Frost Fight: Challenging Winter Utility Installations Have A Calgary Contractor Seeing Infra-Red

January 2012, Vol. 67 No. 1

No matter where you live, underground utility installations get a lot more difficult when the ground freezes. However, the last several years have proven to be especially tough for Calgary contractors, ever since their traditional ground-thawing techniques of coal burning have been outlawed. In fact, the new rules have severely slowed most wintertime utility installations in the city, as contractors have struggled to find new ways to fight the frost.

Perhaps no one has felt the effects as much as ATCO Gas, the area’s natural gas distributor. During December of 2010, Calgary’s Skyview Ranch development was in a bind to supply services to the new commercial buildings on its property. By this point, all utilities were installed except for gas. Three commercial buildings urgently needed gas by Jan. 1, and several more buildings requested it soon thereafter. Christmas was rapidly approaching, so schedules were extremely tight. To complicate matters even more, one meter of frost had already formed in the ground.

Several years ago, the frost might not have presented such a problem. Calgary’s utility contractors would have laid straw beds and used burning coals to thaw a path of frozen ground. Then, excavators could trench along the path for the gas lines. Despite the lack of sophistication, this method worked somewhat effectively. Nonetheless, the environmental concerns were too great for legislators, causing them to put a stop to the practice.

The coal-burning ban created serious issues for everyone involved with underground utility work, including ATCO’s service contractor for the Skyview Ranch job. The contractor couldn’t bring large excavators in to rip through the frost – partly because of the heightened risk of damaging existing underground utility lines, but also because mini excavators were the only machines small enough to access the jobsite. Unfortunately, mini excavators didn’t have the power to dig through frost, so without some method of heating the ground, the contractor couldn’t install the gas lines.

Not just any heating source would work for the Skyview Ranch, however. It needed to thaw ground as quickly as coal and straw – if not quicker – in order to make the deadline. Without an effective solution, the building tenants could have been forced to wait until spring to receive natural gas services. But since their contracts stated a Jan. 1 occupancy, delaying the process was simply not an option.