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Tip #77: Upgrading your kiln with an electronic controller
For those of you who already have kilns with electronic (digital) controllers, you know how nice they are to use. With a few presses of the keypad, you can execute pre-programmed cone firings or elaborate ramp-hold firing sequences. Electronic controllers help you bring consistency and repeatability to your firings. Once you use one, you begin to wonder how you got along without it. (As I like to say, "There's no going back.")
Not to dismiss your trusty KilnSitter, but if you have a perfectly good kiln with a KilnSitter (or just switches), you may have wondered if you can upgrade your kiln with an electronic controller. The answer is ,"Yes, you can" and it's easy to do too.
Orton Ceramics makes electronic kiln controllers (used on Paragon kilns), and they also make controller kits to upgrade existing kilns. There are two main types, which we'll review here, plus a lower cost variation for small/test kilns.
Orton SINGLE-ZONE AutoFire 3000 Controllers:
Click here to see the Orton AutoFire 3000 Controllers
These are the easiest to install on your existing kiln. They give you full programmability and control, just as though the controller were installed at the factory.
You simply mount the controller on the wall near your kiln and insert the tip of the controller's thermocouple (temperature sensor) into the interior of the kiln. (You will have to identify a good location to do this, and will have to drill a small hole through your kiln brick.) Next, plug your kiln into the controller, and plug the controller into the electrical receptacle. That's it. It's installed!
So how does it work?
To run the kiln, you put a cone in the KilnSitter and latch it, just like you have in the past, only this time use a cone that is several cones higher than your desired firing. (The idea here is that the cone will never bend and trip the KilnSitter, and subsequently turn off the kiln. You just want the KilnSitter to be active, so electrical power can flow through it, so the elements will heat.) Now just program the electronic controller and press Start.
The thermocouple will sense the kiln's temperature, and when needed, will allow electricity to flow to the kiln. When the kiln has reached the appropriate temperature, the controller will turn off the electrical power and the elements will quit heating. This process will continue, with the kiln cycling on and off continuously until the end of the firing.
What make this such a nice solution is that you leave your KilnSitter in place. No disassembly needed.
There are a few bonuses with this arrangement.
You can easily move the controller to another kiln, if you wish, so potentially you can run several KilnSitter kilns with a single electronic controller (although not at the same time). If this is part of your plan, Orton even has an optional hand held controller, which can be more easily moved from kiln to kiln.
Your KilnSitter is still in place, so if you ever want to fire again with just your KilnSitter, no problem, you can.
The KilnSitter acts as a "fail safe" for the electronic controller. Should something happen (say, the thermocouple is accidentally pulled out of the kiln) the KilnSitter will trip when the installed cone bends, preventing power from getting to the heating elements and preventing a clay meltdown.
Note: If you happen to have just switches (infinite or 3-postion) instead of a KilnSitter, it's just as easy to install. Just set the switches to the maximum setting, and let the controller run. You don't even have to set a cone in a KilnSitter, but you do lose some of the bonus features listed above.
Want to learn more, click here to see the Orton Single-Zone AutoFire 3000 Controller
Orton MULTI-ZONE AutoFire 3000 Controllers:
The Multi-Zone version of the Orton controller differs from the single zone controller in two significant ways
It measures the temperature in 2 or 3 areas (zones) of the kiln, and controls the heating elements in those locations independently. With the information from additional thermocouples, the controller can provide more uniform temperature top-to-bottom in the kiln. That can be a very good thing, and a number of new kilns offer this feature.
It is MUCH more difficult to install than a single zone controller. You have to remove your KilnSitter and wire the controller directly into your kiln's heating elements. The installation is certainly do-able, but it's important that you be comfortable with, and skilled at, taking electrical things apart (and putting them back together again ;-).
Want to learn more, click here to see the Orton Multi-Zone AutoFire 3000 Controller
Orton AutoFire Express Controllers
Click here to see the Orton AutoFire Express Controllers
These controllers work just like the Single Zone AutoFire 3000 Controller, except they are lower cost and have a less elaborate interface than the AutoFire 3000 Controller. They're limited to 20 amps, so they're perfect for small, test kilns. Even with the simple 3-key interface, the bulk of the functionality is still there. In fact they can be purchased with several different configurations, customized for ceramics, glass, PMC, etc.
Want to learn more, click here to see the Orton AutoFire Express Controller
Skutt KM-1 KilnMaster Controller
And for you Skutt devotees... Skutt makes a wall-mount controller very similar to the Orton Single-Zone Autofire 3000 discussed above. Installation is just as simple and straight forward. It's a very nice unit and features the Skutt KilnMaster control panel.
Want to learn more, click here to see the Skutt KM-1 KilnMaster Controller
If you have a kiln you like, but it has a KilnSitter or manual controls, and you wish it had an electronic controller, check out the Orton Electronic controllers (or the Skutt KilnMaster). It may be just what you're looking for.