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the detailed review - isomac zaffiro
Isomac Zaffiro - Operation and Maintenance
Introduction | Overview | Out of the Box | Operation | Performance | Comparisons | Conclusions
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By the time you get to a machine like the Isomac Zaffiro, operation and maintenance isn't a walk in the park like a $100 Krups machine is, or a super auto, for that matter. But don't let me dissuade you - using and maintaining this machine isn't difficult. And if and when parts eventually fail or need replacing, doing the fix isn't very hard.

Standard Operation

This machine isn't an Isomac Tea. Or a Euro Junior 2000. Or an Expobar Pulser for that matter.

I say this in a kind manner to both the aforementioned machines, and the Zaffiro. With the above mentioned machines, you have a heat exchanger core (HX) that requires some modifications to how you use the machine, when compared to cheaper, single-boiler machines. For instance, you need to flush the groupheads on those E61 equipped HX machines for a good 4+ ounces of water to get the grouphead down to brewing temperatures - otherwise the shots are too hot.

This is not necessary with the Zaffiro. It is an E61 grouphead-equipped machine, but the grouphead is heated with brewing temperature water, not steam temperature water like the HX machines. When you want a shot, it's still good practice to "flush the grouphead", but you only need do a quick on/off pull of the lever for a second or two - just until you see some water flow. Otherwise, it's good to go.

I covered this in the introductory portion, but it's good to refresh here on all the controls on an Isomac Zaffiro. This time around, I've enclosed a photograph showing all the controls.

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As you can see in the photo - there are three indicator lights on the Zaffiro. The far left is the power light - if the machine is on, this light is on. The far right is the steam light - if you put the machine into steam mode by flipping up the far right switch, this light will stay on. The middle light indicates the boiler state - when it's lit up, the heating elements in the boiler are active. It indicates both brew heating and steam heating, depending on what mode you're in.

The brew lever is built into the E61 grouphead. Lifting this lever so it's parallel with your counter surface is how you activate the pump and open up the flow between boiler and the grouphead.

Now that we've covered the controls, let's delve into the standard practice for using an Isomac Zaffiro as an espresso machine (I'll cover steaming later).

  1. Turn the machine on (if it isn't already on - if it is, proceed to step 4)

  2. Give the machine adequate passive heat up time (about 25-30 minutes), and proceed to step 4, or

  3. Cheat the machine up to brewing temperatures. Note, this does use a lot of water: a) turn the machine on. b) once the ready lamp goes off on the middle lamp, turn the steam switch on, run about 2oz (60ml) of water through the group at the same time. c) when the steam is ready (the middle light will go out again), run about 5oz (150ml) through the grouphead and portafilter. d) turn the steam switch off. e) run another 5oz or so through the grouphead and portafilter. f) run hot water through the machine by activating the middle switch, and opening up the steam wand valve. WARNING: water may sputter - have the wand flow into a deep walled container. Do this until the middle light goes on again, indicating the brew boiler is cycling back up to good brewing temperatures. g) wait for the middle light to go off again, and the machine should be sufficiently warmed up to brew a good shot. Total cheat time from cold start: about 13 minutes.

  4. Once the machine is ready to go (see more on deciding when it's optimal to brew below), flush the grouphead briefly with the portafilter removed but under the stream of water. Dry out the filter basket, bring the portafilter over to your grinder, fill it, dose and tamp. Flush once more (lift the brewing lever briefly) and lock and load your portafilter.

  5. Lift the lever and commence brewing. Note that E61 equipped machines take longer to first show the streams of espresso, and you should probably add 2 to 4 seconds to your "brewing time" if you're used to doing 27 seconds shots on a $300 Solis or a $200 Gaggia. This is because of the progressive preinfusion system on E61 machines - a chamber inside the grouphead needs to fill first before 135psi of pressure is applied to the packed bed of coffee. Water is in contact with the bed the entire time, so adjusting your total brew time estimates is optional. For me, I equate a 25 second shot on a Livia with a 27 second shot on any E61 equipped machine.

  6. Once your desired volume / timing has been reached, simply pull the lever back down on the grouphead. You will hear (and see) a whoosh of water flushing out of the bottom of the grouphead's solenoid/reservoir pipe. No worries there - it's releasing pressure from the grouphead and emptying out all the preinfusion water.

  7. Remove the portafilter, dump the spent puck, and flush the grouphead once again, pouring the water into the portafilter which is held loosely below the grouphead - I twirl and move it to get all the spent grinds out of both the grouphead and the portafilter's filter basket.

  8. Put the portafilter back into the grouphead. Here's a tip - for longer life gaskets, don't put the PF in tight - just put it in tight enough so it stays put.

That was how to operate the Zaffiro when brewing espresso. Here's a series of shots showing a ristretto pull on the machine.

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About 8 seconds in
9 seconds in
10 seconds in
13 seconds in
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18 seconds in
23 seconds in
27 seconds in, shot stopped
30 seconds after finish

If you want to brew a cappuccino, machiato or latte, here are the steps to take:

  1. Follow Steps 1 to 6 in the previous operation how to.

  2. Turn the steam switch (far right) on. Remove the portafilter, dump the spent puck, and for now, simply place the portafilter back in the machine.

  3. Wait for about 30 seconds, and purge the steam wand: point the wand into the drip tray area (be careful, it's hot!), and open the steam valve. Do this for about 5-10 seconds. Close.

  4. Watch the pressure gauge closely - at 4BAR, the steam thermostat will shut off the boiler heating element - you could steam when it's off and get great performance, but you'll get better performance if it's active. At 2.5BAR, flush the wand again.

  5. At around 3.5-3.7BAR (we're cutting it close here), start steaming. Be warned - the Zaffiro is a powerful steamer, and I've timed it as fast as an amazing 18 seconds to do 7oz (210ml) of milk from 40F to 155F (4.5C to 68.3C), so get ready for it.

  6. Once you've steamed, turn off the steam switch, clean the wand, and blast some steam through it to remove any milk build up.

  7. Remove portafilter, flip the brewing switch, and rinse portafilter and grouphead. BE CAREFUL - water is actively flashing to steam from the grouphead at this point. Clean sufficiently, and put the portafilter back in the machine loosely.

  8. Flip the middle switch to refill the boiler - as soon as the pressure gauge ramps up to 9BAR (and it happens almost instantly once the tank is filled), turn the switch off.

In my timings, the Zaffiro is less than ideal for making cappuccinos in terms of time spent - your espresso shot will sit there for as much as 2 minutes as you wait for the machine to ramp up, and be ready to steam. If you are impatient, it is possible to start steaming at around 1 minute into the warm up, but it will take over 30 seconds to steam and froth the milk, and microfoaming is a bit more difficult.

Operational Tips

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I prefer to always brew at the top of a boiler cycle (ie, the middle light goes on, showing the boiler element is active, and once it shuts off, that's the top of the boiler cycling); however, the Zaffiro has such a large boiler it takes some time between cycle events, and the cycling is long on its own (I've timed it at as long as 67 seconds).

I've found in my temperature measurements the Zaffiro has about a 6-8F (2.5C) range tolerance in its thermostat; that is, the top of the cycle may be 200F (93.4C) (which you can adjust! A first for a single boiler / dual purpose boiler machine!) but the thermostat won't activate the boiler element until it reads 194F (90C). It's your call though - you won't see much difference in shot tastes unless your palate is as developed as a Dr. Joseph John or David Schomer. And you can also activate the steam switch for five seconds or so just to "top up" the temperatures if you like.

As mentioned above in the steaming "how to", the machine takes a long time to ramp up and get ready to steam (but it can take less than 18 seconds to do 7oz (210ml) of milk once it's ready). You can cheat this as well, steaming after about a minute's warm up time (bleed the wand at the start of the warm up, wait a minute, then purge a bit and steam). I've found it takes about 30 seconds to do 7oz, but the total time after brewing is around 90 seconds - far better than 170 seconds using the bleed / bleed / watch method mentioned in our Performance section.

There's another trick to getting "better "cappuccinos - make sure your cappuccino cup is blistering hot - as much as 170F (75C) or hotter. You can do this by having it in a water bath of boiling water (the World Barista Champions (WBC) and competitors do this!), or filled to the rim with boiling water which you dump just before brewing. This will aid in keeping the espresso exceptionally hot during the "wait" time. And keep this in mind - in WBC competitions, with a dual boiler La Marzocco machine with 3 and 4 groupheads, some espresso in the cappa cups will sit for as long as 45 seconds or longer before the Barista pours the milk in.

With all this said, it's important to note the Zaffiro is essentially an espresso purists' machine - its performance and ability is definitely slanted towards brewing exceptional espresso, and in that regard it is the tops - the only machine in my stable that does better is the La Marzocco Linea professional machine.

The Zaffiro is also an exceptional steamer, but the catch is, you wait for that 800ml to heat up appropriately. If your goal is espresso in the day, and steamed milk and hot chocolate (or steaming water to boil) in the evening, this machine is amongst the best out there. If you want a cappuccino every time you brew coffee, you might want to look at other hardware.

Maintenance of the Zaffiro

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Back of the thermostat box
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Front with adjusting arm
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Probe that goes into boiler

Before I get into maintenance routines, I should cover some things about the Zaffiro that are unique to the machine.

First, the thermometer inside that controls the boiler actions. It has two pluses over most machines that are less expensive: it's easily serviceable/replaceable, and it can be adjusted easily. Right on top of the "brainbox" of the thermometer, there's a dial that can be turned to adjust the top-cycle temperature of the boiler.

I do suggest you don't fool with this adjustment - it's factory set at good rates (about a 202F (94.5C) top cycle at sea level). But if your espresso is coming out sour, you can access this adjustment and with very fine turns (if it were a clock face, don't turn it more than 2-5 minutes per adjustment) to make the top cycle of the boiler hotter (or colder, if your shots are too bitter). But please - this is advanced stuff, and it is possible to damage the machine if you adjust it too much - do it so with care and attention, and at your own risk.

If the thermostat goes south, it is easily replaceable by the user. The brain box is wired to a probe that goes into a tube chamber on the boiler - it simply pulls out, no nuts or bolts to deal with. Mine died during testing, and replacing it was a 2 minute job. Others have reported repeated thermostat problems. This is something that hopefully the manufacturer will fix permanently soon.

Another thing that can be tweaked by the user is the auto shut off "settings" of the machine. If the water reservoir gets too low, the machine automatically shuts off most functions until you replenish the reservoir. Some people have had this happen with a reservoir that was still half full. Why? Because it's a mechanical spring / weight thing. The reservoir sits on a platform that has springs... if the springs are depressed enough, the machine says "good to go". As the load lightens, the springs extend, and at some point, a microswitch says "oh oh, not enough water" and shuts of the boiler and pump. (thanks to CoffeeGeek Member Bob Allman for pointing this out).

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Height of the pressure switch under the reservoir can be tweaked.

This can be adjusted by turning an adjustment screw on the microswitch - raising the switch will mean it activates with less weight above it.

And lastly before I get into routine and intensive maintenance, the Zaffiro uses a 52W, better quality Ulka pump (better quality than the stock 42W one that goes into most machines under $600, and some above that price point). Pumps do get "tired" after a while, usually 3 to 5 years of good use, and replacing it is fairly easy. I won't get into detail here, but the pumps are easily available.

Routine and Intensive Maintenance

I've already given some hints of the general maintenance for the Zaffiro, including simple flushes of the grouphead, purging the wand, and rinsing the portafilter. I'll include that information here again, and also provide more intensive maintenance notes.

Daily / Per Shot Maintenance
First, always keep the machine clean. Not only does it make you feel good, but it will prolong the life of the machine and its external parts.

Next, with every shot, you should get into the habit of doing flushes and "portafilter wiggles". Run your grinder, and as its running, remove the portafilter from the machine, hold it loosely under the grouphead, and run the brew lever for a few seconds, flushing the group and rinsing the filter basket. Dump the water, wipe it dry, and load it up with grounds. After the shot, dump the puck, and flush the grouphead again, with the portafilter held loosely below it. Rinse out the grinds, then put the portafilter into the grouphead, but loose, and wiggle it back and forth. This will rinse the gasket. Dump the water, and put the portafilter back in place, loosely.

Weekly / Every 10, 15 Shots Maintenance
I like to do a blind filter water backflush with the machine every week, or every 10 to 15 shots, whatever comes first. This involves using a blind filter basket (no holes), putting the portafilter in tight, and running the brew lever for five seconds. Pause for 5 seconds, then repeat 3 or 4 times.

Bi-Weekly / Every 20-30 Shots Maintenance
E61 equipped espresso machines don't have easily removable dispersion screens (other machines have a screw holding it in place; E61 grouphead machines use the gasket to hold the screen in place), so doing a proper backflush with Urnex or similar cleaners is very important to do. Follow your cleaners' instructions, but it usually goes like this - add a teaspoon of the powder to the blind filter, put the portafilter into the machine tight, and run the pump for 10 seconds. Pause for five, repeat up to 5, 7 times.

Remove the portafilter and dump out the liquid, and rinse it under the grouphead (lift the brew lever to purge residue from the screen). Then put the portafilter in place again with the blind filter, and do 5 or 6 backflushes with water. Remove, rinse, and repeat. You end up doing about 20+ backflushes. Run brew water through the group one last time, put the double filter back in place, and brew a shot or two to finish "seasoning" the machine, and remove any residue cleaner.

Other Maintenance
Depending on your water conditions, the Zaffiro's boiler should be descaled every 3 to 6 months (or longer - my water supply in Vancouver is excellent for helping prevent scale buildup). This is intensive stuff, and I would prefer if you asked your vendor for complete instructions on how to do this.

Every six months to a year, you may want to think about changing your gasket. I make it habit to change the gaskets on my regular-use machines every 3 to 4 months. You may want to wait until you start seeing some leakage around the grouphead and portafilter.

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No screw in the middle of the dispersion screen. Remove the gasket to remove the screen.

Replacing a gasket is fairly easy on an E61 machine. It's thick, and a stubby screwdriver with a wide head, or even a butter knife can be used to wedge the old gasket out. Take this opportunity to completely clean the dispersion screen and interior of the grouphead. Once done, wedge the new gasket and dispersion screen back in place, and it'll be like getting a brand new machine.

You can also clean the dispersion screen without replacing the gasket (just removing it briefly), but exercise EXTREME care when wedging out the gasket - it can tear or mar if you're not careful.

Keeping the machine clean and running well is very important to the longevity of your machine. The Zaffiro is built solid enough that is should last a lifetime, with good maintenance, including daily cleanings, weekly backflushing (water), bi-weekly backflushing (cleaning chemicals), descaling and gasket maintenance. Always make sure your filter ridges are clean (the rounded top portion of the filter basket that wedges against the gasket, forming a waterproof seal while brewing), and wipe and purge your steam wand after every use.

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Introduction | Overview | Out of the Box | Operation | Performance | Comparisons | Conclusions
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