Customer Stories: Toaster™ heats up business in Alberta for Cameron Equipment Rentals

Cameron Equipment Rentals enhances its full-service rental and subcontracting service by trench thawing jobs with Toaster™ infrared ground thawing equipment by Serious Thermal Products Ltd.

When operating an equipment rental company in Canada, by definition you had better have a good handle on the concept of heat. That is, if you have any intention of staying in business through the winter months.

Based in Calgary, Cameron Equipment Rentals technically is a new company in the Alberta construction scene — opening in August 2011 — but it’s owned and operated by an experienced team of rental industry professionals. The diverse expertise of the company is reflected in its multi-faceted product offering, with various groups focused on providing anything from generators and tanks, to remote site equipment and camps, to heavy equipment staples like bulldozers and excavators.

And because the Cameron team knows exactly what kind of weather-related challenges a typical winter can present to construction and utility firms, the company also has a group that is primarily dedicated to supplying a wide range of heating equipment.

“The group I oversee is mainly focused on temporary heating and construction heat,” said Tony Canevaro, director of service and marketing for Cameron Equipment. “Providing heating solutions makes up about 75-percent of our division’s business. So we’re familiar with all types of equipment in that arena, and we’re always looking for the ideal piece of equipment for what a particular customer needs.”

With so many different sizes and types of job applications that require heat, Cameron understands that settling for a one-product-fits-all approach isn’t practical. A high value is placed on delivering the right solution to meet the needs of a given niche, so customers can get the job done as efficiently as possible.

A common heating application during Alberta winters is ground thawing over existing utility lines that require service. Traditionally, the most efficient way to tackle this task actually didn’t involve a piece of equipment at all, but rather required the burning of coal underneath beds of straw — a practice that was outlawed several years ago due to environmental and safety concerns. Fortunately for Canevaro and his team, Cameron had become aware of a new infrared heater ideally suited for trench thawing, so the company found itself well prepared for its first winter.

“This is the best tool I’ve ever found for thawing ground in this specific application,” said Canevaro of the new heating solution — Toaster™ infrared ground thawing equipment manufactured by Serious Thermal Products. Individual Toaster units measure 10-feet-long by 2-feet-wide, and multiple units can be lined up in a series to accommodate the length of a given project.

The CSA-approved heaters are fueled by clean-burning propane and run off standard 110-volt electricity provided by either generators or permanent power. Since the units don’t produce an open flame, they can also be used near buildings and utility pedestals. With a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly solution in hand, Cameron wasted little time in beefing up its fleet to a total of 27 Toaster units.

“Our typical trench thawing job is about 50 feet in length and requires five Toaster units,” said Canevaro. “But the biggest job we did last winter was for a 200-meter trench. We had to set up all 27 units, and then leap-frog all of them to begin thawing a new section while trenching began on the first 270-foot section we had heated.”

The patented infrared technology of the Serious Toaster involves using targeted reflectors to direct heat into the ground with high efficiency, losing minimal energy in the process. According to Canevaro, the Toaster thaws ground at least twice as fast as what can normally be accomplished in the industry.

“On average we’re able to thaw about four feet of frozen ground in about two days using the Toaster, compared to about a foot a day previously,” said Canevaro. “There are so many variables that can impact the thaw rate — compaction of the ground, moisture content, soil substrate — and we were too busy to do thorough testing the first year. But we know the ground was thawed at least that deep every time.”

Cameron’s crews have seen the Toaster equipment at work more than a typical rental center would, because in many cases the company doesn’t just simply rent out equipment. They actually handle the jobsite setup and even supply operators for many different situations, from running heavy equipment to 24-hour heater watch.

“When we thaw ground, we’re often asked by our clients to just come out and thaw it,” said Canevaro. “That means we do basically everything. We supply the power, the diesel for generators, the propane, the tarps, the Toasters themselves, and then the manpower. Rather than structuring it like a rental rate, we estimate a cost based on thawing a certain amount of frost over the whole job. In many cases we’re essentially acting as a subcontractor. Offering turnkey solutions is our primary differentiator in the marketplace.”

The arrangement Cameron has with its customers in these circumstances fits within the typical mold for utility work in Alberta. Most utility companies don’t handle their own trenching work, instead opting to subcontract that portion of a job to excavating companies. Often it is these subcontractors that Cameron works with directly to rent Toaster equipment. That being said, the utilities themselves are not only aware of the new heating solution, but are actively pushing for its use on their jobs.

“The safety officers of the companies we do work for are big proponents of Toaster equipment and how thorough of a thaw it provides,” said Canevaro. “The biggest problem with digging in frozen ground is the possibility of rupturing a gas line or hitting an electrical or telephone line, simply by having an excavator unexpectedly slip off a frozen rock or something like that. Even when hydrovacing a hole through the frost to see exactly where the services are below, there was a risk of damage with the ripper digging down. By thawing the entire dig, the safety officers know the odds of an accident are greatly diminished.”

Jobsite logistics with the Toaster equipment are relatively straightforward in most instances. Unlike traditional methods, there’s no need to clear snow and ice from the surface before getting started. Cameron’s crews are usually able to simply drive a truck along the area to be thawed and use a picker to set the units in place.

For areas that present access issues, the 345-pound units can still manageably be carried or rolled into place with carts. Once in position, the heaters are connected to propane tanks by certified technicians, and then hooked to an available permanent power source or to small generators.

“The Toasters don’t require much electrical power, so small generators do the job,” said Canevaro. “A traditional generator runs for about eight hours, so at first we would have to re-visit the jobsite at night to top off the generators. Since then we’ve developed some fuel tanks that provide a standby diesel supply to extend the run times on the small generators. Even then, we’ll still come by to monitor the propane levels in the tanks to ensure everything looks good. From there it’s really about just moving the equipment.”

Though the most common application for Toaster equipment is trench thawing in one straight line, Cameron has encountered a couple instances where customers required a four-foot section of frozen ground to be thawed, which simply dictated placing two units side by side. “It’s nice to have the flexibility to make easy adjustments like that,” said Canevaro, “But it’s still that long, trench thawing situation where the heaters really shine.”

Cameron is working hard to corner the regional market on this highly productive tool. “I believe there are some units in a fleet in Edmonton, but essentially we’re the sole rental provider of Toaster equipment in the province right now,” said Canevaro. “That caters well to our business model of supplying a higher level of customer service.” Thus, as Cameron Equipment Rentals braces for its second winter, one expectation is practically a certainty — business will be hot.