Jose Torres and Julianna Aycock were on vacation in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, last winter when they noticed all the snow piled up during what was a record snow year for many ski resorts in the West.
It led the Riverton couple to put their gas and oil field backgrounds to work to troubleshoot the issue and come up with a creative solution.
“We were just sitting around at breakfast talking, and he had an idea and started drawing it up on a napkin,” Aycock said.
The problem, Torres said, is there is no place to truck snow picked up from parking lots because there’s no available real estate. This means businesses and cities often have it trucked several miles away, which is costly.
“You just can't push it into a pile and leave it in Steamboat, or Jackson or any ski town,” he said. “The town itself has somewhere that they truck it to, but they don't allow the hotels, resorts, hospitals, convenience stores, grocery stores or any of the private properties to truck it there because there's obviously not enough room. So I thought, why don't we just melt it to get rid of it?”
More than a year later, that rough sketch has led to Thaw Tech Solutions and a machine used to melt snow and release it into the drainage system.
“When we're out doing it, people will come up and talk to us and are super excited about it,” Torres said. “It’s outside the box, but everyone has been responsive to it.”
Pieces And Parts
Back in Riverton after their trip, Torres got to work putting the machine together. He gathered the pieces and parts to get it up and running so they could test the idea to make sure it would work.
It took about four months to complete and by that time winter was on its way out, but they were still able to run the machine a few times and even helped the city of Riverton divert about 15,000 gallons of water to prevent flooding of some local businesses last March.
While the test was an overall success, the machine wasn’t moving as much water as they’d hoped so they began to make improvements. This included new and bigger burners, and better containment and filtration.
“It was melting snow for sure, but it was equivalent to two trucks, and we wanted to be way more than that,” Torres said. “If we're only the equivalent to two trucks, that's not saving a whole lot.”
They determined that one of the key components to make the machine work better was a bigger pump that would need to be specially made.
“We needed more volume,” Aycock said. “We had plenty of heat and we had plenty of BTUs, but we were having to slow the BTUs down because we didn't have enough flow and we had to slow down our heat because we didn't have enough power to equate with our heat.”
To help make the needed improvements, Torres and Aycock applied to the 2023 IMPACT 307 Fremont County Startup Challenge and were selected as one of five finalists. The challenge is a platform for residents to put their ideas to the test while receiving business coaching and start-up support.
After presenting to judges last April, they were named one of three winners.
They spent the spring and summer ordering parts, including the custom-made pump, and making the needed upgrades in preparation for this winter season. The updated machine processes between 80 and 100 yards of snow per hour, which totals about the length of a football field.
There also is a filter to remove trash before the water goes into the drainage system. Aycock’s background is in environmental safety, so making the machine more green was a priority for her.
“So much trash gets accumulated and when it’s melted off there's the tobacco cans, beer cans, T-shirts, cigarette butts — you name it — it goes to the rivers and lakes,” Torres said. “In our machine, it all just gets filtered out. At the end of the day we just throw it in a trash bag.”
Another benefit is it takes just one person to operate as opposed to multiple trucks, meaning less heavy equipment on the roads. The warmer water, which is about 50 degrees, coming out of the machine also prevents ice from building up in the curb areas.
“It’s at least 30% cheaper for them to go through us and it’s faster because we can do it on a day they're closed,” Torres said. “This year we're seeing the numbers that we want to see as far as yards per hour, and we've talked to a lot of people in Jackson and some other ski towns to let them know that we're ready to go.”
It Works, But …
There’s just one thing that’s been missing to this point — snow.
“Business has been slow for sure, but we’ve been able to dial things in,” Torres said. “We’ve had some local companies like Big Horn Co-op let us do their snow. There's lots of interest, but no pressure because there's not a bunch of snow.”
While waiting for the white stuff, the couple has been reaching out to the public works directors in the towns they hope to do business in, including Jackson.
“We feel like it's appropriate to reach out to the public works directors before we even come to a town and start to sell because we want to establish that relationship and that camaraderie with them before we even start because we're working with their systems,” Aycock said.
She added that Jackson is considering creating its own snow melting plant and they’ve been invited to be part of those discussions.
The couple said the ultimate goal is to create a manufacturing hub in Fremont County to build and sell customizable thaw machines to be franchised or bought by landscape or other snow removal companies.
“We are completely confident that we can customize the size and style to anybody, so whatever size vehicle trailer or lot you have, we can recommend sizes, and then have them built for specific customers,” Aycock said. “So, we're selling the service as of now and we’re working out all the kinks by working it ourselves for the next couple of years.”
The next step is to put the machine to work and use that income to make it more user-friendly.
“This year we’ve gotten bigger and better,” Torres said. “We’re doing the rest of the pilot testing and just learning as we go with the one machine and then we'll automate it. Hopefully by next year we’ll be ready to customize.”