Following behind the Raiko icebreaker on the belly of the same truck is a set of ripping teeth to exploit the weaknesses inflicted by the forward machinery, and disperse it to the side. (Frank Peebles photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)

Ice shark seen on Quesnel highways

Emcon rips winter a new one with Raiko machine

Like a shark snarling at its prey, Emcon Services now has a chewing beast of its own, the Raiko Icebreaker.

This is not just another common highway maintenance tool. With 15 conjoined rings forming a wide drum that attaches to the front of a truck or some other heavy equipment, and a total of about 1,400 steel teeth spinning on that drum, it has an aggressive presence.

In 2016, Alaska was the only jurisdiction in North America to have one of the Finnish machines. Their pilot project was so successful they ordered three more almost immediately, as noted in a paper done by the Advanced Highway Maintenance and Construction Technology research team based at the University of California-Davis.

The main feedback from Alaska, said researchers, was that it did no damage to pavement but did plenty of damage to compact snow and ice.

It’s not a perfect machine, said Emcon’s contract manager Chad Mernett. For example, the protruding teeth do wear down, after awhile. But the Quesnel experiment was suitably positive to make the road crew happy with it, as the first season in local use comes to an end.

“There’s a bunch of things that it’s good for,” he said, but the story of the Raiko’s abilities is prefaced by another habit Emcon has gotten into in recent years. Instead of mountains of rock-salt sprayed across roadways to melt the winter coatings away, around Quesnel they use a lot of liquid treatment.

“Since we went to the heavy brine production, we don’t get the buildups on the main highways anymore, whereas in previous years Dragon Hill and Cottonwood would compact up thick and you’d be ice-blading with the grader for days,” Mernett said. “But since we added brine to the system – we brine before every storm – that keeps compact from building. And it’s not just for snow; it holds frost off as well. One application will hold it off for five or six days.”

The brine is made in mass amounts at the Emcon site. It’s a mix of salt and water churned together at the correct ratio (23.3 per cent salt), along with an additive called RoadGuard (a calcium chloride mixture) which has anti-rust inhibitors in it so it won’t eat at the undercarriage of vehicles, mixed to a 10 per cent ratio with the salt brine (sometimes 20-30 per cent, if it’s particularly cold).

“We have five different trucks we can brine with, so we can cover a lot of ground quickly,” said Mernett. The brine tanks are hauled on the backs of multi-use trucks or in a tractor-trailer configuration.

That’s where we come back in our story to the yellow road shark, piercing compact buildup like a circular meat tenderizer on hundred-mile steak. Emcon will run the Raiko over stubborn snow and ice, and even if it doesn’t break the material up completely, “it punches holes in the ice that allow the salt and brine to penetrate deeply. It also holds sand or other traction material, so it’s there when it breaks up,” Mernett said.

Usually the Raiko will be deployed right after a snow storm when the accumulation has been pressed into its own kind of slick pavement by passing vehicles. Its truck can drive at 40 km/h when in use, along with the truck’s under-blade of thick ripping teeth at a plow-angle, to claw out even more icy debris and cast it off to the side of the road. Then, even a follow-up warm trend will better penetrate the machine’s many gouge-marks and help break up the dangerous surface, let alone the liquid treatment the company is now using as a main safety tool.

“There was a lot of misunderstanding around brining,” Mernett said. “People were under the impression that it’s going to damage their vehicles more, but it’s actually the opposite. There is actually less salt content going on the road than if we spread out rock-salt,” plus the protective RoadGuard ingredient. “I believe it’s a game-changer in this industry.”

It’s not new, brine was given a big government push in the 1990s, but it fell out of common use. With better recipes, and the ability, like Emcon, to built their own mixing facilities on-site, it is on a major comeback.

It’s not the only example of change and innovation at the Emcon yard, these days. From trucks built at their own factory, custom made to quickly and easily transform from one use to another, depending on seasons or primary duties, to a new street sweeping brush that attaches to the front of a loader, the company is like the set of the next Transformers movie.

Most eye-popping of all is their new side-plow trailers. These wing blades attach to a plow truck to clear two lanes at once, with a wingspan of more than 30 feet, counting truck and attachment together. They have three of these mega-plows already and two more on order.

Winter might not dare come back. Then again, knowing winter like we do in the Cariboo, winter might consider it a challenge. Emcon is betting on itself, when the snow does decide to give local roads another try.

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This is the array of pointed teeth that circles the Raiko icebreaker drum. (Raiko photo)