How and Why To Descale Your Keurig Coffee Maker With Vinegar

Ughhh! The de-scale light on the Keurig has come on. Now what?

You may have seen the descale light on some Keurig models and wondered what that is for. That light will tell you when the scale has built up to a level where it may affect the operation of your brewer.

Scale buildup inside your Keurig – what is scale buildup?

There are minerals are in your water, even city water, and are usually there even after filtration. Some minerals may still be there even after going through a water softening process.

The minerals are suspended in the water molecules and they leech out of the water when coming into contact with metal components, like the fittings, heater tank and pump in your Keurig brewer. These leeched minerals cling to the metal surfaces (and some other types of surfaces too). This mineral buildup is called scale.

It really doesn’t matter what type of water you have – city water, well water, filtered water – even bottled water can allow for mineral and scale buildup. Of course, some water is worse than others.

Why does scale cause problems in coffee makers?

Scale is not toxic and any buildup should not really change the taste of your coffee. But, the buildup does have a tendency to plug up the lines in your machine.

As scale leeches out of the water and clings to some surfaces, usually metal surfaces, inside your Keurig coffee maker, the minerals also build on top of other mineral buildups. The scale just keeps building and building until a fitting or line becomes plugged up or – the buildup can severely slow down the water flow through the brewer.

Scale does not generally build up on plastic surfaces, glass surfaces, porcelain surfaces, and some types of metal surfaces. In your Keurig brewer, it does buildup in the heater tank and the fittings connecting to it.

The build up in the heater tank will reduce the effectiveness of the heating unit but it can still function ok. It is the scale buildup in the fittings connecting to the heater unit that causes the most trouble.

And not just the scale buildup in the heater fittings, but also in the pump and pump fittings.

These mineral buildups can also happen in the fixtures and pipes in your home, which is why many people have water softeners, to reduce the scale buildup in their pipes caused by minerals in their water.

Smaller water lines and fixture openings will plug up quicker than larger pipes. So, for your coffee maker with smaller lines and openings –  left untreated, this will cause the early demise of your brewer. Which is why Keurig recommends frequent descaling.

The mineral dilemma. Do you want minerals in your coffee maker?

Distilled water does not have any mineral content. Wouldn’t it be the logical choice for your coffee brewer?

You would think so, but Keurig does not recommend using distilled water. Why? Because of taste.

Minerals in water taste better and for that reason Keurig recommends bottled mineral water and water that is not softened.

Better tasting water means better tasting coffee.

Therein lies the dilemma.

Do we want minerals in our water running through our coffee brewer with better tasting coffee and then have to descale?

Or do we sacrifice the taste of our coffee and reduce or eliminate scale buildup in our coffee maker?

If you want great tasting coffee, you must allow for minerals in the water and get used to descaling your coffee brewer.

Symptoms of scale buildup in your coffee brewer.

Of course, one symptom of too much scale buildup would be the “De-Scale” light on your Keurig comes on.

But before that, the most common symptom is slower water flow. It simply takes longer for your Keurig coffee maker to brew a cup of coffee.

Sometimes this is very obvious. The pump struggles and makes more noise while less brewed coffee comes out.

To know for sure if it is water flow and not faulty coffee pods or other obstructions caused by the coffee filter part of the brewer, you should do the following:

  • Remove any K-cup pods.
  • Make sure the top needle (the one that pierces the top of the K-cup) is unobstructed by cleaning it using the paper clip method.
  • Remove the K-cup pod holder (it does come out)
  • Run your Keurig brewer without the pod holder and without a K-cup pod, leave the pod holder empty.

If you get good water flow after doing this, then the scale buildup is probably not too bad. It still does not hurt to descale frequently even if you have good water flow.

If your Keurig brewer has poor water flow, the pump struggles, and water dribbles out – you need to descale your brewer.

Descaling your Keurig brewer

The Keurig way…

You can use the Keurig brand recommended descaler and procedure which they outline very well.

Keurig has instructions on how to descale every brewer and those instructions can be found in the manual that comes with each machine. You can also find step by step instructions for all their current brewers on the Keurig website. Some instructional videos were also made by Keurig on descaling as well.

The white vinegar way…

Or, you can also use white vinegar to descale your Keurig machine. We should mention this is NOT recommended by Keurig and may void your warranty.

Also we have added some steps that Keurig seems to overlook in the descaling process.

Step by step

  • Empty the water reservoir on your Keurig. [If you have a small pour-in reservoir, these instructions will be different but the process is the same – 50/50 water to white vinegar].]
  • Remove any filter and filter unit kit from your reservoir if you have one installed.
  • Fill a large coffee cup (about 10 oz) with distilled white vinegar and pour it into your reservoir. Do this twice (20 oz of vinegar total) for non pour-in type reservoirs – the removable type.  ****It is critical that you use distilled white vinegar! *** DO NOT use any other type of vinegar like apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar – as those can put sediment, debris and gunk into your brewer.
  • Fill that same large coffee cup with clean water you would normally use for brewing your coffee. And do this twice also for non pour-in type units, so that you have equal parts white vinegar to water – 50/50. 
  • Place the reservoir back on the brewer, and make sure your Keurig brewer is powered on.
  • Empty the K-cup pod holder – do NOT place a pod in the holder, leave it empty.
  • Place an empty cup (10 oz) and brew a 10 oz size cup. Do this until the brewer says to add water. You should be able to smell the vinegar in the last cup you were able to run through before the water in the reservoir runs low and you get the add water indication.
  • Now let it set at least 30 minutes. You really should let it sit for an hour if you can. The longer it sits the more scale the acidic vinegar will dissolve from the machine. Don’t let it sit for more than 3 hours.
  • If you want, you can even repeat this whole process up to this point again.
  • After letting it sit with the vinegar solution, empty the water reservoir and this time fill it with clean water. Run as many cups through the machine as necessary without using a pod until needing to add water.
  • As you do this, each cup of water that is run through should smell less and less of vinegar. If you still smell vinegar, fill the reservoir again with clean water and repeat this process until there is no vinegar aroma.
  • You are now ready to brew coffee as you normally would.

Why white vinegar works for descaling single serve coffee makers.

vinegar is acidic, an acid, and it literally dissolves away minerals (and even metals, but more slowly). White vinegar is not a strong acid, and mixing it with water dilutes it even more. So this solution should not be harmful to your machine.

Most acids do not affect plastic tubing and they have less effect on clean metals, like the heater and tank in your Keurig coffee maker. But, acids do have a dramatic effect on scale buildup, the minerals.

Which is better? The Keurig recommended way or using white vinegar for descaling?

In the Keurig recommended cleaning process they suggest using a combination of their descaling solution and water, about a 50/50 combination.

After some searching, we did come up with the basic ingredients of the Keurig descaling solution. What are they?

Short answer: Citric acid, Silicic acid, Phosphates, Bleaching Agents, and Water. 

Mostly, Citric Acid, about 50% or more. That means that more than half the solution is made up of citric acid. It’s a great descaling agent and is natural.

Silicic Acid, about 3%. Less than 3% of the solution is silicic acid. Silicic acid is “a weakly acidic colloidal hydrated form of silica made by acidifying solutions of alkali metal silicates.” This really acts as a stabilizing agent.

Phosphates and Bleaching Agents, about 5%. Phosphates are a salt or ester of phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acids are used to enhance flavor in foods and are considered harmless. This and other bleaching agents are combined as the cleaning (not descaling) agents included in the descaling solution.

And the rest… water.

Keurig claims their solution will descale, remove calcium and other scale (mineral deposits) that may build up inside of the brewer internal parts and tank.

Keurig also makes no claims on their website that their descaling solution is all natural or non-toxic. Some of the bleaching agents may be toxic. And the phosphates are not very desirable either.

Keurig way pros…

  • This is the Keurig recommended method
  • Effective

Keurig way cons…

  • Expensive – the Keurig solution is somewhat costly
  • Unwanted chemicals and chemical residues

The distilled white vinegar pros…

  • Natural – no chemical residues
  • Effective
  • Cheap – distilled white vinegar can be purchased very inexpensively.

The distilled white vinegar cons…

  • May void Keurig warranty – not recommended by Keurig

Preventing and avoiding scale buildup in your Keurig coffee brewer.

Is there anything you can do to avoid scale buildup?

Yes, use bottled distilled water. But, as we already mentioned in this post, this may make your coffee not taste as good as it could with minerals in the water.

You can use bottled spring water, which has the minerals for a better tasting cup of coffee but less of the minerals that cause scale buildup. And using spring water is recommended by Keurig.

You can also use softened water. Softened water does have less mineral content, but more salt content. The combination of more salt with less minerals doesn’t help the taste of the water or your cup of coffee.

You can filter your water. Many water filters can take out some minerals and other chemicals in the water, like chlorine, iron, etc.

Depending on the kind and type of filter, you can get very clean water with some mineral content and a better tasting water. This results in a better tasting cup of coffee with less scale buildup in your Keurig coffee maker. It will reduce the scale buildup, but not eliminate it.

For example, an under-sink or countertop reverse osmosis system is fairly easy to install and does a great job of providing clean, good tasting water. Some of these systems are also very reasonably priced.

Besides changing the water you put into your brewer, all you can do is descale frequently.

What you should NOT DO when cleaning or descaling your Keurig – don’t do this…

We strongly suggest that you avoid any of the following:

Using very dirty or cloudy water in your Keurig – who would do that? you want to use clean water in your coffee maker.

Using high mineral or iron content water in your Keurig – which can just make the scale buildup worse than normal.

Using household, chemical cleaning agents in your Keurig – they leave behind potentially toxic chemical residues  and can cause unwanted tastes and aromas in your coffee.

Using detergents in your coffee maker – they leave residues causing unwanted tastes and aromas in your coffee.

Using Lime Out or other household descaling products in your Keurig.

Using alchohol in your brewer – this may be an explosion hazard!! Yes, really!!

Using any commercial acids, like muratic acid.

Using just any kind of vinegar (besides distilled white vinegar), like balsamic vinegar, or apple cider vinegar (too much residue).

Flavor enhancers, like essential oils – which can build up inside your coffee brewer.

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