Winter Construction in Fairbanks
Working with the weather presents challenges
It’s high noon on a gloomy mid-winter’s day. The sun has just managed to clear the snowy peaks of the mountains 100 miles to the south and cars navigate the icy streets through a sea of ice fog. It’s 40 below zero and the air is thick and bitter.
Welcome to a typical winter workday in Fairbanks, Alaska. While many Fairbanksans joke that there are only two seasons, winter and construction, the fact is that while winter disappears for a few months, it is always construction season.
Most exterior residential construction stops in the colder months and residents focus on staying warm. Some use woodstoves, and some prefer oil stoves, while others rely on a full-fledged furnace or boiler. Installing and keeping them going keeps dozens of businesses going around the clock, especially during cold snaps.
The Woodway specializes in woodstoves and high-efficiency oil-burning heaters, and has been a Fairbanks mainstay since 1978. General Manager Roy Ponder says their busiest times are just before the first real cold snap of the season. They also see people whose heat source has broken or are looking for a backup source.
The Woodway sells only EPA-certified wood stoves, a must given the Fairbanks and North Pole areas’ serious air quality issues. The stoves burn the particulates that normally would escape up the flue. Ponder says the store has been installing an average of one stove per day.
“People recognize they’re going to need the heat in the winter,” he says. “Most people come in in the fall. A respectable number wait until a cold snap hits and they know they’re going to need something to keep warm.”
Sometimes, however, a construction project does require being outdoors, even in the most extreme weather.
Scott Bothwell, owner of Alcan Builders in Fairbanks, says they are often busier in the winter than the summer, depending on the project. And while the season’s extremes present some challenges, businesses have learned how to cope.
“I’ve worked in numerous states and each state has its own particular issues,” says Bothwell, who has been in Alaska since 1978.
Fairbanks’ particular issues are extreme cold and short days, both of which can drive construction costs up. Bothwell recalls a project he did a few years ago that involved building a hotel, beginning in mid-winter, that needed to be completed by the time tourists began arriving that spring. At the time, gas cost $1.80 per gallon in Fairbanks, but was closer to $3 at the Denali area jobsite.
“We spent $713,000 on gasoline and heating fuel on that job,” he says.
Alcan recently built a Holiday Stationstore in northeast Fairbanks in temperatures that dipped well below zero, says John Kietzman, who supervised the project.
“I know we saw 43 below one day,” Kietzman says. “Lots of 30 below and in between we had those two-and-a-half weeks of miserable cold.”
Despite the cold, the store was completed in 121 days due to a carefully planned construction schedule and experienced crews, Kietzman says.
One phase of the construction required a huge tent made of three 40-foot by 100-foot sheets of reinforced Visqueen stitched together to cover key parts of the project to keep them warm and dry. Such tents are common on far north construction sites. They create a heated bubble that is kept aloft by heat and air pressure and allow crews to work comfortably in temperatures sometimes 80 degrees above the air temperature just outside.
“In today’s day and age, so many products are latex-based for green reasons, so we need to be above 32 degrees,” Bothwell says. “In the old days, we could use oil-based paint and stuff that didn’t have to be above freezing.”
Kietzman laughs when asked if there was a certain technique or skill set needed to make giant tents.
“We’ve all done it so much that it’s apparently second nature,” he says.
Building tents in other parts of the Interior such as Delta Junction and Healy, which are noted for being very windy, can be more of a challenge, Bothwell says. “It’s very difficult to build a tent that will last more than one week.”
“Sometimes wind is worse than cold,” he adds. “You can always put on more clothes.”
Careful planning was a key part of the project.
Because the Holiday Stationstore construction started only a few weeks before freezeup, Kietzman had to make sure all of the ground and foundation work was done before the ground froze. The asphalt also was laid in the fall.
“First time in Fairbanks that I know of that the asphalt was on the grounds before the building arrived,” Kietzman says.
The 5,000-square-foot building arrived in pre-made panels, which took four days to put up. The roof took another five. By the time the extreme cold hit, most of the exterior work was done and the crews moved indoors.
“We both know how fast it needed to go early on to get everything in the ground,” Bothwell says. “We knew it was a tight schedule.”
Even the landscaping was done before freezeup. The owner of the adjacent property gave them permission to take some of the trees and transplant them at the Holiday Stationstore.
“They took a spade on a skidsteer and dug up the birch trees that are transplanted at the Holiday,” Bothwell says. “The spruce trees came the same way. All the plants at the Holiday are authentically Alaskan.”
Safety is another key ingredient. “Safety is always our No. 1 concern with all our workers,” Kietzman says. In the winter, there are more slip hazards, such as frost, snow and ice, as well dealing with Visqueen and heating and lighting sources.
“Our company tries to do things right regardless of what the temperature is,” Bothwell says. He made sure a safety professional frequently visited the Holiday jobsite, just to keep an eye on things. “In my opinion, we played it the way we’re supposed to play it.”
Because of high fuel costs, homeowners are demanding more efficient boiler and furnace systems, according to Sandra Hembree of Alaska’s Best Plumbing and Heating in North Pole. This is a before and after collection of one such installation.
Photo courtesy of Alaska’s Best Plumbing and Heating
Home Heating Systems
Given the length and severity of Fairbanks winters, something is bound to go wrong in any household. That’s where businesses like Alaska’s Best Plumbing and Heating come in.
The North Pole-based business has been owned by Sandra and Robbie Hembree since 2007. Their schedules are much different in the summer than in the winter, Sandra Hembree says.
“Summer is more of the construction and boiler replacement jobs,” she says. “Winter is more repairs and dealing with the problems of winter in Alaska.”
In the summer and fall, the company does a lot of boiler cleaning and tuneups, “but you can’t foresee what’s going to break when it gets cold,” she says.
“When we get that first cold snap, everybody’s boiler kicks on and stuff starts breaking.”
During the weeks of extreme cold that settled over Interior Alaska last November and December, Hembree, who employs about 10 workers, says her crews were kept running around the clock.
Dealing with frozen pipes is one of the biggest challenges the company deals with in the winter months, she says. If homeowners catch it quickly, damage is usually minimal. But if a person leaves on vacation and their boiler breaks and pipes freeze, the damage can be major.
Hembree recommends homeowners install temperature sensors. If the temperature in the home drops, an alarm is triggered and the homeowner is alerted. That gives Hembree and her crews enough time to get the boiler back online before the interior freezes and damage occurs.
She said such a case had happened just the day before. A homeowner was in California when she received an alert that the temperature had dropped too low in her house. She called Hembree, who got a crew over to the house before anything froze.
She also recommends carbon monoxide detectors, which can be a lifesaver if a chimney or duct becomes clogged.
Given the high cost of fuel oil, the Hembrees are seeing a demand for more fuel-efficient boilers. Boilers, especially older models that may not be maintained well, can lose 40 percent or more of their efficiency. That can cost homeowners thousands of dollars a year.
And while Hembree tries to adhere to a schedule so homeowners can plan on when workers will arrive to install or work on a heating system, cold spells often mean the schedule goes out of the window.
“All of our customers are very important,” she says. “All of a sudden we get a cold snap and we get called for a heat emergency. We have to do a lot of shuffling and rescheduling to make that happen. You don’t plan for an emergency.”
Despite that, in all her years in business, Hembree said not one customer has ever complained when she has had to shuffle appointments, adding “Fairbanks people are awesome.”
Julie Stricker is a writer living near Fairbanks.