Monday, January 19, 2015

Thrift Week 2015, Day 3: Primo Flavorstation (the frugal fizz machine)

Last Wednesday, when I popped outside to take in the mail, I discovered a mysterious package on my doorstep. It was a great big box labeled "26-inch pedestal fan," which confused me completely, because I knew I hadn't ordered anything like that. Getting the box inside and opening it unraveled part of the mystery, as I found a smaller box inside labeled "Primo Flavorstation"—one of the items that's been on my Amazon Wish List for a while. I wrote last summer about how I'd been thinking about getting one of these, but I hadn't taken the plunge because I wasn't sure whether it would last long enough to be cost-effective (since the product, and all its replacement parts, are no longer on the market). Now, it appeared, someone had thrown my cap over the wall for me.

So that explained why I'd received the package, but it still didn't tell me where it had come from. There was no clue in the box—no gift message, no receipt, no packing slip—and the return address on the package was a store I didn't recognize. My first guess was that my mom might be responsible, since I'd steered her to my Wish List when she asked me what I wanted for my birthday, but she disclaimed all knowledge about it. So I sent some inquiries around by e-mail to everyone else I could remember telling about my list, and I managed to trace the gift back to my sister.

That unraveled the mystery of where the present came from, leaving only the puzzle of how to assemble the thing and get it working. Fortunately, the instruction manual was pretty easy to follow. There were several pieces in the box: the machine itself, the CO2 canister (called a "sparkler"), the water bottle with its cap, three separate pumps for dispensing flavor syrups, one spoon for measuring out flavor by hand, and four colorful rubber bands for keeping track of whose water bottle is whose if you have more than one. (I'm not sure whey they bothered with the pumps and the rubber ID bands, since the machine came with only one bottle and no flavor syrups, but perhaps the point was to encourage you to buy more accessories.)


The first step in assembly was to screw the CO2 canister into place on back of the machine. The hardest part was getting the translucent cover off, but once we managed that, it was pretty simple to attach the sparkler. The instructions said to turn the machine upside down to do this, though I'm not sure why—maybe just to keep the heavy canister from slipping loose and falling on your toe before you've got it into place. Once it's in, the cover goes back on.


Next, you fill the bottle with water up to, but not beyond, the fill line (overfilling it can result in too much pressure, which can get a bit hazardous) and screw it into its place on the front of the machine.


Then you just press the button to carbonate. There are actually two buttons on top of the machine that you need to use. The button at the front, with a fingerprint on it, is the one you press to add CO2; you're supposed to hold it down until you hear "three loud buzzing sounds in a row." Then, before removing the bottle, you press the red button on the back to release excess CO2 before unscrewing the bottle.


The first time we attempted this, we never heard the buzzing sounds, and when we released the pressure and tasted the water, it had barely any fizz. The second time, we tried screwing the bottle in a little more snugly, and this time the fizz just foamed right in, producing the "buzzing" noise—something like a foghorn blast—in just a few seconds. It was so startling, in fact, that we completely forgot to press the red button before unscrewing the bottle, and we ended up getting a vivid demonstration of just why it's important to do so. The bottle came loose with a loud pop, like a champagne bottle being uncorked in an echo chamber, and the pressure blew the plastic bottom section right off the machine.


Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be an essential piece, either for function or for safety. It probably adds a little to the stability of the machine, but it works just fine without it for now, and Brian figures he can eventually reattach the piece with a little epoxy glue.

Once we managed to work out all the details, this little fizz machine performed admirably. Its home-carbonated seltzer was indistinguishable from the store-bought stuff, but with four distinct advantages:
  1. It's in a little half-liter bottle, so it probably won't go flat before I use it up. And even if it does, no big deal; I can just screw the bottle back onto the machine and add a little more CO2.
  2. It's a lot cheaper to make. Since our municipal water bill is on a tier system rather than a flat fee per gallon, the cost of the water itself is negligible unless I use enough of it to bump us up to a higher tier of usage (not very likely). As for the cost of the CO2, the big advantage of the FlavorStation over the more popular SodaStream is that it takes a standard 20-ounce canister, like the ones used for paintball. That means we can get it refilled at a sporting-goods store like Dick's Sporting Goods ($4 per refill) or Sports Authority ($3.50). Reviewers on Amazon estimate that a full canister can carbonate over 200 liters of water, which works out to less than 2 cents a liter. So if I'm currently going through 80 liters a year at an average of 40 cents per liter, this little device can save me about $32 a year just on seltzer. (If I were a soda drinker, I imagine it would save me a lot more.)
  3. I only need one bottle. I can just keep refilling it over and over (though not indefinitely, as I discuss below) instead of filling up my recycling bin with empty soda bottles and cans. I suspect just introducing this machine to our lives will, all by itself, cut the rate at which we fill our recycling barrel from once every 2 weeks to once every 3, at least in summertime. Plus we won't have to clutter up the fridge with multiple bottles or cans of seltzer anymore.
  4. I won't run out of seltzer again for months, if not years. I used to keep running out of the fizzy stuff and having to dash to the store for more every week or so. Now I can just keep refilling and recharging my little half-liter bottle until the sparkler runs out.
Unfortunately, the FlavorStation isn't perfect. It's better, way better, than buying seltzer at the store, but it has a few drawbacks:
  1. When the sparkler finally runs out of CO2, I can't just run out to the grocery store for more. I'll have to take it to the sporting goods store for a refill, which will probably mean waiting for the weekend to make a special trip. But I can always just go to the grocery store and buy a few liters of fizz to tide me over until I get the canister recharged, so that's not a big problem.
  2. The machine is a bit large. Right now, we've got it sitting out on the kitchen counter, taking up our very limited food prep space. It's not exactly ugly to look at, but it doesn't really enhance the look of the kitchen, either, and it's definitely somewhat in the way. Unfortunately, it's too tall to fit into most of our cabinets; the only place we've found where it could fit is on the top shelf of the pantry, which isn't a terribly convenient spot for something I'm going to be using often. (With the full CO2 charger in there, it's pretty heavy to be transferring to the counter and back on a regular basis.) So we may need to do a little rearranging of our cabinets to find a good place to store it.
  3. The little sport bottle will eventually expire. According to Primo, it shouldn't be used for more than 2 years, because the PETE plastic it's made from will eventually deteriorate until it can't stand up to high pressure anymore. Keep using the bottle after that point, and eventually, BOOM! Water and fragments of plastic all over the place (and possible damage to the machine as well). So I may need to pick up an extra bottle or two on Amazon while they're still available. Or maybe try to rig up some sort of adapter to thread a standard sports bottle onto the FlavorStation.
  4. The bottle is not the only part that may soon be irreplaceable. Because the Flavorstation is now discontinued, the only way to get replacement parts for it is to buy another machine secondhand and cannibalize it. It shouldn't matter for the sparklers, since the canister is a standard size, but if anything else breaks, it may be tricky to fix. Then again, a reviewer on Amazon says the machine is "relatively easy to repair" because it has so few moving parts and notes, "I've already had to repair a broken tube internally and it works flawlessly again." So maybe the bottle is the only discontinued part I actually need to worry about.
Still, even with its flaws, this machine is WAY more ecofrugal than buying seltzer at the store. It saves me time (no more seltzer runs), reduces waste (no more plastic bottles), and even if I have to drop $20 on a backup bottle for it, the savings on seltzer will pay for that within a year.
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