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Steel Pier Builder Reduces Fuel Costs and Noise while Increasing Productivity with PRO 300 Welding Generator

Executive Summary

Nordcap Steel Docks and Homes uses Miller Electric Mfg. Co.’s PRO 300 welder/generator matched with a Maxstar 200 Stick/TIG inverter to weld steel piers in Ontario.

Nordcap president Philipp Spoerndli reports the following benefits of working with Miller Electric Mfg. Co. and Praxair:  

Holding Up Under Pier Pressure

The Lake of Bays and Muskoka Lake in Ontario offer the perfect escape for those who wish to trade in the chaos of city life for the beauty and serenity of Canada’s great outdoors. However, while the residents sleep in, the crew of Nordcap Steel Docks and Homes are already hard at work to meet the ongoing demand for steel docks. In fact, the demand is so great that the Nordcap crew will work year round, taking off only a week or two in the dead of winter and a few other days when the weather forces them inside.

“You have to appreciate where we work,” says Ed McNaughton, a Nordcap CWB-certified welder, indicating the beautiful scenery. “Customers here are very particular about noise levels, but we can run a PRO 300 at 7 a.m. without any noise complaints.”

When the lakes freeze over, Nordcap will bring its supplies in on sleds. At other times, they work from one of their barges, portable shops that carry everything they need to complete a job. There are few things that will stop them: waves that crest over the dock, howling winds, ice, temperatures below -25 degrees F and equipment that breaks down or won’t start.

The Nordcap crew can’t do much about the weather, of course, but if their equipment breaks down, it can cost Nordcap $200 an hour in lost labor—more than that if they’ve rented additional equipment—plus, even a single lost day can throw off weeks of scheduling.

So for Philipp Spoerndli, president of Nordcap, reliable equipment and dependable service are musts. He had a scare when both his previous equipment and distributor let him down, so he turned to his Praxair rep, Roger Barton, and the Miller PRO 300 welder/generator. There he found not only the service and support he wanted, but also a few unexpected benefits: quiet, dependable machines that cut fuel costs, increase productivity and don’t disturb the residents on the lake, all of which helps him maintain his competitive edge.

Nordcap Takes the Plunge

When Spoerndli started in the business, he built and repaired wooden docks, which were on cribs, wooden structures that take up a large footprint on the lake bottom. Over time, the wooden structures would settle in or deteriorate.

“People that are perfectly able to do a weld on a bench at a perfect height, might not do well when they’re hanging over water, on their knees,” says Ed McNaughton, Nordcap.

“Fixing them was a tough job,” Spoerndli recalls. “You’d have to lift the boat houses and remove the rocks from the crib. After a while, I said to myself, ‘There has to be a better way’ and I turned to steel docks in 1991.”

At that time, steel docks were a fad; now they’ve become the preferred choice of many. In contrast to wooden docks, steel docks make less of an environmental impact because they create a minimal footprint on the lake bottom and use steel instead of wood. Plus, they last longer than wooden docks—two to three times longer—according to Spoerndli, who uses the heaviest-wall steel pile he can while still remaining competitively priced.

Spoerndli and the Nordcap crew distinguishes themselves from their competitors in other ways too, sand blasting and epoxy coating all steel used on the docks and using sacrificial anodes to inhibit corrosion and increase longevity, and driving the piles all the way down to the bedrock to prevent settling. A Nordcap dock can be expected to last 75 or 85 years before needing maintenance, compared to about 25 years for a wooden dock.

Carpenters Out, Welders In

As wooden docks gave way to steel ones, welders took up the work previously performed by carpenters. When Spoerndli began working with steel docks, he hired knowledgeable welders and took classes to become a CWB (Canadian Welding Bureau)-certified supervisor. He now has two, all-position CWB-certified welders on his crew, one welder certified in flat and horizontal positions, and a second CWB-certified supervisor.

Nordcap’s barge carries every thing the crew needs to build and repair steel docks. The two Miller PRO 300s take up minimal space, leaving more room for materials and other machines.

Initially, Spoerndli and his crew worked from a raft and rented a barge to do the pile driving. He later bought the barge, which they now use as a floating workstation and to transport tools and equipment on the lake. They’ve also made a switch to Miller welding equipment: two Miller PRO 300 diesel welder/generators and two Miller Maxstar® 200 Stick/TIG welders. The switch to Miller came two years ago, when, while working on the Muskoka wharf with a different equipment brand, the oil cap suddenly blew off of a welder/generator and filled the air with white smoke.

“We got it working again, but I was really dissatisfied with the service we received from our distributor at the time,” Spoerndli says. “If we hadn’t been able to get it going, we would have really been stuck. I had rented equipment that was costing $500 an hour [a barge need to drive the piles down 60-75 feet], labor costs of $200 an hour, and I couldn’t afford to have any downtime. I never wanted to be in that situation again.”

After that experience, Spoerndli turned to Roger Barton of Praxair.

“I could have been considered a bit difficult. I asked him to price things three different times,” Spoerndli says. “I was about to spend a lot of money on equipment and wanted to make an informed decision. He just gave me the information I needed without a problem. You don’t get that service very often. I quickly felt very comfortable dealing with Barton and with Dave Middlebrook from Miller Electric—he’s the welding expert and answered all of my questions. I was very encouraged and found that level of comfort I was looking for.”

Dave Middlebrook, Miller district manager, and Phillipp Spoerndli, Nordcap president, take a moment to discuss the Miller PRO 300. Between the PRO 300 and Middlebrook’s and Miller’s support, Spoerndli has found the level of comfort he had sought.

To solve Spoerndli’s equipment issues, Middlebrook and Barton recommended the Miller PRO 300 low-speed diesel multi-process welder/generator. Capable of running Stick, TIG, MIG, FCAW and Air Carbon Arc gouging, the PRO 300’s low noise output (73 dba at 23 feet at maximum output.) was also an important consideration for a company that works year-round in a location where people come to enjoy the scenery and relax.

You have to appreciate where we work,” says Edward McNaughton, a Nordcap CWB-certified welder, indicating the beautiful scenery. “Customers here are very particular about noise levels, but we can run a PRO 300 at 7 a.m. without any noise complaints.”

“These PRO 300s are beautiful,” agrees Kurt Muntz, Nordcap supervisor. “They just purr. You can actually have a conversation beside them when someone is welding. You can run a stereo and actually hear the music.”

But Spoerndli’s appreciation goes beyond the PRO 300’s low noise. Because of the PRO 300’s light weight and compact size (1,100 lbs. with a 26-in. x 56-in. footprint), Nordcap can easily fit two on its barge. Plus, the PRO 300 has all the welding power the crew needs for the 3/8” steel they work with.

“The penetration is great,” says McNaughton. “We can strike an arc right through the paint without prepping the metal, if necessary. The PRO 300s are easy to dial in. About 60% of a good weld is having the right equipment. The rest is skill. The PRO 300 is unbeatable.” The Nordcap crew typically uses, 1/8-in. and 5/32-in. 7018 rods.

But there were some unadvertised benefits to the PRO 300 that makes Nordcap’s life easier. Spoerndli also bought a gas-powered welder/generator for those cold days when it would be difficult to start a diesel engine. But through the entire 2005-06 Winter, they never had to use the gas engine drive, which would have been less economical.

The PRO 300 carries everything the crew needs, including a pile driver to sink the piles down to the bedrock.

“We were out here year-round, in all conditions and the PRO 300 started every time,” says McNaughton. “If there’s fuel and oil in it, it’s a done deal—we’re going to work. That’s a really big thing. A breakdown would cause major headaches. First of all, it would put us behind on the next project. Since we’re committed to so many projects a year, a machine that doesn’t run means we have to work overtime on Saturdays and nobody wants to do that. Second, you don’t want to have a crew standing around at $200 an hour while someone tries to start the machine.

“The PRO 300 worked year round and never caused any problems,” McNaughton adds. “ We were amazed at the cold-weather starting. The people will give out before the machines do.”

Being able to use the diesel-power unit year-round saves on fuel prices, too. Since they only need to add about 5 gallons a shift and they use off-road diesel (priced lower than automotive), which costs about $0.78 Canadian a liter, they can run a PRO 300 for less than $14 Canadian per day.

Two Arcs, One Welder/Generator

However, there was another unexpected benefit: with 10,000 W (12,000 W peak) generator power, the PRO 300 has enough power to run grinders, chop saws, microwaves and, most importantly, a Miller Maxstar 200 Stick/TIG welder that allows Nordcap to get two high quality arcs from one welder/generator, cutting fuel use in half and saving room on the barge.

The Maxstar 200 is a lightweight (37 lb.) inverter-based power source that provides 150A at 26V (60% duty cycle), draws 5kW maximum and, by incorporating Auto-Line™ technology, can run off any power supply 115V-460VAC, single or three phase and keep the output constant regardless of fluctuations in power of +/- 10%.

Finding a Level of Comfort

While the Miller PRO 300s answered many of Norcap’s needs, the machines are not perfect. For instance, they don’t float.

“When something goes wrong, he’ll come to your door,” says Ed McNaughton, Nordcap, of Dave Middlebrook, Miller district manager, shown above upgrading a circuit board. Middlebrook, Nordcap nor Miller PRO 300s work in all weather.

“The PRO 300s are great machines as long as we don’t submerge them,” said Spoerndli, referring to the time the boat was swamped and a PRO 300 sank. No one was sure if the machine was salvageable—submerging them isn’t a factory recommended procedure. However, PRO 300s are ruggedly built machines, featuring The Vault, which houses the control board in a hardened, watertight case, and a marine-grade ignition switch, which is sealed and protected for water and dust.

Spoerndli was advised that the machine would need to be scrapped, but Jack Lowe at Northern Machine in Barrie, Ontario, dried it out and got it back in working order.

“Miller’s customer service is unique,” says Spoerndli, “With Dave (Middlebrook, Miller Electric) and Roger (Barton), there’s a new level of comfort there. I know if I’m in a bind I can count on them.”

“When something goes wrong, they come right to your door,” McNaughton says, referring to the time Middlebrook came on a service call to the worksite in the middle of winter to upgrade a circuit board (see photo.) “I haven’t seen that type of support with other companies.”

With the switch to Miller equipment, came the level of comfort Spoerndli had hoped for, both in the equipment and the service. Now he just has to worry about the weather.<-->

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