Customer Stories: Serious Toaster™ creates summer digging conditions in winter

Valard Powerline Contractor keeps underground utility maintenance safe and productive with Toaster™ infrared ground thawing equipment by Serious Thermal Products Ltd.

EDMONTON, Alberta — There’s an old saying that if you want something done right, you should do it yourself. It’s a terrific thought for anyone with unlimited time and talents, but in reality, we live in a world where it’s often more prudent to tap into people and resources that are better positioned to take on a given task.

When it comes to energy and telecommunications line distribution across Canada, Valard Powerline Contractor has proven — over almost 35 years — to be a go-to resource for public and private electric utilities, municipalities, cooperatives, independent power producers, mining operations and oil and gas companies. Based in Edmonton, Alberta, Valard has more 1,200 trades-related employees specializing in everything from engineering and construction to testing and maintenance.

Janssen “Red” Curtis is a 25-year industry veteran who has spent the last 12 years as a supervisor for maintenance and construction with Valard. Curtis’s main responsibility is civil construction and maintenance for Enmax, the city electric utility for Calgary, Alberta. It’s a task that sounds straightforward for a crew with the appropriate expertise, but it does have an added wrinkle when winter arrives and underground jobs suddenly involve digging through frozen ground in order to service existing utilities.

“Back in the day, ground thawing was done by burning coal and straw under barrels,” said Curtis, referring to a practice that went by the wayside as environmental and safety regulations were enacted. “Then we went to a tube and hose system with a glycol tarp. And we’ve also done hydrovacing in instances where we didn’t have time to thaw the ground.”

Last winter, Curtis was approached about a new ground thawing solution ideally suited for trench thawing, the Toaster™ infrared ground thawing equipment manufactured by Serious Thermal Products. The CSA-approved heaters are fueled by clean-burning propane and run off standard 110-volt electricity provided by either generators or permanent power. The Toaster’s patented infrared technology uses targeted reflectors to direct heat into the ground with high efficiency, wasting very little energy in the process.

Curtis was somewhat skeptical at first, but decided to give the Toaster a trial run on a rental basis through Cameron Equipment Rentals. “They told me the ground would thaw at a rate of about one inch per hour,” said Curtis. “I just shook my head and said alright, let’s go give it a try. And sure enough, it did what they said it would do. I was actually blown away by the speed of the Toaster.”

According to Curtis, the Serious Toaster thaws at least twice as fast as conventional methods. Having been sold on the performance of the product, Valard wound up renting the heaters for six different projects over the remaining winter months of 2012.

A typical hot dig for Curtis and his crew to cross existing utilities involves digging a trench approximately 15 meters, or 50 feet, in length. Individual Toaster units measure 10-feet-long by 2-feet-wide, so multiple units can be lined up to cover the total distance needed for a project. Valard will also occasionally have units placed side by side to expand the trench width to four feet if a bigger hole is required.

While heating performance was certainly a major factor in Valard’s decision to use the Toaster, environmental and safety considerations came into play as well. Since the units don’t produce an open flame, there’s no concern about damaging anything in the ground, and they can also be used near buildings and utility pedestals.

“It’s got 100-percent protection against blowouts and fires,” said Curtis. “We love that there’s no direct contact with underground gas or power lines. Most of the time those lines are buried at least a meter deep, but sometimes they’re only a foot deep — so it’s good to know that there’s no threat of an existing utility getting burnt up.”

The client Curtis is serving most often, Enmax, has also taken notice of the Toaster and the advantages it provides. Looking at both the speed of a ground thaw and the inherent safety benefits of the product, Enmax is considering writing the Toaster into their job procedures for winter work.

According to Tony Canevaro at Cameron Equipment Rentals, Enmax isn’t alone. “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. “By thawing the entire dig, they know the odds of an accident are greatly diminished.”

Though Curtis won’t call it an inexpensive solution, he says that the cost-effectiveness afforded by the Toaster is comparable to other options. And he acknowledges one past instance where it certainly would have been nice to have Toaster units available.

“I had one job where we were in a time crunch and we opted to hydrovac the entire thing,” said Curtis. “It took five or six days to hydrovac and it probably cost about $80,000, where with the Toaster I’m sure it could have been done for $20,000 or $30,000. On top of that, between three days of thawing and one day of digging, we could have gotten it done a day or two faster.”

Another challenge Valard would encounter with previous heating methods was having to expose utility lines by hand digging in ground that wasn’t entirely thawed. “Now it’s just like digging in the summer,” Curtis said about the ground conditions when thawing with the Toaster. “It’s kind of nice to go out there in the middle of January and do some old-fashioned hand digging. You show up, your boots are warm, and it’s just easy, comfortable digging.”

Curtis also pointed out that the overall setup and use of Toaster units is easy. The infrared heating technology doesn’t require snow and ice to be cleared from the ground before getting started. The units are simply put in position, and then connected to propane tanks and a power source.

It is worth noting, however, that Curtis is basing his ease-of-use opinion primarily on observation. Aside from occasionally moving units and monitoring fuel levels during the overnight hours, Valard hires Cameron Equipment Rentals not just for Toaster units, but for the manpower to handle all jobsite setup and operation, including supplying the diesel generators and propane that power the equipment.

“We’re more focused on our main objective,” said Curtis. “I’ve got enough tools and equipment around already, so we’re content to rent instead of purchase. We prefer to roll in on a project ready to go with frost-free conditions. It’s worth it for me to have the thawing portion of the job taken off our hands and turned over to people who specialize in the heating process.”

As Valard enters its second winter of utilizing the new heating solution, it’s obvious that Curtis takes a more relaxed view of the old “do it yourself” axiom. Sure, there’s nobody ahead of himself he’d rather have handling his primary responsibilities, but when it comes to transforming a frozen jobsite into a worry-free digging experience, Curtis is happy to outsource the work — and share his trust with equipment that’s clearly getting the job done right.