Environmentally friendly culvert gets a lift through IRAP’s network of connections

March 28, 2017— Lethbridge, Alberta

Lethbridge College students test the impact of an Enviro Span culvert installation on the streambed in a nearby park during an IRAP-facilitated, community-based demonstration project involving the College and the City of Lethbridge.(Photo credit: Lethbridge College)

Sometimes a fresh take on an old technology can make a big difference to the environment. Take culverts, for example. Enviro Span, a technology firm based in Lethbridge, Alberta, has designed a new modular culvert system to reduce the environmental impact of stream crossings. With the help of the National Research Council Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), Enviro Span's founder and a senior partner, Ron Hammerstedt, organized a project with Lethbridge College and the City of Lethbridge to showcase the technology's environmental benefit and cost-saving features.

The Enviro Span culvert system replaces the traditional steel culvert with a lightweight yet durable thermoplastic material that is easy and inexpensive to install. These culverts provide a viable solution for small installations where harsh soil types, muskeg, and fragile environments are an issue. Reusable, they are suitable for temporary uses such as forestry or northern roads as well as more permanent infrastructure along rural and urban roadways. Shaped like a half-moon, they leave the streambed intact and preserve valuable fish habitat.

Connecting in the community for a demonstration project

After a career in forestry, Hammerstedt saw the need for a better solution for stream crossings. "In the mountains of British Columbia, a logging road might cross up to 20 fish-bearing streams in 40 kilometres. With conventional steel culverts, the soil often erodes around the downstream opening, making it impossible for fish to swim further. This can potentially cut off thousands of kilometres of spawning grounds," explained Hammerstedt.

"[The project] blossomed into a wealth of opportunities that none of us expected. All of that was based on IRAP being able to bring everyone together."

Ron Hammerstedt, President, Enviro Span

With the new culvert in production, Hammerstedt's challenge was to add new business cases for the product – and to convince traditional roadbuilders and engineers to try something different.

With minimal disruption to a stream-crossing site, both after installation and removal, Enviro Span's lightweight, easy-to-install, half-moon culverts leave streambeds intact and preserve valuable fish habitat.(Photo credit: Lethbridge College)

When Hammerstedt met Cal Koskowich, an IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA), over a casual coffee, Koskowich realized the technology was innovative and viable in new ways. "Since all the materials for a two-lane highway bridge crossing can be loaded into one truck, it costs less to get to remote crossings. Because it's super-light and modular, two people can carry the pieces along a trail to the right location, without the need for heavy equipment."

The ITA engaged. Using his network of contacts, Koskowich introduced Hammerstedt to researchers at the Lethbridge College and pointed the company to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council's (NSERC) Community College Innovation Program for funding. A stream crossing in the park near the college had needed replacing for some time, so Koskowich also connected Hammerstedt with officials at the City of Lethbridge to launch a pilot project in 2015. That project collected new, needed data on fish habitat and behaviours at a stream crossing.

The project easily met the anticipated outcomes. Culvert materials were loaded on a four-wheel ATV and installed in a half day instead of a week – with virtually no streambed disruption.

"With an initial quote of $400,000, the City was having trouble getting the needed budget. It's in a very narrow valley, where heavier materials could only be dropped in by helicopter. In the end, the construction of the new trail and culvert installation cost about $190,000," said Hammerstedt. "It was a fantastic opportunity for the College's students to do research. The City got a very safe, stable and affordable stream crossing."

"The City is keen on doing more projects with the College. It blossomed into a wealth of opportunities that none of us expected. All of that was based on IRAP being able to bring everyone together to use a new technology and address an old need."

Environmental success leads to business growth

Easy and inexpensive to install, as well as lightweight and reusable, Enviro Span culverts readily integrate into the landscape both technically and visually. They are suitable for temporary uses such as forestry development and ice roads, as well as more permanent infrastructure in rural and urban areas.(Photo credit: Lethbridge College)

Enviro Span is moving forward with its business strategy, thanks to the data collected by the Lethbridge demonstration project. "We have increased sales, and have signed on a new distributor largely as a result of the excitement we generated with the project," reported Hammerstedt. "A video made by Lethbridge College is proving very useful as a marketing tool."

"We now have installations across the United States, and have a few in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta, and many in BC, where environmental protection is a priority."

With an eye on the potential impact of climate change on road building in sensitive and northern ecosystems, Hammerstedt can see the opportunities for further business growth. "The culvert has value beyond the forest industry. It's also useful for country roads and town roads, and we have a few of these in Canada too."

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