FAIRBANKS, ALASKA — For contractors in Fairbanks, Alaska, there’s a unique set of challenges beyond brutal cold. As temps drop into the -50°F range and winds easily exceed 30 or 40 MPH, accumulating snow and ice literally change the landscape. Lakes and rivers become harder than terra firma.
The length of daylight changes at a rate of seven minutes per day, culminating in winter solstice, when a gray half-light illuminates the town for only an hour. At summer solstice, the sun blazes for 23 hours.
The 17 employees at Rocky’s Heating Service Inc. take the rigors of winter in stride; business as usual since the company’s inception in 1994.
Rocky’s reputation as the premier heating outfit in town keeps the company running full-tilt for nine months of the year. A reprieve comes over summer. When duty doesn’t call, the office gets sparse as everyone pursues their favorite brand of outdoor recreation.
As wild as life can be in Fairbanks, the technicians at Rocky’s get an assignment every so often that pushes the limits on what even they consider routine. In February, the tribal leaders in the remote native village of Tanana called for help. A boiler in their Counseling Center was leaking a few gallons of water each day, and consuming oil at a gluttonous pace. Six other boilers and three water heaters in the village needed service work, as well.
After flying his bush plane the 280-mile round trip over uninhabited wilderness to assess the damage in the boiler room, owner Rocky Pavey began to assemble a parts list, and tried to decide the best way to get it all to a village that has no road leading to it. It’s no wonder that Discovery Channel’s TV series “Yukon Men” is filmed in Tanana, an outpost of roughly 230 people.
A commute to remember
Tanana rests by the concourse of the Tanana and mighty Yukon rivers. In a perfect world, the call would’ve come in late June, when the ice on rivers was gone. At that time of year, a boat could’ve barged everything out. But the existing boiler wasn’t going to wait until summer to give up the ghost. The tribe needed a new one as soon as possible. Air transport for the new oil boiler, pipe, accessories, tools, food and three mechanics wasn’t feasible; the numerous trips in a bush plane would be cost prohibitive.
Service Technician “Super” Sam Mullen jokingly suggested hauling everything out via snowmobiles, using the frozen Tanana River as a highway through the expansive, timbered back country. After further consideration, it seemed like a solid plan. A box van, pickup truck and a trailer were loaded and driven 160 miles west to the village of Manley Hot Springs, where everything was transferred to three snowmobiles and two pull-behind sleds.
After riding 70 miles on six-foot-thick windswept ice and packed snow, the river widened to nearly two miles across where it met the Yukon, and the village came into view on the far bank.
“Rocky told us what we were going to find in the boiler room,” says Jason Cevasco, foreman. “But it was worse than we’d imagined. With limited supplies and a need to be resourceful, the tribe did what they could to keep the heat on. When a section cracked on the Counseling Center’s boiler, they replaced it with one from a junk boiler. Needless to say, the push nipples were re-used and leaked like crazy.”
“Oil is the only fuel source out here,” explains Jon Neil, lead installer. “It’s barged up the river in the summer, and costs about $8 per gallon.” On the north side of the village, seven 25,000-gal. fuel tanks keep the village warm and safe throughout the brutal winters.
After Mullen, Cevasco and Neil inspected the boiler room, they explored several other buildings, including the Health Center, where boilers and water heaters hadn’t seen service in a decade.
Rocky’s crew quickly cleaned up the mechanical room and unloaded the new Burnham V8 water boiler and other equipment. While the existing zone valves remained in place, everything else was discarded. A new Taco circulator and 4900 Series air separator and Watts RBFF were installed, as were a new fuel line, filter and Tiger Loop de-aerator flow control. Disconnecting and replacing the old boiler went smoothly, and Neil had the new unit fired by early evening.
But victory was short lived. The boiler soon shut off. Foam in the Tiger Loop indicated air in the fuel line. Initially, they dismissed an empty fuel tank as the culprit, because the nearby water heater, which drew from the same oil tank, continued to run without issue.
After replacing an old ball valve that they thought might be leaking air, Cevasco went outside in the cold to check the fuel level. With over a foot left in the underground tank, they figured that the supply line to the water heater must be lower than the boiler’s. They weren’t able to find someone to fill the tank that evening, but the boiler needed to run overnight, or risk freezing the building.
So they used the water heater to bleed fuel into a 5-gal.can to feed the new boiler overnight. In the morning, the underground tank was filled by a rusty old Mobil oil truck that — by random stroke of ill fortune — found itself living out its final days in the Alaskan bush. Thus the boiler retrofit concluded. They learned from the driver of the disheveled tanker that, during the winter, the 1,200-sq.-ft. building typically consumed one gallon of oil per hour overnight. The first night the new boiler was in place, it had burned about four gallons in nine hours, meaning that the Burnham cut the building’s fuel use in half.
“We called Rocky’s because they’ve done great work for us in the past,” says tribe member Fred Nicholia. “Out here in the village, heating systems must work. We have killer winters, and we’re a long way from civilization. About 10 years ago, Rocky installed two boilers in our Elder’s Residence, so we know we can trust them.”
During their second day in the village, the crew serviced a diverse collection of equipment; all of which had been neglected for years, some of which weren’t installed properly to begin with. They moved a circulator on one of the boilers from the return to the supply side. All units needed a soot saw to be cleaned, and all got smoke tuned and checked with an analyzer, likely for the first time.
“When Rocky builds the parts list for a job in the bush like this one, he knows the equipment will have a hard life, and chooses accordingly,” says Cevasco. “While efficiency is important, with outrageous oil and power generation costs, it’s more important that the gear can take abuse and neglect and keep working. If something fails, it doesn’t take long to freeze a poorly-constructed building at -40°F with the wind howling down the Yukon. Burnham, Taco and Watts are three names that always make the list.”
“There was no time to spare,” says Mullen. “The units we serviced were as dirty as we expected, and we did one more boiler than what we’d initially planned.”
Their timeline was tight, since the annual Interior Alaska Building Association Home Show was right around the corner. Pavey needed them back in town to handle calls while others manned the company’s display — to include a clear PVC loop demonstrating the effectiveness of air separators and debris filters.
“When we go to the Home Show, we display our motto, which is ‘First Fairbanks, then the world! Anywhere, anytime,’” says Pavey. “I think the Tanana project illustrates that we’re serious. Yeehaw!”
For a video showing Rocky's Heating Service and their work on the Tanana job, click here.