Evaluating Used Gaggia Espresso Machines
Gaggia, the company, was founded in 1947 by Achille Gaggia. It was Achille Gaggia's patent #365726 in 1938 that was the genesis of the modern pump action espresso machine design. Gaggia spread into the consumer home market in 1977, with the introduction of the Gaggia Baby. Still in production to this day, the Baby remains a favorite in Italy and throughout the world.
With the introduction of the Baby, Gaggia had a winning combination of engineering and aesthetic excellence. This winning combination has carried through to this day. The internal parts have changed little since the introduction of the Baby; consisting of an oscillating pump, an aluminum and brass boiler, heating elements, brass brew groups, and a commercial size portafilter [aluminum or chromed brass] with single and double shot filter baskets. Some models have plastic exteriors, some have painted steel, others use stainless steel, either brushed or polished finish. Regardless of the finish Gaggia has a model that will appeal to your sense of style and aesthetics.
Using a Gaggia espresso machine
Some models may have three-way solenoid valves and some have steam valve knob on the top while others have them in front or on the sides, but all Gaggia's for home use operate in the same manner. Water from an internal reservoir is delivered to the machine by a small but powerful pump. This pump delivers more pressure than is needed for optimum extraction of coffee from the grounds (9 bars or 130psi); this excess pressure is regulated by a pressure relief valve which directs excess volume back into the reservoir. The water from the pump is then directed into the boiler where the temperature is raised to the correct range - 195F to 209F.
When correct operating temperature is obtained the extraction process may begin by activation of the brew switch. If the coffee has been properly ground, dosed, and tamped the extraction will take 25 seconds and deliver 1.5 ounces of espresso for a single shot or 3 ounces for a double shot. The optimum extraction time will remain constant at 25 seconds regardless of how much coffee is in the filter. The resulting shot will be thick, dark, and should have a lighter colored layer of 'crema' floating on top.
Hot water for tea or other hot drinks is available from the steam wand; place a container under the steam wand, bring the machine to operating temperature, open the steam valve, turn on the brew switch, and draw off hot water as needed. To steam milk for lattes and other milk drinks turn the machine on, turn off the brew switch, activate the steam switch, and wait for correct temperature to be reached. When the boiler is properly heated place an empty cup under the steam wand, open the steam valve and draw off the water in the wand. When only steam is present remove the empty cup and put the milk under the steam wand and lower the tip of the wand just below the surface. Direct the flow of steam so the milk rotates inside the cup like a whirlpool. As the milk expands lower the container to keep the tip of the steam wand just below the surface. Tips - Never fill the milk container more than half full, use nonfat milk as it'll stretch better when steamed, use an instant read thermometer to insure proper heating of milk [160F].
Maintenance and repair details
As mentioned above not only do most Gaggia's made for the home share the same design, but except for a few small details they also share the same parts. Since the Baby, all pumps, portafilters, filter baskets, solenoid valves, thermostats, etc., are the same. This makes it very convenient when it's necessary to replace a malfunctioning part. The only exception being, 1) the older model Coffee with the steam valve in front has a clean out port tapped into the bottom of the boiler [it isn't necessary and can be ignored if replacing the stock boiler with a newer model]. 2) the aforementioned model of Coffee and the Baby models use different style steam valves. Again if you replace the stock boiler with a new model modifications will be necessary - fabricate a mounting plate with holes drilled to accommodate both bolt patterns. Almost all Coffee models and Classics share the same switch layout.
Exceptions to parts interchangeability
The only exception to the above paragraph is with machines that have three-way solenoid valves. These valves relieve the pressure in the brew group when the brew switch is turned off. This causes the water left in the brew group to be diverted to the drip tray, resulting in a drier 'puck' in the filter. This makes it faster and easier to dump the used coffee and prepare for the next shot. There's also considerable less mess involved when one doesn't have the soupy grounds found in the majority of home espresso machine. The lower [brass] portion of the boilers for solenoid equipped machines have outlet ports for the valves and are not interchangeable with those without the valves.
Maintenance of machines
The Gaggia home machines will last indefinitely with minimal maintenance. The primary cause of failure is using water laden with minerals, said minerals causing a build up of scale in the boiler and brew group. This is easily prevented with the use of filtered or bottled water. To avoid the build up of scale, regardless of water type used, follow a regular schedule of flushing the system with an acidic solution to dissolve and wash away scale.
I recommend dissolving three Tbsn citric acid in 1 quart warm water. Run this though your machine; alternating between turning machine on and achieving brew temperature, drawing off one cup of the solution, turning machine off, and after waiting fifteen minutes repeating the above sequence of steps until all of the solution has been drawn through the machine. Flush remaining solution from reservoir and fill with fresh water. Draw the fresh water through the machine, flushing out any residual acidic solution.
Evaluating used machines
The first rule of buying anything on eBay is to ask lots of questions before bidding. Let me repeat myself; The first rule of buying anything on eBay is to ask LOTS of questions before bidding. Believe it or not, unscrupulous sellers count on the gullibility of buyers believing whatever someone tells them even if what they are saying makes no sense whatsoever. And don't expect sellers to be knowledgeable about espresso machines just because they are selling one. How often have I seen a Gaggia described as a "Max", when in fact Gaggia never made a model "Max". What the seller is referring to is the Max fill line on the water reservoir! So if they can't figure that one out don't expect them to know what a portafilter is, what it's made of, or even if it's for a Gaggia at all.
Here are some of the things I would want to know about any espresso machine before I made a bid -
- Will the seller provide a 30 day warranty for machine? (Unusual but it never hurts to ask.)
- How old is the machine? (Of minor importance but it can be an indicator of potential maintenance problems.)
- Is the machine wired for American use, 120 volt, 60 Hz, or for European homes, 240 volt, 50 Hz?
- Does the machine 'power up' when connected to a wall outlet?
- Are any of the parts malfunctioning or not working at all?
- Are there any obvious leaks of water or steam?
- Has machine been descaled on a regular basis?
- Was tap water used to brew coffee with this machine?
- Are all OEM parts & accessories included with machine?
- Why is seller parting with this machine? (Bought another machine, Dr. banned coffee, bought it to resell, etc.)
- Are there any rust, chipped or missing paint, scratches, or any other flaws to the finish of the machine exterior?
If you win a bid on the Gaggia you've had an eye on great. Now the work begins - Set the machine up but don't plug it in yet.
- Remove the top cover of the machine (a handful of small screws) & set aside.
- Look at the bottom of the exposed enclosure. Is there rust or other signs of water or steam leaks?
- Look at the wiring. Does it have exposed wires? Does each wire terminate at a connection?
- Examine the hardware. Are there any obviously missing screws or nuts? Is anything broken?
- Does the tubing look intact, without obvious tears or ruptures?
The first thing to do is contact the seller immediately & explain your findings. Politely ask which the seller prefers, 1) that you to return the item for a full refund (including S&H), 2) that the needed parts be bought by the seller & be shipped to you for installation, or 3) make a refund of a mutually agreeable amount to compensate you for the expenses you'll incur in bringing the machine to a level compatible with the auction description. NOTE - It is reasonable to expect the seller to stand by their sales. It is not reasonable for them to enjoy it. Be patient, keep your emotions in check, but be persistent. eBay & PayPal both have problem resolution procedures that are in place to help you deal with such situations. Use them & expect them to work.
Do you believe the seller intentionally misrepresented the item in the auction description? If so contact eBay and/or PayPal & file an " item not received or significantly different than described" claim against the seller.
WARNING! Working with electricity, steam, and very hot water, is dangerous. If you don't believe yourself to be qualified to make basic repairs don't attempt it yourself, but find someone who is qualified to do so. If you feel competent to work on the machine there are tests that can help you determine what works & what doesn't.
Water debit test of pump
- With a cold machine, test pump output by checking output volume using the tube that connects the pump & boiler. It's advisable to buy a two foot piece of tubing to make sure you don't pump water over the electrics.
- Switch pump on and measure the quantity of water in 15 seconds (It should be at least 65ml.) If not you have a bad pump.
- Reconnect tube between pump & boiler. Test output volume again, this time at the portafilter (no filter basket).
- If the test at the pump output was OK & the test at the portafilter fails there is a problem with the brew group. It could be calcified or it could have a faulty group valve (if equipped with one).
With the above information in hand you'll be able to determine if an espresso machine for sale on eBay is worth bidding on. After you've won the bid you'll be able to determine if the machine delivered to you was 'as-described' in the auction description. And if the item is different than you expected you'll have some leverage in dealing with the seller in making an adjustment.
Relative value of machines
The current retail price of new Gaggia's range between $200 for the Espresso model to $500 for the Classic. Since they all use the same internal parts what makes one worth $300 more than the other? If you can make good espresso with one you should be able to make good espresso with any of them. Since they have the same internal parts and produce the same quality of espresso one has to assume that the price differential is due solely to aesthetic differences between the models.
And what makes a 10 year old Classic worth $250 while a reconditioned new one sells for $400? Since they both have the same aesthetic qualities there must be some expectations of a falling off in quality as the machine gets older. But unless the boiler or brew group is filled with scale or the pump is failing, both machines are capable of pulling wonderful shots of espresso.
If the older machine has been poorly maintained the boiler may need to be taken apart and the top aluminum section cleaned out manually or replaced altogether. The replacement cost of the upper portion of the boiler is approx. $50, and the cost of replacing a pump is approx. $50. So, for $100 one can buy the parts that may need replacing in order to bring an older machine up to par with a brand new machine.
So you decide, how much should a used or reconditioned Gaggia espresso maker cost?
Now use your new knowledge to look for Gaggia espresso machines on eBay.