The Elektra Nivola is one of those machines that some find incredibly intuitive to use, yet others are confused by the occasional departure from convention that is built into the design.
The machine is designed to take most of the thinking out of making espresso, while looking good doing it. The question is, did Elektra hit a home run when it comes to operation and maintenance? In my opinion, they got some things right, but also missed a few things.
Operating the Elektra Nivola
The Elektra Nivola is a technologically advanced espresso machine, one that contains some of the technologies you would normally find in $1000 machines or higher.
For instance, the machine has a very precise temperature control system that keeps the water in the boiler within 1C of optimal - or whatever Elektra technicians have determined to be optimal. This temperature control system is one that is unique to Elektra (they've patented it). In our own informal testing, the machine does indeed deliver water at the same temperatures, shot after shot, but this comes with a price. The machine won't brew for you when it isn't ready - for the casual espresso drinker this is a boon because it means one variable is always under control. For an advanced user, you may get annoyed at the machine's sometimes-refusal to brew a shot when you activate the brew dial.
When you use the machine, one thing you'll notice is that it sometimes takes as long as 10 or 12 seconds for the shot to commence after you've initiated the brew dial, and the pump starts working. The Nivola seems to have some sort of flow restriction in place, most likely due to the designers' desire to control water temperatures. The result is an output volume of only 49.5ml per 10 seconds - compared to the average of 80ml to 100ml on every other pump driven machine we currently have for testing.
This isn't to say that the Nivola can't plow through fine grinds - it can. It just takes longer do do so. This does give the ristretto drinker a few problems, something that the Nivola designers probably didn't realise:
When making a ristretto, one common school of thought is that a double shot, which is about 1.5 ounces of total liquid, should actually take longer to produce than a standard 3 ounce double shot of espresso. There's been good articles about this theory posted online in the alt.coffee newsgroup, and it's a theory I practice to a certain extent. This means my "perfect" double ristrettos should take about 30 to 32 seconds to pour, from activation of the pump.
This desire to brew a perfect ristretto runs up against two roadblocks on the Nivola. The first is that this machine often takes 5 to 7 seconds longer than other mahcines to first show a stream of espresso; and second, the machine has a 40 second limit on brew time, from the moment you activate the brew dial.
That's right - the engineers built in a 40 second, automatic cut off into the machine - it simply will not brew a shot longer than this time. I can see the reason for this - conventional school of thought is that a normal shot of espresso should take 25 seconds, from activation of the pump, so an extra 15 seconds gives a quite a bit of leeway, but prevents complete and utter over-extraction of normal espresso shots by your typical espresso newbie.
But the reduced flow rate of the machine plays against this: the 25 second shot becomes a 30 second shot if you want to make a direct comparison. And water is in contact with your grinds longer, before you see flow commence. On a Rancilio Silvia, you would activate the switch, and 5 to 7 seconds later, the espresso starts flowing. So your actual shot flow time is some 18 to 20 seconds. On the Nivola, you get a shot flow time of 13 to 15 seconds, if you follow the same 25 second rule.
And when you follow the new-theory ristretto rule, to maintain a flow time of about 24 to 26 seconds (a la Silvia), on the Nivola you have a complete brewing time of 36 to 38 seconds... or put another way, 2 seconds shy of the built in cut off time.
I'd like to see Elektra extend this cut off by at least 5 seconds, or get the flow rate up to what is more or less the standard for pump machines; that is, 75 to 100ml per 10 seconds.
I'm harping on the flow rate, but that doesn't diminish the fact that the Nivola has a very good quality Ulka pump, one of the new 'Silent Series' pumps made by Ulka. These aren't cheap, and the noise reduction is noticeable. The machine still isn't nearly as quiet as a Solis SL series machines (those are the quiet champs), but it is possible to hold a conversation while the Nivola is running, something that isn't possible with a Silvia or Livia machine. The pump is one of the best vibe pumps on the market. Somehow the flow rate from the pump is restricted, causing the less than 50ml/10 second water rate.
You may notice the lack of any kind of water level indicator on the machine. This is because the machine relies on lights and an audible alarm to indicate water level. When you need to add water, the machine will beep constantly, and a red warning light on the front of the unit will flash.
This is a neat way to handle this kind of warning or indicator, except for one issue - my Nivola was "buggy" and the alarm would sometimes go off even when the reservoir was full. Elektra suspects a possible loose connection wire between the sensor and onboard microprocessor, and I opted not to return the machine for this problem. I only mention it because I probably would have been raving about the audible alarm system were it not for this potential faulty wiring.
I mentioned at the top of this section that the Nivola contains many features found in more expensive machines; one of these features is autofill. As mentioned in the Overview section, the machine does self prime (sort of - you do have to turn the dial a specific way first), but it does do true automatic repriming after a steaming session, which is very good indeed, and a feature not found on many machines below $900.
The Nivola does not have a hot water function, which is a feature I really missed. I like my Americanos, and there simply isn't any way to make them on the Nivola.
The Nivola is also lacking a 3 way solenoid valve (a type of instant pressure release system) that I believe should be a defacto standard on any espresso machine over $400. This omission has some negative aspects when it comes to operating the machine, and ironically there's also one positive, related to maintenance (more on the positive in the maintenance section, below).
With the lack of a pressure release system, you cannot remove the portafilter right after preparing a shot, unless you want to risk injury to yourself and a mess to clean up from the pressurized grounds spraying all over the place - this effect is common known as a "portafilter sneeze". Banging out consecutive shots with the Nivola is not doable - you have to wait between 30 seconds and a minute or longer for enough pressure to "leech" away from the portafilter and grouphead to be able to safely remove the portafilter.
You can attempt to carefully remove the PF right after brewing a shot by doing so very slowly and in a controlled manner, but I don't recommend it - you get soupy, messy grinds everwhere, and even the smallest loss of concentration on what you're doing could result in the pressure just BAM releasing and spraying all over the place.
Elektra says they do not see any difference in shot quality between machines installed with 3 way solenoid valves and those without, and I agree - it doesn't affect shot quality one way or the other. But when it comes to normal operation, and the desire to produce consecutive shots, it makes a huge difference. A 3 way solenoid valve is an "operator's" tool, and something that I believe the machine should have had built in, especially at its price point.
When steaming with the machine, the casual owner will no doubt appreciate the built in pannerello attachment for easy frothing and steaming, but the more experienced user won't, and will probably want to swap the pannerello attachment with a standard frothing tip. The tip for the Micro Casa line of machines also fits the Nivola, so that's good news.
| Steam wand's curvy nature. Shown with Micro Casa tip (aftermarket). |
The steam wand is a curvy thing that is designed to hang straight down into a frothing jug that you place on the Nivola's drip tray. Unfortunately, my test unit had a wand that was too "loose', and would not stay in any position except the one gravity chose for it. This could be an exception; Elektra has said that the wands are usually more stiff and will hold almost any 'position" you place it in.
The Elektra is an "all or nothing" steamer - there is no knob to control the steam volume, or even turn it on or off - you have to dial the machine to steam mode, and wait until the Elektra decides it has enough steam. Then surprise, massive plumes of steam come out of the wand. I don't like this system - everytime I did the "lay the pannerello tip in a steaming pitcher" thing, when the steam activated milk flew everywhere.
You can just leave the pannerello in the open air and wait for the steam to commence - the Nivola will let you turn off the steam (turning the dial back to standby) within the first five seconds or so of steaming activity, and still keep the machine in steam mode. If you turn the dial back to standby after 5 seconds, the machine thinks you are done steaming, and reprimes the boiler.
I would have much preferred a steam knob, and I believe every machine, whether for espresso newbies or long time vets should have manually controlled steam release systems. If I could make one (of a couple) suggestions to Elektra - replace the funky, yet plain window dressing clock with a steaming knob. It will still look very cool, but the user can decide how much and how long they want the steam to run. The bonus is the user can easily "bleed off" the wet steam almost every espresso machine produces initially.
| Removing the reservoir requires cup removal, top plate removal, then another plate removal (with a bolt!). A bit of a hassle. |
Dealing with the water reservoir is a bit of a pain. The Elektra has a way-cool cup warming tray that really does its job, but to reach the water reservoir, you have to remove all the cups and then the cup warming tray lid. Too much work - I would rather have seen a cutout towards the back of the stainless steel drip tray that would let me pour water in directly without having to remove everything.
And forget easy access to removing the reservoir - it is a "job", as they say. This is partially due to the design, partially due to UL restrictions - in order to gain UL, Elektra had to put a bolted plate on top of the machine, a plate that covers the reservoir somewhat. I imagine Elektra could redesign the reservoir so it has a lip that sits on top of this plate, but until they do, you have to unscrew a single bolt (accessible with a coin) to get the reservoir out.
When it comes to the operation of the Nivola, I've praised a few things and complained about a few things. Some of the complaints are really minor, but if there were two things I would really ask Elektra to change on this machine, it would be revamp (and power up) the steaming function and ability of the machine, and add a 3 way solenoid or some other type of instant pressure release system to it. Fix these two things, and the product's performance and usability will skyrocket. I'll have more on the steaming issue in the performance section.
Maintenance of the Nivola
Maintaining the Elektra Nivola should be easy, and it generally is. The machine tries to look out for you with the variety of monitoring, warning and other control and sensor systems built into it, and for many casual users, the machine does this job very well.
Actual cleaning of the machine is pretty easy. While I harp on the lack of a 3 way pressure relief system, there is one plus to this - machines that lack a 3 way solenoid don't get groupheads that are as messy as those that do have the system. The reason is simple - for pressure to be relieved from a pressurized portafilter, it has to go somewhere - and that somewhere is through the dispersion screen and grouphead. You may end up with soupy pucks from a Nivola, but at least wiping down the grouphead and screen is easy.
I wish I could say that regular thorough cleaning of the grouphead was as easy - it isn't, due to one factor - Elektra uses a very shallow hexagon bolt to keep the dispersion screen in place. I own a socket set, but I didn't have a nut that fit the bolt shape, and I had to actually go out and buy one.
Dispersion screen cleaning is regular maintenance on any espresso machine, but Elektra has made it more difficult to do this regular maintenance on the Nivola.You can't use pliers or vice-grips on this bolt - the side walls are too shallow and you'll strip it (I almost did).
Fortunately, the solution is easy. Either Elektra redesigns that bolt so it has a flat-head screwdriver notch in the middle of it, or provides a simple wrench tool (just like Ikea does with their furniture) in the box so the owner of the machine can easily unscrew and screw the bolt when they do their regular weekly cleaning of the dispersion screen.
This is not an issue with the pod version of the machine - the nut holding the dispersion screen in place is accessible with a normal screwdriver.
The drip tray on the machine is middle of the road - not too shallow, but not very deep either. It needs to be emptied every 3 or 4 doubles, depending on whether you do the "portafilter wiggle" or not (The portafilter wiggle involves putting the portafilter in the grouphead loosely, running the pump, and wiggling the pf back and forth to flush out any stray grinds from the grouphead, dispersion screen, and gasket).
There was one issue under the drip tray - the aluminum underneath it is not polished, or coated. In the month of use this machine had, some liquid accumulated under the tray, and started oxidizing the metal. If you dry this area anytime you empty the drip tray, it shouldn't be an issue. Still, Elektra would do good to coat this aluminum with a rudimentary spray to seal it and prevent this kind of damage.
One thing I liked hearing about the Nivola was something Dr. Fregnan told me about the UL process they went through. Two things benefit the usability and maintenance of the machine. First, special care has been given to all the electrical componentry inside, so that if any stray water from the cup warming area should dribble in the machine, you don't have any maintenance concerns - the Nivola can take it. In fact, the UL process this machine underwent specifically tested for this. Another maintenance free aspect is built into the steam wand and the water reservoir valve - both are specially engineered to prevent air bubbles and things like milk entering the boiler. Nice touch, thanks to the use of a double valve assembly specially engineered by Elektra's tech designers.
| Minor issue: some water damage to untreated aluminum. Click to enlarge. |
Overall, with the exception of the flat bolt on the grounds-version of the machine, normal maintenance of the Nivola is very easy. The entire outer surface of the machine is easy to clean and it is coated with an expensive clear coating that does not stain.
I'll keep this section short and sweet. Basically, pod operation maintenance on the Nivola is what you'd expect a pod machine to be - very easy. After all, that is why people use pods - ease of use and convenience. The ESE certified system on the Nivola is probably one of the best pod machines I've tested - I say probably, because I find it exceedingly difficult to give fair evaluations to pods and pod machines.
I did have two test groups put the Nivola and two other pod machines through their paces. The combination of the the Nivola and pods from Bristot and aBetterCup.com were ranked the best of the bunch, and I though the SL70 (another pod capable machine in the test) was good. The third machine was a pod-enabled Nuova Simonelli Oscar, which came in a close second in the testing.
The "portafilter sneeze" issue, detailed above with the grounds version of the Nivola, does not exist with the pod enabled version- you can safely remove the portafilter right after brewing a shot, and you won't risk injury or create a mess.