Heating the Wilds of the 49th State

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From wolves to oil boilers, tundra tradesman and inventor Dan Phinney serves a unique market.

He owns Phinncraft, an unusual heating company.  As far as he knows, he’s the only heating professional serving the wilds of southwestern Alaska.  His commute typically involves a bush plane, miles of barren tundra, and a rough landing outside an Eskimo village.

“From my shop in Dillingham, AK, I head northwest, responding to calls from Eskimo villages in need of heating system help.”  Phinney lives in Elk, Washington, alternating between Dillingham and home, where he spends time inventing and promoting his own trade-oriented products.

“In the remote tundra villages I serve, residents were throwing away cast iron boilers every five years,” he continued.  “They weren’t properly installed, and there wasn’t anyone to service them.”

Black gold
“Aside from seal fat, oil is the only fuel available on the coastal Alaskan tundra – and it doesn’t come cheap,” said Phinney.  “It’s barged in once every year – the weather has to be warm enough for barges to make it up river, but cold enough to provide easy ground transportation.”

Once oil reaches the dock, it’s moved in 25-gallon drums via dogsled – making its $7/gallon price tag seem almost reasonable. The #1 fuel oil stays in an outdoor tank – sometimes gelling around -35°.  But it runs into a 30-gallon “day tank” inside the building to liquefy before entering a boiler.  Phinney uses a -30° outdoor design temp, but a few nights drop toward -50°.

Do or die
“If the job’s a winter retrofit, you must have the system back online before nightfall,” explained Phinney.  In January, his work at the Dillingham City Jail pushed his limits.  He had one hour to remove the existing boiler and fire the new Burnham MPO-IQ.

With -30° outdoors, and the inability to move prisoners elsewhere, the pressure was on.  For extra muscle, Phinney hired a few locals to help.  Just as the temperature in the jail was getting uncomfortable, the new boiler ignited.

“On the tundra, only reliability trumps efficiency,” said Phinney.  “That’s why I only use Burnham boilers; you get the best of both.  Usually, it’s an MPO-IQ.  You install them correctly, service them annually, and forget them.”  The three-pass, cast iron boiler boasts 87% AFUE, and has a size range that fits most residential applications.

“I’ve been using these boilers for years,” continued Phinney.  “I can’t use an unfamiliar product when I’m out here.  That said, Burnham keeps making the MPO more efficient and easier to install, most recently with the IQ control system.”

Addition of outdoor reset control, low-water cutoff, and high limit kit is made easy with plug-and-play cards.  There’s no need to strip wires or remove the boiler’s cabinet.  Through September, 2013, U.S. Boiler is offering a free low-water cutoff IQ option card with the purchase of a new MPO-IQ boiler of any size.

“If you don’t have what you need out here, you’re totally screwed,” said Phinney.  “There’s no Hajoca or Winnelson.”  When Phinney orders parts, he always orders 20 percent extra.
For one late winter residential boiler replacement in Togiak, Phinney needed a direct vent model.  He ordered a Burnham LEDV steel boiler, which was flown in from Anchorage.  From the airstrip, it was pulled by snowmobile over miles of 25-foot snow drifts.

“When you take that old boiler off-line, you need to know that you can get the new one up and running fast,” said Phinney seriously.  “It’s stressful, but you can’t let the homeowner see the stress, or they won’t let you do it. They know the consequences.”

Never a dull moment
“I can’t imagine another line of work,” said Phinney.  “Every day’s an adventure.  I’ve stepped outside to see wolves chasing a moose.  But the neatest thing I’ve encountered is the Eskimo culture.”

“Everything is hard to come by here,” said Phinney.  “Milk is $18 per gallon.  But, if you’re looking for souvenirs, you’ve come to the right place.” Occasionally Phinney barters work for artifacts.  Once, a service call cost one scrimshawed walrus skull.  He had to draw the line at a whale skull though; it would have cost too much to ship home.

Think-tank in Washington
While at home, the wheels in Dan’s head are turning faster than the prop on his bush plane.  He’s constantly inventing better ways to do a variety of tasks, and creating tools that do the work.  Most of his inventions are for HVACP use, but he dabbles in agriculture as well.

Find Dan’s ultrasonic flow meter, pipe de-bonders, moisture detectors and more at www.reliatools.com.

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