Coal safety equipment provider CAB diversifies into solar

A RANDOM phone call from a Californian solar company two years ago has changed the fortunes of Pennsylvanian not-for-profit supply company CAB which developed revolutionary safety technology for the state’s once-prolific coal industry.

Anthony Barich

The Cambria Association for the Blind & Handicapped, which now goes by the acronym CAB, provides job opportunities and services to people with disabilities through its product line for the resources and aerospace sectors.

Its employees manufacture equipment used by most of the state’s coal mines, along with various hard rock mine sites globally, including Australia, and north in Canada’s oil and gas sector.

CAB was founded in 1927 in Johnstown with famed American author, political activist and lecturer Helen Keller – the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree – helping with the fundraising.

In 1974 CAB made its first hanger for cable management in a local Pennsylvania coal mine, and today produces 10-14 million hangers annually, shipping them to 25 countries, with Canada and Australia their biggest markets, with other destinations including Chile, Peru, Sweden, Indonesia and Ireland.

While its main products are for underground coal mines, CAB also supplies globally from the potash mines in Saskatchewan to the nickel mines of the Sunbury Basin; gold mines in Alaska, salt mines under Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico, and in Australia iron ore, nickel, copper, gold, uranium and silver.

However, a combination of president Barack Obama’s strict environmental regulations targeting the coal industry and the prolific Marcellus and Utica shales lowering the cost of gas have seen coal plummet from constituting 75% of CAB’s business to closer to 50%.

Solar opportunity

The course of the company changed in 2014 when they received a random phone call from a California solar company wanting to use CAB’s hangers in a solar power plant.

“That just opened the door,” CAB’s general manager Allen Smith told ICN sister publication Energy News.

“We did some mock-ups and started making some custom designs, and all of a sudden we had something that had taken off.”

In 2014 CAB was one of the top 10 companies in the world for innovative design for the solar industry.

“They typically trench, dig and bury the solar cables underground,” Smith said of the solar industry.

“With our system they can keep all the wires and cables in the air, which is a big money saver and saves the environment.

“One project had three endangered species which, if affected, would (have) shut down construction on the power plant.”

CAB’s cable rings were used for four 200-megawatt power plants in western Utah, and in the past year the company has been involved in developing 1.6GW of solar power.

All this is done to professional industry standards despite the fact half CAB’s employees can’t read, write or tell the time, with an average education level of about Year 4. Many have various learning and physical disabilities.

“There are few manufacturing jobs for such people in the rural areas in Pennsylvania,” Allen said.

“We have a lot of interest in Australia, asking us for quotes on major projects. We have not shipped for solar in Australia, but four or five projects are quoting or using us in their specs, so we think we’ll get an order in due course.”

Smith said orders had dropped by several million dollars per year in coal sales but have gone up several million in solar, “so it’s nice that it has kind offset [the effects of coal’s decline] in the last two years”

“It looks like we’ll have close to $4 million in solar business sales this year,” Smith said.

However, while CAB also produces high-visibility reflector products, hangers, cable rings, lifelines, clothing and insulation panels, the bulk of its international shipping goes to underground mines, including those in Australia’s Hunter Valley and Bowen and Surat basins.

CAB also provides vision screenings for pre-school children and adults, eye safety programs in schools and helps blind people stay independent in their own homes by undertaking such work as installing smoke detectors, bathtub railings or stairway railings.

It also produces vision aids such as brail markings on microwave ovens; and pays for most of its services with the money made from its product line.

Cable management

All underground mines need cable management, and as they can’t have cables lying on the floor they need to be supported on the sides of the roof.

For the hangers, CAB uses high-tensile spring steel, mostly from Johnstown Wire Technologies in Pennsylvania, with some also bought in from Kentucky.

They have an orange safety coating that is flame retardant, 80mm thick with a high dielectric safety rating for carrying electric cables, designed to meet strict underground mining requirements.

The orange coating has a special purpose to protect the jackets of electrical communication control wires in the underground mines.

Multi-carriers can also be built to any size as some mines have high roofs, so long extensions are needed to hook cables up easily.

CAB services mines that are a mere 3-4 feet high where miners need to crawl, while others in Utah and Colorado have higher-seam mines 10-12 feet high.

Special-purpose hangers are also made for longwall operations that have many big cables, pipes and hoses.

Two of the largest underground longwall coal mines in the world are located in southwestern Pennsylvania – Bailey and Enlow Fork, both operated by Consol Energy, both roughly 12 million tonne a year operations. CAB services both.

The company also makes rope hangers, mostly for temporary cable support – which is very labour intensive – spliced together with a ‘Chinese finger’-type application, which is fine as it creates a lot of work for CAB’s employees.

A fortnight ago the company shipped two 40ft container loads to Perth, Western Australia, and shipments have also gone to eastern Australia.

Safety revolution

CAB was the first company to make a lifeline for emergency escape from underground mines, particularly after the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia of 2006 where a mine fire developed and the workers were disorientated and were running into the mine instead of out of it.

The Mine Safety Health Administration studied 12 mines across the US filling them with smoke and tested lasers, strobes and all types of safety devises, but over 75% of the miners said the best way they would get out of the mine would be the use of the CAB lifeline.

The lifeline enables miners to put their hand on a cone attached to a string lining the wall of the mine shaft and they can find their way out. It’s designed to be used when there’s no light

After that test the authority passed a regulation that every underground coal mine in the US had to have a lifeline in the secondary as well as the primary escape points. CAB now provides up to 90% of this cable management hangers market and the same in Canada.

CAB also makes cable rings and saddles for above ground aerial cable support for major utilities and petrochemical companies.

In the North Slope of Alaska, CAB’s cable rings are used for all power control cables for every new oil well, with engineering companies now factoring CAB into their project specifications. Installation work is done in minus-30-40F.

Sydney-based Mine Site Technologies is CAB’s local distributor in Australia.

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