After it’s been -40 below for a while, -20 below feels balmy, having much more humidity in the air compared to the colder air. Like any newcomer to Fairbanks in the winter of 1975, I too had to throw a glass of water up in the air, to watch nothing come down…

We watched the temperature hover between -40 and -50 for two months that winter, and then it started dropping again. Going home from work one evening I saw -76 below on the bank clock. This was after we’d spent the day outside load testing generator sets. Taking turns, we’d go out for 15 minutes and then warm up for thirty.

At minus 70, the cold is getting beyond the power of the best commercial shop heating systems. Even momentarily opening a large shop door to the outside when it was -50 or colder, would cause the air inside the shop to stratify and lie in layers according temperature. The first 12 inches of air above the floor was bitterly cold and it was hard to keep feet warm. Between 3-5 feet off the floor it was cold but manageable. At an elevation of 8-10 feet off the floor it was a lot better.
The power in the shop went out once a month on average during the winter months. When it did so we’d climb up on the cabs of the tallest earth movers in the shop and nap or visit until the lights came back on. But until the power came on, the cold was ominously creeping upward from the floor at a rate of 3-4 inches per minute as the building swiftly radiated heat upward and outward. When the power come back on it was really cold 4-5 feet off the floor, until the heaters ran long enough to BEAT it back down toward the floor.

Our rule when starting engines in the cold, was to warm the engine enough that oil would drip off the dipstick before engaging the starter motor. Another precaution was to warm large bulldozer ripper shanks with an oxy/acetylene heating tip before the bulldozer started ripping, otherwise the huge steel shanks would snap-off when plunged into the cold earth.

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