By Keith Norbury

In its own way, a house on the move qualifies as project cargo. It should come as no surprise then that a company built on moving houses should also use that expertise to move other massive things. Vancouver, B.C.-based Nickel Bros, founded in 1956, has also been in the industrial moving business since the early 1970s, said company President Jeremy Nickel. His father, Henry, who established the company with his younger brother Richard, first got into the project cargo business with forest company MacMillan Bloedel. Nickel Bros had already been moving bunkhouses to various camps when somebody realized that the same equipment could be used to transport industrial machinery.

“Since that time, we’ve been moving large structures, vessels, tanks, machinery,” Jeremy Nickel said. For most of the subsequent years, however, industrial moving made up a small part of the business, reaching about 30 per cent in the early 1980s and dropping to 20 per cent or so in the 1990s.

Then, around 2005, the house-moving part of the business declined. “And we felt that there was a real need to better market our industrial side,” Mr. Nickel said. That marketing push led to some big jobs, including the movement of 23 large components, worth about $20 million, from Asia to Alberta for a pulp mill upgrade in Grande Prairie. That move, which cost about $7 million, including permits and other expenses, helped push the industrial moving side to about 50 per cent of the company’s overall business. “The growth in the industrial side is in part due to the marketing campaign, but also to our success with some of the very high-profile projects that we’ve done, this one being one of them,” Mr. Nickel said.

The components, for a seven-effect evaporator plant at Weyerhaeuser’s Grande Prairie mill, were built in Thailand and China. Nickel’s involvement in the move began at the ports of Lae Chabang, Thailand, and Nansha, China, where the components were loaded onto BBC Chartering ships for the 11,668-kilometre (7,270-mile) journey to the port of Vancouver, Wash., on the Columbia River. At Vancouver, the components, which weighed up to 233,600 kilograms (515,000 pounds) each, were loaded onto hydraulic dolly transporters on board barges hired from Tidewater Inc. “We had them positioned on the barges so that the BBC ship, with its heavy-lift cranes, could lift the vessels directly onto these transporters,” Mr. Nickel said. The loads were then lashed to the barges and tugged up the Columbia River 555 kilometres (345 miles) to Wilma, on the Washington border near Lewiston, Idaho. “At that point they were transloaded over to highway transporters,” Mr. Nickel said.

One of the transporters was a custom-built piece of equipment, unique to North America, called a Schnabel device. It allowed the equipment to be lowered close to the ground to help the loads clear overhead wires and other obstructions. The longest of the trailer systems, which included a tractor at the front and a push truck at the back, was 226 feet long. The load itself was nearly 24 feet wide, and just over 25 feet high. “This is probably the biggest and most significant project from my perspective, and I’ve been around this industry for 32 years,” Mr. Nickel said.

Nickel Bros had looked at bringing the shipments through the Panama Canal and into Houston and trucking them along a more conventional route. But the size of the units would have made that route prohibitively expensive “just because of the overhead power lines that would have had to be removed to facilitate passage.” Also adding to the cost was the 4,025-kilometre journey from Houston to Grande Prairie, compared with about 1,930 kilometres via the Highway 12 route. Then there was the extra 4,800 nautical miles to go to Houston from China, compared to Vancouver.

As it turned out, Nickel Bros did run into opposition from environmental protesters, whose earlier efforts had stopped oil companies from using Highway 12 to move equipment into the Alberta oil patch. But in Nickel’s case, the company won approval from authorities to use the route (See related article on project cargo.)  Despite a delay of about 10 days, the project was completed without incident. “And without any injury or damage to personnel or property. It was a complete success.” As a result, Mr. Nickel considers it a trial project that he hopes will lead to similar ventures.

“Because of the residential side of our business, we’ve tried to focus on projects that have a positive environmental twist,” he said. “This evaporator project was the perfect fit for us because, once the evaporators are up and running, they will produce enough energy to power a small town just on the waste water from a pulp and paper mill.”

Moving houses also has its environmental benefits as a form of recycling. A typical home demolition results in 40 to 200 tonnes of debris in a landfill. Building a new wood-frame home consumes 40 to 100 trees. Among the company’s recent house moves was a 10,000-square-foot mansion relocated from Lake Washington near Seattle to the Courtenay area on Vancouver Island. That move was featured on several television programs, including CNN, Mr. Nickel said.

In 2013, the industrial division will become a separate company to go along with its separate Nickel Bros U.S.A. firm. As its name implies, Nickel Bros is still a family concern. Allan Nickel, Jeremy’s brother, is his partner in the company. They have two other brothers, who worked for the company in the past. Their sister, Beverley McDonald, still works there. Richard Nickel, who sold out to his brother in the 1980s, died eight years ago. But Henry Nickel, nearing age 88, still makes an occasional appearance to see how his sons are taking care of the business.

“There are no colleges or universities offering courses in structural moving,” Jeremy Nickel said. “The industry is comprised of thousands of moving companies and 90 per cent of them are family-owned businesses. And they’re businesses where this trade and this skill has been passed down from generation to generation.”