the next part, I’ll walk you through the performance of the unit on a wide variety of foods that we tried, showing the pitfalls that we fell into, the shortcuts that we were tempted to take, and even the dismal failures we had as well as the astounding successes.

Index

This is a three part review:

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