This story originally appeared on The Country as part of the ASB Farmsmarts series with NZME, and the NZ Herald.
There’s an old saying pertaining to skilled salespeople: They can sell ice to eskimos. Husband-and-wife team Kim McAulay and Janice Atkinson are taking things a step further, offering frost protection fans to Saudi Arabia.
Frost? In Saudi Arabia? Atkinson, director of innovative company Tow and Blow, and husband McAulay have invented what they believe to be the world’s first truly portable wind machine; their giant, eight-metre-high fan is being sold overseas – and is of interest to the Saudis.
But why does such a hot place need a frost protection fan?
“They are really getting into horticulture on the edge of the desert – and it gets very cold at night,” says Atkinson.
While Tow and Blow are still talking to the Saudis, their ground-breaking machine is already being sold all over the world for a variety of purposes.
Frost protection is still its number one function – the eight five-bladed fan can be cranked up to 8.5m tall and is comparatively cheap to run on diesel. That, says Atkinson, is a major saving for farmers from a capital outlay point of view and fuel costs.
As any grower knows, frost can kill a crop just as efficiently as a plague of locusts. Many growers have tried stationary wind blowers as a solution (their cost: about $62,000; Tow and Blow cost: about $40,000 – and it is mobile). Many have also struggled with propane heaters, smudge pots and irrigation as attempted fixes.
The Tow and Blow fan can be towed by any vehicle and aimed at where the problem is. A stationary blower (McAulay used to make them for years until his company was bought out and he was subject to a restraint of trade for five years) can use up to 35 litres of fuel an hour; the Tow and Blow (4.7 litres an hour) cuts running costs dramatically even as it protects crops worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But wait, as the TV shopping ads say, there’s more. The mobility, comparatively quiet running (less noise pollution) and versatility of the Tow and Blow machine means it can fulfil a number of different tasks.
It can be a special effects machine – “Hollywood’s got one,” says Atkinson. “It can produce any storm you like for film makers. If you sprinkle water in front, you have a rainstorm, dust – a dust storm and sand, a desert storm. Now we are talking to Canada’s entertainment industry too.”
The fan is also useful in the mining industry where miners can be adversely affected by the fine dust that can settle in the lungs; the machine disperses the dust and is in use in Chile for just that purpose.
It is also used as an evaporative cooler – a form of climate control which increases the longevity of horticultural produce in hot, dry climates. Napier-based Tow and Blow are well aware of the advantages it brings.
“We know only too well what it is like when the temperature is getting up towards 35 degrees and there are 100 people working in a fruit packing house – it makes an awesome air conditioner,” says Atkinson.
Attaching mist nozzles means it can also be used to keep flies away from livestock or it can be a dryer, with its powerful fan directed at drying fruit susceptible to spoiling if wet. The fan is used as a cooler at concerts, she says, and there has been interest from airlines in employing it as a device to keep ice off planes.
In the five years they have been back in the market, Tow and Blow have exported to France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Turkey, Chile, Australia, Canada, the UK and Israel as well as the emerging market of the US.
The invention of the mobile fan was master-minded by McAulay: “He was semi-retired [after they were bought out] but I don’t think his mind was ever semi-retired,” says Atkinson. “He had all that background experience and he’d been thinking about how to beat the problem of the limited efficiency of the stationary blowers.
“The stationary blowers had one purpose in life – frost control. So most people were using them one, two or three times a year; it was a lot of capital to have tied up in something like that. Kim found a way to make it mobile and multi-purpose.”
“We have also been able to improve it with the latest technology [the fan can be operated by automatic control systems and monitored by mobile phone] and we continue to do so.”