Even small craft distilleries should have an indoor air quality safety plan
Concerns about indoor air quality and safety during the distillation process have always existed. Moonshiners hid their stills far from their residences not only to hide from the law but to protect their families and private property from harsh fumes and possibly fire. While owning and operating a small-batch craft distillery may be both profitable and rewarding, the undertaking comes with great safety risks if indoor air quality is not managed properly.
Small batch craft distilleries are having a surge of popularity, but craft liquor is nothing new in America. Consumed by our colonial ancestors in great quantities, alcohol was considered “aqua vitae”, the water of life. Spirits in colonial America were often consumed with meals, the distilling process assuring one that the beverage they were about to consume was clean and free of bacteria. It’s pain-relieving properties as well as the belief that it provided necessary energy for hard work made crafting and selling spirits and American enterprise; one that was entertained and made profitable even by our first president. In fact, at the time he died, George Washington’s rye whiskey distillery was one of the largest in America, producing 11,000 gallons in 1799.
It has been called many things over the centuries: hooch, booze, moonshine, sauce but the main types of distilled spirits are basically the same: brandy, whiskey, rum, gin, and vodka. While the moniker may be different from place to place and year to year, the process of distilling spirits has remained the same. It’s really a matter of cooking science.
Take whiskey, for example. To make any alcohol, carbohydrates must be converted; sugars and starches require fermentation. Each time whiskey is heated, condensed, and collected, we call that a distillation. The first distillation removes a percentage of the water, pulling all sorts of molecules and vapors out of the liquid. What results is diverted and distilled again in a “spirit still”, leaving a stronger alcohol content and more flavor? During this process, carbon dioxide (CO2) is formed. (1) If not contained and managed properly, CO2 gases can be a major health risk. C02 is an odorless, colorless and toxic gas that can, if inhaled, cause dizziness, headache, increased heart rate, unconsciousness, or death. (2)
In addition to CO2, ethanol, a highly flammable gas, is created. If ethanol fumes are accidentally released, then mixed with heat (such as that put off by machinery), the potential for spontaneous fires and explosions will exist. (1)
At every turn during the distilling process, from what happens inside the stills or between the pot, condenser, and/or storage space, liquid vapors can – if not contained properly – escape and enter a person’s workspace. (3) The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) cautions distillers about potential hazards:
“These concerns have taken on a particular urgency in recent years, during which small-scale distilling has become immensely popular around the country. Like the craft brewing movement before it, craft distilling is expected to keep growing. There are over 1,000 so-called craft distilleries—where liquor is made in typically small spaces by equally diminutive staffs, often just a few people—scattered across the country, and experts worry the production and storage of spirits at some of these facilities could be occurring with little regard for safety” (4)
OSHA points out that both air contaminants and ignition sources can be contained and offers useful fact sheet information for distillery workers. (5)
Though explosions and fatalities from poor indoor air quality are rare in big, established distilleries, due to their typical indoor air quality safety plans, the craft distiller, absent the same large-scale engineering and safety procedures, may not be as safe. It is for this reason that small distillers need to be proactive in implementing stringent safety measures to ensure that carbon dioxide and ethanol are contained at all times.
At AIRSInc, we protect our customers in the craft distillery industry with our stellar products, such as our SP-4000BWC fume extraction system – a powerhouse in CO2 removal. For the safety and peace of mind of you and your workforce, contact us today for a free indoor air quality assessment from one of our skilled and experienced environmental specialists.