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Thread: Copper / Brass versus Stainless Steel

  1. #1
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    Copper / Brass versus Stainless Steel

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    Copper has the highest heat conductivity with Brass an alloy of copper and zinc next.

    Stainless Steel has about 1/6 the thermal conductivity but has about 20% greater heat capacity.

    This is why you can have saucepans with SS handles and they don't get hot. If you tried this with brass or copper, it would be friggin' hilarious watching Master Chef play with their new pots and pans.

    Of course, SS is inert chemically and is much harder. This is why most copper or brass in your machine needs lashings of nice Chrome over it to make wear surfaces much harder. It also makes it more chemically inert and hence much less likely to impart flavours to your brew that are unwanted.

    I have an E61 machine. No one is going to ever design a SS E61 head...period. The whole idea is that the whole head heats up quickly and evenly something SS isn't good at.

    Contentious areas are things such as boilers and portafilters. A boiler I can't see any advantage in brass but I can see some downside as it is chemically more reactive. A boiler just holds water. I suppose one advantage is brass is easier to work, drill etc.

    Portafilters made of SS are popular. I was looking at my new one and realizing differences right away. A SS one the handle won't get hot whereas the entire head will get hot on a brass/chrome one. I run water through the portafilter first before a shot which should negate differences there but the brass one will definitely be at more or less a uniform temperature ALWAYS whereas the SS one won't be. The only possible difference would be SS absorbing heat from the shots. The contact time is only of the order of a few seconds in the portafilter and so the reduced heat conductance of SS would mean less heat would be adsorbed although the SS is likely to be cooler than with an all Brass/Copper portafilter.

    My guess is it makes little or no difference but certainly with portafilters it makes it extra important, even essential that you make sure your SS portafilter is properly pre-warmed with water before using it for a shot. The benefit of SS is cosmetic mainly but no doubt high chrome SS will last pretty well forever and no chance of plating wearing off.
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    I recall reading somewhere about stainless boilers not being ideal as the temp/pressure can lead to pitting?

    I find SS is very easy to wipe clean, even compared to chromed brass (talking PFs).

    Good point about pre warming the PF properly. I guess thats why some appliance machines use a plastic insert inside the PF, reduces the effect if the PF is not fully warmed. I now exclusively use a naked PF so the warming is less of an issue as the basket heats up quick due to very low mass and no water actually touches the PF.

    When I made a naked PF, I was amazed that the plating didnt start to peel off at the cut line.

    Cheers

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    Quote Originally Posted by artman View Post
    I recall reading somewhere about stainless boilers not being ideal as the temp/pressure can lead to pitting?

    I find SS is very easy to wipe clean, even compared to chromed brass (talking PFs).

    Good point about pre warming the PF properly. I guess thats why some appliance machines use a plastic insert inside the PF, reduces the effect if the PF is not fully warmed. I now exclusively use a naked PF so the warming is less of an issue as the basket heats up quick due to very low mass and no water actually touches the PF.

    When I made a naked PF, I was amazed that the plating didnt start to peel off at the cut line.

    Cheers
    The EU, reportedly is legislating SS for boilers. SS is used in the Dairy industry for a wide range of applications including areas where there is heat. Believe me, provided the correct grade of stainless is used for the application, you shouldn't get corrosion issues except in exceptional situations. Milk products are pretty bad too for production of acids and the like.

    The chrome on portafilters will last for decades, if it is a good coating of chrome although this would depend on manufacturing. The Bezzera portafilters are 20 years old and the chrome hasn't worn off anywhere I can see.

    Edit: The La Marzocco boilers were probably the first to go SS in the seventies, long time ago.

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    Quote Originally Posted by wattgn View Post
    Edit: The La Marzocco boilers were probably the first to go SS in the seventies, long time ago.
    True and caused a lot of people a lot of trouble due to trashed boilers after a very short time...
    Very important to make sure your water filtering is specifically identified as suitable for removing all chlorine compounds.

    Mal.

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    Chlorine could be an issue if you don't filter especially in a commercial environment with boilers running a long time but it would be careless not to filter. It would take a long time though to cause any real issues and high chlorine in the water.

    If LM have been using SS boilers for nearly half a century, one would presume these issues are sorted and it may be dependent on SS grade used.

    All boilers are going to SS anyway, so maybe a mute point.

    Carbon filters remove reactive products like free chlorine and associated compounds, chloride such as salt isn't reactive but isn't an issue.

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    Quote Originally Posted by wattgn View Post
    All boilers are going to SS anyway, so maybe a mute point.
    Maybe 'moot'...

    Not for me they won't be....
    If I ever decide to head to a different espresso machine in the future, it will NOT have a s/s boiler. Just don't need the hassle...

    Mal.

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    Then avoid La Cimbali, LM, Wega, La Pavoni, ECM others. They obviously have no idea...amateurs...

    In the Dairy and Wine Industry just about anything contacting product is 316 Stainless Steel which is high nickel, high chrome alloy and very chemically resistant.

    In some ways, brass is anomalous with espresso machines but it is there for reasons of conduction.

    A boiler with a bridge to the group head such as the Bezzera BZ40P I have, requires a brass boiler for conduction. It won't work otherwise.

    Most E61 machines will have Stainless Steel boilers as they don't need the brass conductivity as the head is warmed by thermosiphon.

    I know there is some concern about drinking water kept in contact with brass at temperature which is influencing the EU to possibly move on this but I'm not really sure how far it all goes. Brass is certainly not as inert as Stainless and depending on pH you could get thinning of boilers and this goes into the steam and some into the espresso also.

    I had my next door neighbour out today (a plumber). I nicked a copper water pipe with pruning shears while investigating the reticulation. I commented it was really soft and he said, 'well depending on the water acidity, it can result in thinning of the Copper and it looks like your pipe maybe has thinned out a bit". He welded the piper for me. On a Sunday...wow.

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    Boilers (non SS) in espresso machines are generally close on pure copper.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Talk_Coffee View Post
    Boilers (non SS) in espresso machines are generally close on pure copper.
    Brass or Copper, the chemistry would be similar. Copper is softer and heavier and more conductive.

  10. #10
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    In the presence of high temps, higher than desired TDH and chloramines, copper every day. It is an issue in many parts of Australia.

    Wine and milk is not espresso machine boiler.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Talk_Coffee View Post
    In the presence of high temps, higher than desired TDH and chloramines, copper every day. It is an issue in many parts of Australia.

    Wine and milk is not espresso machine boiler.
    Many leading companies use both Copper and Stainless boilers so I doubt either will cause issues except in unusual circumstances. Both stainless and copper have been used for decades in espresso machine boilers and will last for decades.

    Stainless steel is used for food processing as there is ZERO risk of imparting flavours to foods and it allows the use of powerful alkaline and acidic chemicals for cleaning equipment and machinery. Copper does definitely leach into water over time though depending on pH and other factors and it is this chemical reactivity that means it isn't favoured even in equipment such as heat exchangers. Copper can also cause other issues such as visual defects due to the coloured copper salts finding it's way into foods as coloured particles.

    Coffee is different though as there is no scrubbing or cleaning involved internally unlike food contact surfaces, so Copper and brass is an option.

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    Copper and brass with high silver brazing alloy welds are extremely resilient. Fabricated and welded stainless boilers can degrade over time due to repeated heating and cooling cycles, which embrittles the material, particularly in big boilers.

    That's why I don't recommend people turn off their commercial machines with SS boilers over night, even if it is the right thing to do to conserve energy.
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    Quote Originally Posted by coffee_machinist View Post
    Copper and brass with high silver brazing alloy welds are extremely resilient. Fabricated and welded stainless boilers can degrade over time due to repeated heating and cooling cycles, which embrittles the material, particularly in big boilers.

    That's why I don't recommend people turn off their commercial machines with SS boilers over night, even if it is the right thing to do to conserve energy.
    Well, we should be seeing quite a few boiler failures then with SS boilers is all I can say but call me skeptical about that....

    I'd also be pissed off if I paid 8k for a LM machine see the boiler fail prematurely.

    This is why I am skeptical. If companies with massive investment and respect were getting a lot of issues with a component in their system they would simply change back. Even Rocket Express are using Copper boilers but with nickel plating to avoid copper corrosion issues.

    I see it as even money either way in that no one is going to be disadvantaged whatever material they use.

    It doesn't pass the logic test with me.

    Mind you it makes it an interesting thread with lots of potential...

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    You're really preaching to people who, either by virtue of their professional qualifications or significant research from long ago, already understand the pros and cons of opting for one metal or another in an espresso machine boiler. I choose copper over s/s because that's what my research, over some considerable time, tells me has fewer cons than s/s.

    Everyone can choose what best suits them after doing their due diligence research from reputable sources. You're never going to sell me on s/s boilers over pure copper...

    Don't forget the marketing push by various companies claiming the so-called benefits of s/s over copper too - Has nothing to do with absolute benefits. Believe what you will...

    Mal.

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    Believe whatever you want sir. I'm just the guy that swaps out the boilers when they fail. Note I should have said long periods, usually 10+ years of heat cycling. All materials have issues, nothing is perfect and espresso machine design is a continual compromise.

    Kees van der Westen is my go to when I want to follow an example of best practise - copper steam boilers and heat exchangers (big temperature cycles), copper plumbing, brass fittings and brew boilers/groups fabricated in 316L stainless.

    I have replaced the brew boiler in my original Mistral (90's Marzocco boilers, these were built on Linea parts) as the S/S tube was flogged from heat cycling, it sweated. Quite common for this era now at this age.

  16. #16
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    Yep...

    S/S for a brew boiler is a less contentious situation.

    For steam and/or HX Boilers is where it becomes more of an issue...

    Re: LM machines - In a major centre close to us and only after a couple of years, several (new) LM machines from a number of cafes, suffered from significant boiler failures due to inadequate removal of chlorine compounds from their water supply. I am unaware of the water filtering advice they received prior to installation and, if they were advised, whether they acted on it.

    It always comes down to ensuring that one has the best information for the purpose (and then acting on it)...

    Mal.
    Last edited by Dimal; 18th September 2016 at 10:59 PM.
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    5 senses in WA probably have a few skips full of shagged synesso brew tanks, and melbourne roasters could likely fill another with gen1 slayer brew tanks. Not all due to heat cycling, but a combination of factors. Mostly pinhole failures in the welds.

    SS is extremely unforgiving and requires absolute critical choice of material, welding technique, filler material, purging, pickling and testing (then theres the water chemistry and what it does in the presence of heat and pressure). There is ONE guy at LM who welds all the boilers. I've met him and he's bananas. Too much hexavalent chrome...
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  18. #18
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    Last time I was in WA, Dimattina had a pallet pyramid of shagged SS La Marzocco brew boilers as well. I recall it was about 1.5m high. Given a choice, copper thanks.

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    I was reading more about reasons for using Stainless Steel. I thought initially it is just longevity but it seems it is mainly neutrality regarding flavour taints.

    As far as longevity goes, I think both last so long it probably doesn't matter.

    The other issue with HX boilers is if people don't treat the water correctly then don't pull water through the boiler regularly, or drain it then they have a double issue of concentrating even more undesirable products.

    I have mine plumbed in and correctly filtered. I also pull water through it to warm mugs. I have always done this including for my Bezzera which has a copper boiler, just standard practice. Chlorine has to be removed as it imparts undesirable flavours

    Anyway, anyone who has had a brand new SS boiler in a brand new machine and has it plumbed in and correctly filtered and has had a failure I'd be interested.

    The above examples are simply manufacturing defects, got nothing to do with longevity of the boilers in normal use.

  20. #20
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    Its got everything to do with longevity of boilers in normal use. In most of the above cases I'm sure the owners would state that they had undergone 'normal' use, even in a commercial context. Correct filtration as well. Sometimes a brew boiler can pass every inspection and test the manufacturer can perform and fail years later when the material has undergone repeated stresses.

    Fact of the matter is that building complex pressure vessels out of stainless is a mixture of engineering experience and voodoo that the industry is still very much coming to terms with. Investment casting technology has come a long way, and will replace where possible what was fabricated from tube and plate sections.
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    La Marzocco talking in detail about their experience with stainless steel and water requirements:

    https://youtu.be/h9AcyKNp81U

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    Thanks for the information. I watched a few of the videos on water quality.

    La Marzocco have gone to stainless not only in boilers but their pumps as well in order to cut down on the risk extracted metals such as lead and nickel (the metals they mentioned) from various copper based alloys.

    I have a degree in Chemistry which makes it maybe more interesting to me than most people. The ideal water for Espresso has the compromise required for protecting the machine but also giving a good tasting espresso so some of the standards are subjective (as taste is subjective).

    It didn't really cover what boiler is going to last longer, SS or Copper, but the reasons for going to SS really aren't what I thought, initially, it isn't primarily about boiler life.

    The La Marzocci guy said when asked about whether turning off a machine overnight would affect scale formation, his answer was 'no'.

    I was also looking at water quality in Wanneroo here in Perth. I have to say no real surprises. I knew it would be high in TDS, chloride and was also a bit on the hard side which it is and actually quite alkaline.

    I got the values for the water quality for Wanneroo off the Drinking Quality annual report and plugged values into the Langlier Saturation Index. I got a value of 0.13 which means the water is safe for the machine but prone to form scale. I've got an ion exchange filter in there to combat scale formation.

    It means I'd have to do some complex water filtration trickery to get perfect SCAA specced water but this is beyond what most home users would be prepared to spend. It is interesting though and having said that, no doubt some people will spend big on water filtration and testing. I can see the point in doing so though, now having read a bit on it.

    The standards do change from time to time as well.

    They made an interesting point which is that the taste of the coffee will vary with water quality. I knew taints would affect the flavour such as chlorine compounds and organic compounds and these are removed by activated carbon but they reckon even sodium will affect extraction and hence the flavour of the coffee.

    It's a whole new area of debate.
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    Wow, 22 posts and not one mention of the dreaded "fish oil taste" which brass boilers are infamous for achieving*.

    Try getting a cup of hot water from most cafes which use a brass boiler, let it cool down and try to drink it. 75%+ would taste terrible (one reason why I never use the machine's water tap - just imagine what it does to a cup of tea / herbal tea). All espresso machines need to be fed and serviced properly, however brass boilers tend to pollute the coffee taste more unless a strict regime is followed.

    Do the same test with stainless: a faint metallic taste can exist if they are unloved.

    Longevity - I have seen either brass or SS clap out far too early. In every case when I could get some reasonable info about it - bad water, poor maintenance and / or sheer stupidity reigned supreme.

    EU regs were probably also affected by one SS plus - if someone does not maintain it the output water quality is not affected as drastically (the machine may die, however that is the owner's prob).

    Just my 2 cents.


    TampIt

    *Yes, my first 80's 2 group La Pavoni had brass boilers and was just under 20 years old at sale with no problems because I always maintained it correctly. I know of some under one year old brass machines in WA which desperately need a complete boiler "flush and A-Z clean & service" to get rid of the taint. I am not against using brass, just fully aware of the more rigorous TLC it needs. Unfortunately, most cafes are under a lot of time pressure and TLC is often in short supply. Not just a WA problem, the worst offender I ever encountered was on a Sydney trip. That machine was 4 years old and I doubt it had ever been flushed. I could smell it when I walked in the door of a largish up market restaurant. As it was at the far end of the room, scary stuff.

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    Senior Member LeroyC's Avatar
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    I heard Boema went back to copper boilers after trying SS a decade or so ago. They had too many problems with boilers cracking I believe, can anyone confirm this?

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    Quote Originally Posted by TampIt View Post
    Wow, 22 posts and not one mention of the dreaded "fish oil taste" which brass boilers are infamous for achieving*.

    Try getting a cup of hot water from most cafes which use a brass boiler, let it cool down and try to drink it. 75%+ would taste terrible (one reason why I never use the machine's water tap - just imagine what it does to a cup of tea / herbal tea). All espresso machines need to be fed and serviced properly, however brass boilers tend to pollute the coffee taste more unless a strict regime is followed.

    Do the same test with stainless: a faint metallic taste can exist if they are unloved.

    Longevity - I have seen either brass or SS clap out far too early. In every case when I could get some reasonable info about it - bad water, poor maintenance and / or sheer stupidity reigned supreme.

    EU regs were probably also affected by one SS plus - if someone does not maintain it the output water quality is not affected as drastically (the machine may die, however that is the owner's prob).

    Just my 2 cents.


    TampIt

    *Yes, my first 80's 2 group La Pavoni had brass boilers and was just under 20 years old at sale with no problems because I always maintained it correctly. I know of some under one year old brass machines in WA which desperately need a complete boiler "flush and A-Z clean & service" to get rid of the taint. I am not against using brass, just fully aware of the more rigorous TLC it needs. Unfortunately, most cafes are under a lot of time pressure and TLC is often in short supply. Not just a WA problem, the worst offender I ever encountered was on a Sydney trip. That machine was 4 years old and I doubt it had ever been flushed. I could smell it when I walked in the door of a largish up market restaurant. As it was at the far end of the room, scary stuff.
    Hi, Arron. I was going to mention off-tastes too. It is a problem with Copper/Brass. Again though if people are careful with water treatment and run water frequently through the boiler and drain the boiler from time to time it shouldn't be a serious issue with either.

    A lot of the top machines use Stainless Steel, some still have copper boilers, others plate the boiler with I think Nickel. La Marzocci have even gone SS with the rotary pumps. All the fittings in most machines are still copper/brass including the E61 head itself. I think the boiler is being singled out as water can get stale in there and impurities and salts can and do get concentrated. Boilers need emptying now and then too as well as having water run through.

    Either way you're highly unlikely to have problems with either Stainless or Copper if you do the right thing.

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    If the SS boilers are exhibiting stress corrosion cracking, it sounds like a design and material selection problem. 316L is not recommended for use at temperatures over 60C when chloride content exceeds around 300mg/L. I understand welds which are not stress relieved and that are on sharp corners are most at risk.

    This is not an issue isolated to espresso machines...



    Perhaps SCC resistant grades (like duplex) are cost prohibitive?

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    Quote Originally Posted by MrJack View Post
    If the SS boilers are exhibiting stress corrosion cracking, it sounds like a design and material selection problem. 316L is not recommended for use at temperatures over 60C when chloride content exceeds around 300mg/L. I understand welds which are not stress relieved and that are on sharp corners are most at risk.

    This is not an issue isolated to espresso machines...



    Perhaps SCC resistant grades (like duplex) are cost prohibitive?
    Lots of industries where SS is used in presence of chloride above 60C, dairy pasteurisers and evaporators would be one area where they can be run for many hours at temperatures well in excess of that. The thing here is that it is the hardness of the water and the scale that forms that protects the metal from these effects which is why there are safe and not safe water qualities as measured by the Langlier Saturation Index, which take into effect hardness, ph, TDS, bicarbonates etc...Obviously too if the boiler isn't emptied or water passed through you could get a very high accumulation of materials which could harm the boiler whether it is SS or copper.

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    It can't have something to do with the fact that copper is becoming more and more expensive while stainless steel is becoming cheaper and cheaper????? Seems to me that, that would be the driving force behind the change. Also worth noting while La Marzocco et all use stainless boilers, so do Delonghi, and a host of other cheap manufacturers, its not to say they are of the same quality as a higher end machine but unit cost if the driving factor in all manufacturing.
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  29. #29
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    Quote Originally Posted by Aaron View Post
    It can't have something to do with the fact that copper is becoming more and more expensive while stainless steel is becoming cheaper and cheaper????? Seems to me that, that would be the driving force behind the change. Also worth noting while La Marzocco et all use stainless boilers, so do Delonghi, and a host of other cheap manufacturers, its not to say they are of the same quality as a higher end machine but unit cost if the driving factor in all manufacturing.
    The dollar value of copper versus high grade stainless steel is unlikely to be a factor. The main costs are machining / welding and putting fittings, threads and mounting points on it rather than material costs. Copper is about $4.70 per kg while 316 SS is $2.20 per kg. Copper is much denser though and the final amounts of material would be dependent on the thickness required for copper versus Stainless Steel. Brass is also used in boilers and traditionally contains some lead and nickel, although after 1996 most of the lead in brass has been substituted with Bismuth. Nickel is still present at about 1%. Lead is still present at about 0.1%. Anything less than 0.2% is regarded as "lead free", although it isn't. Lead can also be added to Copper to make it more ductile (about 1%).

    The main reasons for using Stainless Steel is that there is less risk of imparting unwanted flavours and less risk of contamination by lead and nickel found shed as the copper dissolves, which it does very slowly depending on a variety of factors. Copper drinking water lines do thin with time over decades and eventually need to be replaced. An estimate is 10% to 20% of our lead levels in our bodies come from lead in copper pipes leading to new laws on lead levels and the substitution of copper with plastic piping in new houses.

    It is a bit complicated and you will notice most machines still use copper alloy fittings and lines as well as heat exchangers even inside SS boilers.

    The main effect of a SS boiler would be to give you cleaner tasting water when drawn from the boiler and cleaner steam free from flavour taints. Boilers are subject to abuse by people not treating input water properly, not draining water from the boiler regularly or emptying it. Obviously if water is left in there without refreshing then contaminates can concentrate depending on whether we're talking an HX machine, a brew boiler or steam boiler. It is likely that well maintained boilers it matters little what it is made of.

    I have a Copper/Brass boiler in my old machine and a SS one in my new one. The other issue is longevity but it does come down to how you treat the water and maintain the boiler. In the worst cases where water is acidic or people use Reverse Osmosis thinking it is good for the machine, it can destroy a boiler regardless of what it is made of.

    People are very paranoid about everything they put into their bodies these days. I think that this is the main motivation for using Stainless Steel in boilers and wherever else possible.
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    Behmor Brazen - $249 - Free Freight
    Bring on the Ti boilers...
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