Cool Hand Erv

The Anchorage Times (AK); February 22, 1990

While many Alaskans count the number of days until the big thaw, engineer Erwin “Erv” Long works to keep the ground frozen.

Hidden below the surface, permafrost forms a firm but fragile foundation for life in much of Alaska. Long’s projects include repair of the permafrost blanket and advance planning to prevent scars on the surface.

Long is a professional civil engineer who holds four United States and six Canadian patents for his permafrost foundation systems.  He calls his technique “self-contained mini-refrigeration systems.”

Known as thermo piles and thermo probes, “the devices stop the thawing that makes the soil unstable,” he explains.  These piles and probes are both manufactured in Anchorage at Arctic Foundations, Inc., but many organizations now use piles and probes of similar design when building in Alaska.

On Farmer’s Loop Road in Fairbanks, repair projects on the “sinkhole” resulted in a 9-foot-thick roadbed before Long and his company installed the thermoprobes.  With the stabilization of the permafrost base, the sinking stopped. The ends of the probes are now visible as 6-foot poles beside the road with metal fins that transfer heat near the top.

In Glennallen, also permafrost country, thermo piles were used in the foundation of the communications tower.  The tower was built in 1960.  There’s been no sinking of the structure, attesting to the effectiveness of the engineering design.  Galena City school is supported by thermo piles as are the Bethel airport tower and the Fort Yukon Neighborhood Facilities Building.

The thermo probes and piles all work on the same principle – much like a boiling pot.  Heat transferred from the stove (soil) causes the liquid in the pot (probes and piles) to boil.  The vapor rises to the lid (top of the cylindrical units) where it condenses on the lid and walls, giving off heat to the outside.  As the vapor condenses, it drips back to the bottom and the process begins again.  However, the heat involved may only be a few degrees; the refrigerant under pressure boils at low temperatures.

Long is constantly creating new solutions to arctic problems, but he doesn’t apply for patents for every idea.  Many are proprietary and used in his business but are not advertised.  And some ideas are too large for one small company, he comments.

 “There is a lot more to the application of frozen ground engineering”, Long says.  “One thing I think the United States should consider is the frozen ground hydro dams, which the Russians have been operating for 20 to 30 years."

An extremely organized and motivated person, Long works about 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I grew up on a dairy farm where that was the normal work week,” Long said, leaning back in his chair.  Graphs and weather charts for Alaska communities are spread across his desk.

“Right now I’m checking the global warming theory in regard to some of the Alaska communities where we are working. It looks like pollution cuts the extremes in temperature, but overall, places like Barrow are colder than in the past and others such as Anchorage are warmer.”

Long doesn’t mind routinely working 10-hour days.  He finds his work exhilarating with one problem and solution leading into another.  Once excited about a problem, Long doesn’t let go, according to Ed Yarmak, Jr., chief engineer for Arctic Foundations.

“You won’t find a day when he is not at the office, unless he’s sick,” says Yarmak.  “Oh, he’ll be gone when he takes a trip or goes on professional business, but you can usually find him working in his room at the hotel between meetings.”

“One time in the last nine years, Long took four days and went soaring in his sailplane,” Yarmak adds.

And Long’s well-planned day still leaves time for physical activity.

Instead of exercising each night, he hikes every other night.  The hike is never less than 1,000 feet in elevation during the winter and 3,500 feet in the summer. When snowshoeing, he does 2,500 feet.  He goes by himself 98 percent of the time.

“I’m getting up in years (mid-60s) and I like to regulate my pace”, he comments.  “If I go with someone else, there is a tendency to force myself.”  Like the time he hiked along Crow Creek Pass.  As he climbed out of the car, he watched competitors for the upcoming Crow Creek Pass run go through exercises and stretches in preparation for a practice run.  “I was about an eighth of a mile ahead when they started and a full mile by the end of an hour,” he said with a sly grin.

Only once was he afraid on a solo hike. That time he walked with his two dogs along a path bounded by high grass.  “All of a sudden the dogs shot off in opposite directions, leaving me facing a charging mother moose, ”Long says.  A quick dive to the left, and Long escaped with only a bruised hand.

The former high school and college football player and wrestler came to Alaska in 1947.  His college education was interrupted by World War II and subsequent training as a B-17 pilot.  The war ended before he could be sent overseas, but he was extremely happy to leave Mississippi, where the last part of the training occurred.

Dalene Perrigo - Times Writer