Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow
Advancements help Maine cities and towns gain an edge and cut costs in the perennial fight against snow and ice
By Kathryn Buxton
It’s 7:30 a.m. on one of those hard, cold December mornings that make living in Maine feel like living in a deep freeze. The large function room on the outskirts of Portland is filling up quickly, and a line has formed at a table where strong, black coffee is being dispensed. As municipal employees, no one in the room is a stranger to the early hour or cold weather. They are used to being up and at work as the weather and local residents demand.
Still, few of the 75 maintenance personnel registered for a MaineDOT workshop titled “Snow and Ice Control on Local Roads” appear entirely comfortable with the prospect of a day spent inside. That will change as the day unfolds and the conversation about snow and what to do with it gets underway.
“We try to orient these sessions to the broader audience and make them interesting and informative and include a bit of humor, too,” said Peter Coughlan, director of the Maine Local Roads Center (MLRC).
Coughlan is just one of the day’s speakers. There will be presentations by Phil Curtis, a former local road commissioner who is a MLRC consultant (and also the Maine House Majority Leader); Stu Seavey of H.P. Fairfield, a supplier of municipal equipment; and Frank Beliveau, territory manager for Innovative Surface Solutions, a distributor of winter maintenance material.
The workshop is one of five MaineDOT winter maintenance presentations planned for locations throughout the state this winter, part of the department’s ongoing efforts to support local road maintenance operations. Among the 75 maintenance personnel from 22 different towns attending the workshop, there are both novices facing their first winter clearing roads and old pros who have fought snow and ice on Maine roads for decades. For everyone present, though, the message is the same: when the snow flies, you better be ready to move it as efficiently as possible.
‘July roads in January’
Fighting snow has changed enormously during the past decade. One of the biggest changes, according to MaineDOT consultant Curtis, is public expectations. “These days, everyone wants July roads in January,” he said, echoing the concerns of several in the workshop, adding that puts pressure on towns and crews who are already suffering with tight budget constraints. “They’re being asked to do more with less.”
He describes the snow clearing process as a three-legged stool, with one leg representing cost, a second public safety and the third environmental concerns. It is that third leg – the environment – that has brought about the biggest change in recent years.
Pro-active versus reactive
That change is in attitude and awareness. A decade ago, few people worried about the quantity of salt and sand used as long as crews kept roads “black” – free of ice and snow. Now, there are environmental concerns and budgets are tighter than ever. Few people know that better than Herbert Whittier, public works director for Monmouth, a town of approximately 3,800 residents 17 miles southwest of Augusta. Whittier has been in charge of Monmouth’s roads in good weather and bad since 1977. His crew of four manages 65 miles of roads within the town boundaries, including 12 miles of unpaved roads. He says he’s seen a major change in how towns like his manage winter road maintenance during the past several years.
That is when his crews began to pretreat priority roads with Ice Ban, a branded rock salt mixture that has been pre-wetted with organic material to help it better adhere to the road surface. The material reduces what is called “bounce and scatter” – rock salt that literally bounces off the road surface when it is dispensed from the back of a municipal plow truck. (Another pretreated salt product called Ice-B-Gone is also popular among municipal road departments in Maine.)
With less salt straying off the road, that is less salt that makes it into the local ecosystem. It also means a town like Monmouth can significantly reduce the amount of salt it uses during a winter storm. In fact, Whittier said, Monmouth now uses between one-quarter and one-third less salt during a typical winter storm, and that is just the beginning of the efficiencies gained. When the salt stays on the road longer, it reduces the number of plow runs his crews have to make. And the newer, prewetted salt mixes are also easier on his equipment.
According to Peter Coughlan, MaineDOT director of community services and the department’s Maine Local Roads Center, the difference between anti-icing or pretreating winter roads and de-icing, plowing and spreading sand and salt after snow has begun to fall, is perhaps the single, biggest innovation in winter maintenance in recent years. It is the difference between being pro-active and reactive, and they are key strategies that will help Maine towns continue to fight snow and ice effectively, even as budget and environmental pressures continue to mount.
Coughlan said that winter maintenance crews can no longer afford to over treat roads – a strategy he calls “When in doubt, dump it out.”
“We’re in a cost-conscious and environmentally-conscious environment,” said Coughlan. “Pretreating reduces the freezing point of water and saves money. When you delay your attack and treat ice and snow from the top down, it can cost up to six times as much.”
Tools in the toolbox
These days, prewetted salt and sand are just two of the tools in the municipal snow fighter’s arsenal that have become widely available during the past decade. Brines, calcium chloride, ground speed control spreaders, global positioning (GPS) and satellite weather services are all helping keep local streets and highways safe, and clear of winter snow and ice.
Yet in Maine, where winter is long and weather patterns can vary greatly, the strategies for treating ice and snow also vary. Whittier is a prime example of how many of Maine’s communities mix older techniques with the newer ones.
“We pretreat now, and that keeps salt on the road and the snow from freezing, and it’s not nearly as caustic or hard on the equipment as other delivery methods,” said Whittier.
Still, on many roads, that is not enough. While Whittier said he knows there are concerns about the use of sand because of environmental concerns and the cost of spring clean up, in his opinion sand still is essential. Sand needs to be picked up after the spring melt, or else it can clog ditches, inhibit drainage and be a safety hazard for cyclists.
“We try to use less sand, but it’s almost impossible,” said Whittier. “You’ve got to have traction, and sand makes traction.”
Gerry James, director of public works for the city of Presque Isle said that some of the newer techniques and tools work better than others in his domain, a city of just under 10,000 residents in Aroostook County. His crews maintain 147 miles of city streets and roads, and the challenge there is finding the right combination of strategies for the weather and location. Some of his streets are in higher traffic urban locations, others are in more rural areas, and setting priorities and pretreating roads can help.
“In 1989, we started pretreating intersections on Main Street with salt and liquid calcium,” said James. But some techniques, because pavement temperatures in this northern Maine city are often below the effective threshold, are just not practical.
“We tried brine, but it doesn’t work all that well here,” said James. “At 20 degrees, it starts to refreeze.”
On the other hand, new spreading equipment that has come on the market in the past decade has revolutionized how his crews work and how much material they require. He singled out the innovation of computers known as ground speed control units that automatically adjust the dispersement rate of salt, calcium chloride and sand based on air and pavement temperature and truck speed.
“Ground speed controls definitely have made a difference for us,” said James. “We used to calibrate our spreaders by hand and that involved a lot of guesswork. With the automatic equipment, we’ve been able to increase the number of miles we treat by about 70 percent. And we’ve greatly increased our service levels.”
On the horizon
Tom Eldridge, director of public services for the city of Westbrook in southern Maine, said his department is responsible for nearly 90 miles of roads within the city borders.
“A lot of it is technique, in my opinion,” said Eldridge. “Ground speed control units save a lot of product and the technique of getting out early is important.”
Still, he said, because Westbrook has so many high traffic streets, traditional snow removal methods are key. His department has 25 people who plow and provide dispatch and other support services during a typical storm.
“We have lot of people who travel through Westbrook to the Maine Mall and other destinations, so it’s very important to make sure the roads are safe,” said Eldridge. “We pretreat … but I haven’t seen any substitute for having responders on the ground. We are continually out there during a storm - scraping and plowing.”
Technology, including access to accurate, satellite weather, has been a great help, he said, allowing his department to better track the movement of a storm through the area and schedule crews more efficiently.
As the snow removal industry continues to develop, he looks forward to future innovations in how cities like Westbrook deal with the aftermath of a storm.
“In our downtown area we have to remove the snow after a storm,” said Eldridge, and finding someplace to put all that snow can be a problem. He said Westbrook has traditionally used snow throwers and dump trucks to haul snow to remote “snow dumps” where it is allowed to melt. That process can be expensive and brings with it environmental concerns about run-off from the snow melt and emissions from dump trucks and throwers.
Eldridge believes the next big innovation that will impact cities like Westbrook will be a new generation of snow melters. The current machines are very expensive, but he hopes they will to come down in price as demand increases. “Manchester Airport in New Hampshire has one. It melts the snow right on the spot, so there’s no need to haul it away,” said Eldridge.
With all the new equipment and techniques, it still comes down to the trained personnel who man the trucks during one of the 30 snow storms that typically occur during Maine’s 20-week stretch of winter weather.
“That’s the reason our local highway departments exist, because no one is more efficient at moving snow than public works,” said Coughlan.
FMI: MaineDOT’s Maine Local Roads Center provides training, technical assistance, and information to those municipal people who are responsible for constructing, maintaining, and managing local roads and bridges in Maine. Visit their web site at www.maine.gov/mdot/mlrc/mlrc-home.php.