A Polystyrene Light Bulb

Problem, Solution

Right: potholes are a major problem, particulary in areas with a pronounced freeze-and-thaw cycle; above: Diamond J’s Frostwick System, placed below asphalt, is a solution that’s finding a place in the construction industry.

A Rocky Mountain House invention owes its birth to a revelation in the West Edmonton Mall parking lot, many years ago. The Frostwick System has come a long way since then – and is now making its mark as a simple, effective way to protect pavement from frost damage.

Freelance Writer

A Rocky Mountain House inventor will always look at West Edmonton Mall’s parking lot as the proverbial light bulb above his head. It was there that Diamond J Industries’ Frostwick System, which protects pavement from seasonal soil shifting and destabilization, was born.

Max Andrews, Diamond J operations manager, was working for PCL Construction when the WEM parking lot was built. With a lack of space for equipment, the parking lot needed a long lifespan because regular maintenance wouldn’t be possible.

Gumbo clay underneath it meant something had to be done to stop absorption of water, which leads to later expansion. Eventually, the moisture would create that pesky and expensive enemy of roadways called the frost heave or frost boil.
“The swelling property of that type of clay is enormous,” says Mr. Andrews, from the Diamond J headquarters near Rocky Mountain House.

Mr. Andrews’ solution? Place a layer of polystyrene over the clay to act as an insulator, keeping temperatures stable while controlling moisture. To this day, the layer is still in place and functioning.

“And that isn’t even close to what our product is now,” says Mr. Andrews.
The product now is the Frostwick System, a way to effectively and economically control the frost heaves and boils caused by the underground freeze-and-thaw cycle.

A New Combination
Spruce Grove’s John Twach, P.Eng., is a believer. The retired civil engineer spent virtually his entire career in road construction, including 20 years with Public Works Canada and 13 with Parkland County.

Mr. Twach dealt with frost heaves and boils for decades, as well as other nasty road-building conditions such as permafrost. The Frostwick System is not so much a revolutionary material, he says, as it is a revolutionary use of existing materials.
“Frostwick is really not different from some of the materials being used up to now. It’s the combination being used in that’s new,” says the APEGGA life member, who’s been approached by Diamond J to do consulting work for the company. A polystyrene foam interior and geosynthetic fabric lamination becomes almost like rebar in concrete.

“If you take either of those materials separately, they have limited strength. But when you put them together, you have sort of a reinforcing effect. The two of them together act structurally similar to reinforced concrete.”

“An increase in load-carrying strength, plus thermal protection, a barrier to moisture migration and the promotion of drainage as desired, are combined into a single-product installation.”

The Road to Frostwick

But it took a while for Mr. Andrews to reach that stage. He found even more reason to perfect his idea of underground insulation after leaving PCL, when he became public works superintendent for Clearwater County.

“We had one frost heave on old Highway 11A that would throw the kids around the school bus pretty badly,” recalls Mr. Andrews. This time, bentonite clay was the culprit – but the modus operandi was similar.

The clay wanted to absorb large amounts of moisture, freeze, then expand, causing damage to the engineered roadway. Polystyrene, laid three feet down, was used to cover the clay and control the problem.

“It hasn’t come back since. It totally solved the problem.”

That encouraged Mr. Andrews to approach Diamond J owner and operator John Bandura with a business proposal. “I said, John, this is something we should have a good look at. Nothing like this exists anywhere.”

Mr. Bandura agreed with Mr. Andrews. There was nothing like it. And that was part of the problem.

The experienced businessman says: “To me, this was not something that was in any of our books. But it was making sense when we sat down and started talking about it.”

Mr. Bandura and Mr. Andrews then spent two and a half years refining the idea to its final, current form.

Frostwick includes individual plates of polystyrene, which is a durable insulator. But by itself it is not quite enough, so the Frostwick System coats it on each side with a geosynthetic.
“If you want to wick the water away from the insulation, you use non-woven geosynthetic,” which will protect the system during back-filling, says the inventor. “However, if you’re dealing with an Artesian situation, where you’ve got water welling from the bottom, you use the woven geosynthetic.”

ARC Tests
But company testimonials aside, does it really work? How effective is that layer of geosynthetic seal?

The Bandura-Andrews duo hired Alberta Research Council to test the product. ARC proved the application of geosynthetic could improve stress capabilities of the insulating material up to 400 per cent. Not too shabby.

“What that proved is that you don’t necessarily have to use the higher PSI grade of insulation, if you add the lower cost geosynthetic to it,” adds Mr. Andrews.

To further increase longevity, Frostwick’s plates employ an interlocking feature, allowing them to shift up to six inches. As engineers know, underground movement can cause serious problems to man-made structures not designed for it. Interlocking plates also virtually eliminate leakage.

As a final touch, angled wing pieces control leakage attacking the road from the shoulders.

How the Future Looks
Diamond J is convinced it’s onto something. With the public and the private sectors also voicing support, Mr. Andrews says the future looks good. “It’ll prove itself and sell itself right off the bat.”

Alberta Transportation, in fact, gave Frostwick “proven product” status, elminating the need for a pilot project.

With the invention under production in Rocky Mountain House, several new projects have already been completed in 2004 – one in the County of Lethbridge, and two more in Sturgeon County. And Diamond J plans to complete projects in the Municipal District of Rockyview, Yellowhead County, Brazeau County and Strathcona County, before year’s end.

There’s more positive news. The company is currently working out a deal for a public-private partnership in the energy field, which will attempt to create a year-round ice road system in muskeg, employing the Frostwick System.

Partners are the Alberta departments of Innovation and Science ($75,000) and Economic Development ($25,000), plus Diamond J, which puts in the matching $100,000. The project will be coordinated by Portage College, with the Consulting Engineers of Alberta playing an advisory and evaluation role.

Why is Frostwick so popular? One boon is the mechanically simple design, based on readily available polystyrene. It’s so simple, in fact, you’d think someone would have thought of it before.

"We hear that a lot,” Mr. Andrews says with a laugh.

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