(Note that these pictures are of an older style of heatstick. They have a different handle type (that proved to be not particularly useful) and were sealed with silicone instead of two-part resin. On a more performance-oriented note, when I rebuilt my heatsticks in the newer style, I tested them by bringing six gallons of water to a boil from tap temperature. Going from 64°F (tap temperature in Las Vegas in mid-January 2006) to boiling took about 40 minutes with three 1.5-kW heatsticks. Most temperature changes in brewing aren’t over as wide a range as this and some don’t involve as much water as this, so you can expect your brew day to move along pretty quickly.)
All three of the heatsticks fit in my mash tun (a 5-gallon water cooler with a drilled copper spiral manifold) if they’re angled in. The tips of the heatsticks rest on the top of the manifold to keep direct heat off of the plastic. It took maybe 10 minutes (if that) to bring three gallons up to temperature.
While the mash was doing its thing, the sparge water was heated in this high-tech :-) hot liquor tank with the heatsticks. 6.5 gallons took less than a half hour. Once it was up to temperature, one heatstick was cycled on/off periodically to maintain temperature. (The roasting rack in the bottom is a possibly unnecessary safety precaution.)
Time to sparge. I use fly sparging with gravity feed from a copper racking cane in the HLT through a needle valve into the sparge arm across the mash tun. The manifold goes through another needle valve before going into the brew kettle. The $75 I spent on those turkey fryers wasn’t wasted, as decent 8-gallon stainless-steel pots can run about that much apiece at a restaurant-supply house, or even more at a homebrew shop. This batch ended up needing almost no vorlauf; the runoff was clear before the first quart had come through. (The recipe called for a much thinner mash than I’ve used in the past; maybe that had something to do with it. It was nearly at the limit of what my mash tun would hold, though. I guess my next project is to build a bigger mash tun. :-) )
It took just a few minutes to bring 6.5 gallons of wort to a boil. Here, it’s starting to foam up right before the boil begins. I’ve gotten good at controlling boilovers, but heatsticks make it dead simple. Shut all of them off and the boiling stops immediately. Shut one or two of them off and the foam falls back.
Once the boil was under way, one of the heatsticks was shut off. Just two produced a vigorous boil. It occasionally threatened to boil over (note the hop residue on the handles), but switching off another heatstick for a couple or three seconds would knock it back down. This was shot after maybe an hour; the boil ran for 90 minutes and evaporated out 1.5 gallons. Specific gravity went from 1.041 pre-boil to 1.053 post-boil.
The rest of the brew session went as they normally do: cool down with an immersion chiller (using tap water to bring it down to 110° or so, then recirculated icewater to bring it to a pitching temperature in the mid-70s), whirlpool, rack into fermenter, pitch yeast, and throw it into a 68° fridge for primary fermentation. Start to finish, the whole thing took maybe 6.5 hours, and that was with a 15-minute break before the boil to walk and feed my dog. It seemed to be easier and much less of a hassle to brew this way than with the turkey fryer…and indoors, it’s much safer than the turkey fryer.