De-icing: Forced-air de-ice likely coming soon to bizav

 - January 29, 2009, 3:59 AM

As airports across the U.S. wage their annual struggle against winter weather, business aviation operators may soon find themselves familiar with a new de-icing method. Forced-air de-icers, which use high-volume, low-pressure air to help strip contamination from flying surfaces, have been used to augment the effect of glycol on airliners at major airports for years, but the business aircraft community has been slow to embrace them.

“It’s limited primarily because of the cost of the system. It’s quite a significant outlay in the AirPlus system,” said Jeffrey Walsh, vice president for sales and service at Global Ground Support. “When combined with an enclosed cab it can add as much as $55,000 to the cost of a de-icer, and it’s difficult for FBOs or small regional airports to recoup that cost in a couple of seasons because they spray so few airplanes.”

Unlike previous, mostly obsolete systems that used heated air to melt the snow and ice, which could then find its way into other areas and refreeze, the forced-air systems rely on cold air. “There is a little bit of temperature rise due to the compression,” said Walsh, “but about 18 inches from the end of the nozzle, the forced air is back down to ambient and that means snow and ice will not melt; it will just blow it off the wing.”

The systems excel in conditions of dry snow, or ice crusted on top of snow. Using an air stream to forcibly displace the contamination means that less de-icing fluid is required to melt it. According to the manufacturers, adding the air systems to de-icing trucks reduces glycol consumption by up to 75 percent depending on weather conditions. “In Buffalo, N.Y., where there’s a lot of snow accumulation but it’s usually fairly cold, you’ll see even better results,” said Walsh. “In Seattle, where they get a lot of freezing rain and ice build-up, the air is not quite as effective.”

This diminished appetite for glycol could also account for FBOs’ reluctance to adopt the technology. “The FBOs historically get paid per gallon of fluid that they dispense,” said Jerry Derusha, president of Wisconsin-based de-icer manufacturer Premier Engineering and Manufacturing, “and when you are reducing the amount of glycol that you are using, in essence what you are doing is buying a more expensive machine to generate less income, because you are not putting as much fluid on the airplanes.”

However, due to changing conditions in the industry, many smaller airports and FBOs may be reconsidering their position, according to Global’s Walsh. “The primary reason is the cost of glycol, which has gone up 30 to 40 percent over the last two years,” he said. “With Lyondell Chemical [a major U.S. de-icing fluid supplier] declaring bankruptcy and everyone scrambling for the remaining suppliers, there’s a chance that the price could go up significantly more next season, so we are seeing much greater interest in the forced-air units from smaller customers.”

There is also the pollution angle, with many municipalities now focusing closer scrutiny on the use of de-icing fluid. “In a lot of places controls on glycol use are being mandated by the airline or the airport,” said Premier’s Derusha. “In Denver, for example, everybody who brings in glycol for de-icing has to account for every gallon of fluid that comes into the airport, and then they have to pay a reclamation fee.”

“The less you spray, the less you have to pick up,” added Walsh. “In a lot of cities now, the cost of picking up and disposing of the fluid as required by that city’s regulations is sometimes double the initial cost of the de-icing fluid itself.”

In response to these stimuli, interest in and sales of the units are slowly increasing.  Global recently sold a unit to Chisholm-Hibbing Airport in Northern Minnesota, and Premier is reporting a spike in their popularity among business aircraft servicers.
“What used to be probably 10 percent of our business–putting air systems on trucks for the FBOs–this past year was more like 30 percent of our business,” Derusha said.