UAA students design system for melting snow in Fairview

Devin Kelly

Snow accumulates in Anchorage streets in the winter, pushed into parking lots and sidewalks, expensive to haul and dispose. For more than two decades, former state representative Allen Kemplen, a resident of Fairview, has thought: What if you could just melt it away?

A longtime proponent of making Anchorage a more livable winter city, Kemplen started pushing in the 1980s for the idea of "snow cisterns" after hearing about Japan's use of underground heated pits where snow can be pushed and melted. In 2012, after years of lobbying, the Alaska Legislature approved a grant of $50,000 for a snow disposal project in Fairview.

The problem was, the $50,000 was solely for construction. No funds were allocated for the actual project design. That's where a team of UAA engineering students come in. About six months ago, word about the cistern project reached Aaron Dotson, a University of Alaska Anchorage civil engineering professor who studies snow management. He decided to ask a group of students to design the snowmelt system as a senior capstone project.

On Thursday, a few days after graduation, the students set up a showcase of their work for appreciative members of the Fairview Community Council.

"It's got a lot of hours and heart and soul," said Rich Bailey, 32, the project manager and a civil engineering student.

Bailey and teammates Marissa Stewart, Jake Plancich and Nathaniel Cox estimated that their design would cost about $161,000, more than three times as much as the current legislative grant. But they predict the project would break even in 15 years and save about $200,000 over 30 years.

"We want it to be cheaper than hauling snow," Bailey said. "That was kind of tough, because there's no data on a system like this, nothing to compare it to."

The students' design calls for a large pit dug in the north end of the Fairview Recreation Center parking lot by the bus stop. A hatch covering the top would be large enough to receive snow plowed by a standard-sized plow truck, Bailey said.

Inside the pit, which would be 12 feet deep, the cistern would consist of a concrete melting structure and perforated corrugated pipes that allow the water to seep into the soil. The piping would be positioned beneath the frost depth, topped by 4 inches of insulation. Snow would be pushed on top of a pool of water at the bottom of structure, heated by a residential-sized natural gas boiler. A set of nozzles would spray hot water on top of the snow and melt it.

The system is designed to withstand the loads of sediment that collect on heavily sanded Anchorage roads, Bailey said.

Of all the senior design projects at UAA, "this was definitely the one that was most tied to something here locally," said Dotson, the faculty mentor on the project and an assistant professor of civil engineering.

The students enlisted the help of various members of Anchorage's engineering and building community. Partway through the project, the students applied for, and won, a $2,500 award from UAA to conduct geotechnical work at the site. DOWL HKM agreed to do the drilling, and the students did the soil analysis and fieldwork, Bailey said.

Kemplen said the design was "robust," and he hoped it could someday translate on a smaller scale in Anchorage neighborhoods -- for example, in a homeowner's driveway.

Before moving forward, the design would need to be reviewed by a licensed Alaska engineer. But Jim Przeczewski, the project manager for the municipality, said the students did a lot of necessary legwork, and the plan has "great potential."

Bailey said the design work could have easily cost the community council $60,000. But the students did it for free, and learned a lot about fieldwork in the process, he said.

"It's a win-win," Przeczewski said.

At the community council meeting, president Christopher Constant said the next step will be bridging the gap between the current $50,000 grant and the $161,000 estimate in the students' design. He said the council will be putting together a proposal on how to do it.

"The reality is it's more funding than we have available, but we have a good plan," he said.

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.