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CHS Propane overcomes nature’s challenges in Big Sky Country
September 30, 2011
New propane truck helps Montana company upgrade service in wilderness, wildfires
Written by: Troy Johnson, Two Rivers Marketing
Mick Loughlin works in one of America’s most spectacular natural playgrounds.
As the head of service at CHS Propane in Kalispell, northwest Montana, Loughlin roams a Northern Rocky Mountain region featuring snowcapped mountains, pristine lakes, lush meadows and abundant wildlife.
CHS Propane serves roughly 3,000 residential, farm, ranch and commercial customers across a sprawling area that includes a chunk of Glacier National Park — a virtually unspoiled national treasure that attracts around 2 million tourists annually.
Loughlin, who was raised in Montana, doesn’t take his majestic working environment for granted.
“God made this place and forgot about everybody else,” Loughlin says with a laugh. “I love it here, I love the scenery.”
Some of the same natural qualities that make Loughlin’s “workplace” so picturesque also heighten the challenges faced by his department. The veteran propane service technician was mindful of those special challenges when he walked into the Western Propane Trade Show & Convention in Reno, Nev., in 2009.
Propane truck a real showstopper
Loughlin’s responsibilities at CHS Propane include installing service lines, ensuring compliance with safety regulations and addressing a wide assortment of maintenance issues.
Operating in a glacier-carved region of Big Sky Country that stretches to the border with Canada, Loughlin and fellow service technician Kirt Hattleberg regularly encounter natural challenges that a lot of propane providers don’t. The rugged, forested landscape can require the technicians to maneuver tanks in hard-to-reach areas, while wildfires can test their efficiency.
When he arrived in Reno for the 2009 Western Propane Trade Show & Convention, Loughlin was feeling somewhat limited by his service truck, which was equipped with an older, cable-controlled crane offering a capacity of about 3,900 pounds. His wish list included a durable, reliable truck body with increased payload capacity and a hydraulic telescopic crane with greater reach and capacity.
While walking the show floor, Loughlin got an up-close look at the Iowa Mold Tooling Co. Inc. (IMT) Dominator
propane truck body and IMT 3820 hydraulic telescopic crane — an integrated package designed, tested and manufactured specifically for the propane industry.
Loughlin was struck by the payload capacity of the truck body. Lightweight body construction, maintaining all the structural benefits of steel, enabled the truck to transport two 500-gallon propane tanks or one 1,000-gallon tank. He was equally impressed by the crane’s 7,500-pound capacity, horizontal reach of 20 feet 6 inches and radio remote control. He also noticed that the complete package was engineered for superior stability. So, when Loughlin returned to Kalispell, he immediately began lobbying his boss, propane department supervisor Dan Skalsky, to add the truck to the company’s service fleet.
“When I came back, I said, ‘Dan, we’ve got to have this (IMT) truck. That truck is impressive,’ ” Loughlin says. “We need a truck that can get in there and have the lifting capabilities to move a tank that may be loaded with fuel, to get out of an area, because of the fact that we live in rural areas and we oftentimes have some fires here.
“If we’ve got to move a 500- or 1,000-gallon tank that’s full, we can move them quickly with this truck. With the other truck, we’d have to pump the fuel off to move it. That’s a time-consuming project.”
When Skalsky finally got the opportunity to see the truck himself, he agreed with Loughlin’s assessment and proceeded to make room in the company budget. CHS Propane took delivery of the IMT truck in the spring of 2011.
Truck bears down in wilderness environment
It didn’t take long for the new truck to make a difference.
Right after CHS Propane put the truck into service, a maintenance job near the Canadian border called for the re-setting of a full 500-gallon tank that had been knocked off its blocks by a grizzly bear.
“We saw the paw prints — that must’ve been one ticked-off bear,” Loughlin says. “The tank had been rolled over and was being held on its side by the riser. Water had just saturated the ground. So I had to go over the top of some trees and back up as close as I could get.
“I extended the boom all the way out, picked that tank up and swung it back over. With the IMT crane, you can do it inch by inch, whereas with a cable, you can’t do that. I love the remote because I can have absolute feather control on it.”
Loughlin says the bear’s handiwork took about an hour to undo. He estimates that the same job would have taken hours using the older truck-crane unit.
That’s just the first anecdote illustrating how the truck has increased CHS Propane’s productivity and efficiency in the face of nature’s obstacles. Loughlin figures he deals with natural impediments like mountain terrain, trees, water or snow on about half of his installation and maintenance jobs.
“Because we live in a mountainous area, there are times that the tanks are actually set over the hill,” Loughlin says. “They dug out and made a platform for it to sit on. But with the remote on the IMT crane, I can stand 30 feet away over the side of the hill, with the stabilizers out. I can pick the tank up and then bring it in and tether it into the back of the flatbed, from over the side of a hill. Before, the cable gave me a limited amount of space to work with.
“If I have to retrieve a tank from a flood walk, I can boom this out, put my stabilizers down, wade out, hook into a tank and pull it back in. If I had the cable, I couldn’t do that. I’d have to have somebody else out there and then run the cable.”
CHS Propane is a licensed contractor for the National Park Service, a partnership that takes Loughlin a half-hour east to Glacier National Park at least once a week. On one early stop with the new IMT truck, Loughlin was charged with re-setting a 1,000-gallon tank that had been toppled by heavy snow at an elevation of 5,200 feet.
“Before, I would’ve had to do it end-by-end, and make sure it didn’t shift on me,” Loughlin says. “But this time I picked it up and moved it where it was supposed to be like it was nothing.”
Truck helps CHS Propane stay cool under fire
When CHS Propane isn’t battling bears or mountain terrain or snow, it’s facing fire.
Wildfires are a perennial problem in northwest Montana, where the presence of hot, dry conditions can form a dangerous combination with lightning and heavy forestation. If a blaze is sparked and closes in on customers, time is of the essence for CHS Propane.
“We’ve got a lot of areas that are timber and we’ve got a lot of people that have resort homes,” Loughlin says. “We may get a call from the fire teams that say, ‘Hey can you come up here and move these tanks out?’ It can be a little tense when you get that call at 1 o’clock in the morning.
“We have to shut the tank down, sever the line, pick the tank up, put it on my truck and then take it to a holding area. We would tag those tanks by what customer it was and we would stockpile those tanks into a safe area until they’ve got the fire contained and taken care of.”
That need for productivity and efficiency under pressure is another reason Loughlin pushed his company to purchase the versatile IMT truck.
“With this truck, I can reach out and drag a tank over to where I have lifting capability and pick the tank up,” Loughlin says. “With the older (truck-crane unit), that was kind of a nightmare. I would have to get right next to the tank, and I would have to roll it and do this and that. With this truck, I can go in there, shut the tank down, pick the tank up and get out of there.”
Truck offers ‘so much performance’
Loughlin believes any service department — no matter what the operational degree of difficulty — could benefit from adding the IMT Dominator propane truck to its fleet.
He says he is routinely saving 45 minutes on jobs that used to require pumping off fuel. The truck not only increases his productivity and efficiency, it also enables him to minimize the amount of time that he treads on customer property, boosting customer satisfaction.
In addition to lauding the truck’s payload, lift and reach capabilities, Loughlin praises its stability. Steadfastly committed to safety, he draws confidence from hydraulic out-and-down stabilizers that are easy to deploy for better unit stability during crane operation. Plus, he appreciates the package’s integrated E-Track System and headache rack, which allow adjustable securing of various sizes of tanks.
Loughlin summarizes the IMT truck’s impact on his job in way that’s as colorful as his scenic northwest Montana work environment in the fall.
“It’s like having Disneyland in your back pocket,” he says with a chuckle. “You just get so much performance for what you bought.
“It’s made my job a lot easier, a lot quicker and a lot safer. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I don’t think you will find another truck with the same capabilities that could outperform this. It gives us a competitive edge.”
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