BY KATIE KUEHNER-HEBERT
Transporting and maintaining heavy equipment to remote or urban-dense jobsites is no easy task. Contractors and suppliers who have worked either in the Arctic Circle’s North Slope or in the subway tunnels of New York City discuss the challenges of getting heavy equipment to those sites and maintaining them in adverse conditions – including temperatures reaching 70 degrees below zero.
PREPAREDNESS IS KEY
This past winter, STG Inc., an AGC of Alaska member in Anchorage, sent several cranes and pile driving equipment to Alaska’s North Slope to assist in the construction of a bridge through the Colville Delta (CD-5). In all, STG deployed five Kobelco cranes, two vibratory hammers, and one impact hammer to the jobsite.
Before the cranes and pile driving equipment were sent up north, STG ensured that all machinery was properly weatherized to withstand the arctic conditions — which meant removing and upgrading all hoses and fluids to meet a temperature rating of minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, says Jim St. George, STG’s president. Hydraulics, engines, oil tanks, radiators, and crane cabs were all retrofitted with some combination of heater coils, heater pads, circulating pumps, or blankets to help maintain operation in the arctic temperatures. Boom lights were also added to each crane to improve visibility during Alaska’s notoriously dark winters.
“It’s really methods of preparedness – a combination of getting set up and understanding cold weather issues,” St. George says. “The cranes have computers on them to control the hydraulics, but they don’t necessarily like the extreme cold. We had to keep heating the machines 24 hours a day, and we also had to keep lights on the jobsite, since it was dark for most of the day in the winter.”
Fortunately, the owner of STG’s job, ConocoPhillips, became “very much involved” with the specifics of getting the cranes prepared with the hoses rated for 70 degrees below zero.
“They are very responsible, as they didn’t want any problems on the jobsite,” St. George says. “They were also super environmentally conscious, particularly since we were working in a riverbed, by providing spill containment underneath the cranes if we had any leaks.”
STG then transported the heavy equipment 850 miles to the North Slope via the Dalton Highway, he says. After the paved highway ends, trucks must travel across ice roads to access specific camps and jobsites. The seasonal ice roads, which last through the winter before they melt in the spring, minimize damage to the sensitive tundra and can cost more than $80,000 a mile to build. “When it comes to construction projects in Alaska, the logistics are more challenging, the planning is more critical, and the equipment needs to be more robust,” St. George says.
Contractors working on the North Slope also need to understand the potential problems that could happen to the machines; mishaps are very difficult to deal with when on the site, he says. “The learning curve will be extremely steep if you are not prepared,” St. George says.
General contractors should know their subs. “You don’t want any weak partners” in such remote settings.
WHEN MOTHER NATURE THROWS CURVE BALLS
“In the North Slope, there are so many environmental problems as Mother Nature throws such curveballs, that you had better have the backbone to deal with it,” he says. “It’s very hard for workers new to Alaska and more specifically, the North Slope, to learn the job and cope with the extreme environment. It also takes a lot more coordination — you can’t just call someone and say you need X, Y, Z tomorrow.”
Steve Jones, a service representative for Kobelco Cranes North America in Houston, says that Japanese engineers for Kobelco visited STG in Alaska several years ago, when the firm bought its first crane from Kobelco. They were able to take back insights to Japan, for future model design updates.
“The engineers have worked with Jim because of the unique places he works, and it was a good learning experience for the engineers,” Jones says.
His primary task for the North Slope project was to make sure STG had all the correct parts, filters and wear items, such as belts and hoses needed in a remote site.
“It’s not like they could go to Napa Auto Parts for a filter if they ran out,” Jones says.
Kobelco also made sure the cranes that went up to the Arctic Circle had enough onsite support from the supplier, including technical service manuals and software diagnostic tools, so they wouldn’t have to wait for the dealer to get there if needed, he says. STG maintained mechanics onsite too, and changed about 95 percent of the hydraulic hoses on the cranes that went to the site to artic weather rated hoses.
“That’s something that wouldn’t be done for most jobs, but for Jim, Kobelco worked with his mechanics and parts department to accomplish this,” Jones says.
Even if jobsites aren’t as remote as those on the North Slope, contractors working in subzero temperatures should always take precautions, says Wayne Kokta, transportation manager at Dawes Crane/DST Inc. in Milwaukee, an AGC of Greater Milwaukee member.
“This year in Wisconsin, temperatures reached 30 below zero,” Kokta says. “If contractors are working in northern areas with temperatures below zero, we would like for them to obtain Arctic packages for our machinery – a heating system that they can plug in, such as an engine block heater and possibly a fuel heater, as well as other products to help start the machine. We install them on machines if the customer needs them.”
LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES IN URBAN SETTINGS
Contractors also face some pretty tricky challenges when transporting and setting up heavy equipment in confined urban jobsites with space limitations, Jones says. “Some contractors don’t do their homework about the jobsite before they get there,” he says. “They think that since they work in a particular city like New York City all the time, there shouldn’t be an issue. But then 11 trucks show up with a crane and all the support and they can’t get into the jobsite.”
Contractors need to check out everything before they bring equipment to the site, Jones says. With cranes, it is very important to have a dedicated space and the correct ground conditions for the expected ground-bearing pressure of the crane.
Kokta encourages contractors to contact local authorities ahead of time to let them know when suppliers are bringing heavy equipment to the jobsite.
“A crane rental operation is usually one of the first on the site and a lot of times local authorities were not aware that we were coming,” he says. “Since contractors have been preparing or scoping out the site beforehand, it’s just really a big help if they talk to local authorities to let them know what we intend to do, to begin discussing an access route to get there. That way, we don’t take the local authorities by surprise and then have to wait for the permits.” One of the main challenges contractors are now facing involves the new rules for transporting equipment across bridges and tunnels, which vary from state to state, says Michael Byelick, district equipment manager at E.E. Cruz Co., Inc., a member of Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey.
Years ago, contractors would obtain permits that allowed them to travel across certain bridges and tunnels within a designated 24-hour time frame, Byelick says.
“But now, contractors have to submit their planned route on websites administered by each state, detailing the specific equipment they are transporting with all of the specifications, the vehicles they’re using to transport the equipment, the Point A they’re traveling from and their Point B destination site.” Each state reviews and approves the planned route, and then gives a specified time period when contractors can cross a certain bridge or tunnel.
The rules for the states of New York and New Jersey specifically are much stricter now, because of the September closing of the George Washington Bridge, Byelick says. Authorities don’t want to schedule truck crossings during any times port authorities close bridges or tunnels – for any reason, including authorized traffic studies.
“Up until a few months ago there was a little wiggle room, but now if the state tells you that you have to cross a certain bridge between 9 a.m. and noon and you show up at 8:30 a.m., then they’ll fine you,” he says. If there are accidents that delay contractors, typically state authorities are already aware of that and there are no issues, Byelick says, but every once in a while they don’t hear of something that causes a delay, but they’ll disallow the fine. Another challenge to transporting heavy equipment is for contractors to make sure they have the right equipment they need before they actually move it to the jobsite, he says.
“Heavy equipment transport is very expensive and there are other risks to having the wrong equipment, such as risk of injury or damage, or having 20 guys just standing around waiting for the right equipment to come,” Byelick says.