Turf Magazine - May, 2014

FEATURES

Wicked, Wicked Winter

Lessons learned from an extreme season of ice and snow
By Patrick White


Operators for Fairway Snow Management spent many long, cold nights this past winter clearing client's properties.
Photos courtesy of Fairway Snow Management, unless otherwise noted.

Enough time has passed that it's now safe to talk with snow removal pros about last winter. Not that they've completely put the experience behind them, but some of the wounds of battling a winter that seemingly wouldn't end have started to heal. There's been some time for reflection on the lessons learned that might help them, and others, prepare for another especially wicked winter in the future.

"It was a long winter - it started early and it went late. And we really didn't have any breaks; there was no traditional January thaw, or a period where we get a couple of weeks of calm weather," reports Jim Monk, president of MPS Property Services, Markham, Ont., Canada. "It was just event, after event, after event."

More than that, though, it was the cold that presented the biggest problems. "I've been in business for 25 years and I've never been through a winter that was this consistently cold," says Monk. There were isolated instances of getting equipment started on cold mornings, but the bigger issue was that low temperatures made the salt applied a little less effective. "So I think next year we're going to experiment a little more with alternative products," he says.

The company doesn't have a lot of experience with other ice-melt products, but trying them might help achieve better results when temperatures are too cold for salt alone. "That way maybe we'll have a better tool in our tool box for those types of situations," he explains.

Right now he's researching applying liquid products to the granular salt in hopes that will prove effective without requiring the company to change over all of its application equipment, which would be prohibitively expensive.

The salt shortage experienced in much of the country added to the stress of the winter, says Monk. While MPS Property Services never ran out, "it was a little bit scary," he states. "We were able to adjust our application rates and ride it out. We let our customers know so they could be aware that conditions might not always be what they were used to. Our biggest takeaway was that we can't trust the supply system, and we'll need to stockpile more salt in the future."

While combating slick surfaces was a regular challenge throughout the season, the issue was exacerbated by the fact that the Ontario area experienced two separate ice storms during the winter; in the second, snow turned over to rain and freezing rain and then, when the temperatures plummeted again, everything flash-froze.

"There was a real thick layer of ice on the asphalt, and as we tried to scrape that, it really did a lot of damage to our plows," Monk explains. "Also, the snow banks turned to ice, and really stayed that way for the rest of the winter, so every time we made contact with a very hard pile, the equipment took a real beating."

He says an effort was made to re-train operators on-the-fly that the normal procedures - constantly trying to push snow banks back to reclaim as much of a parking lot as possible, for example - weren't going to be effective, and extra care was going to be required. "I don't know if there's much more we can do in that sort of situation," he adds.

It wasn't just the equipment that got worn down by the extreme winter. "Toward the end, guys were getting frustrated. It seemed like, day after day, it was another forecast for more of the same," says Monk. A winter like that means it's even more important than usual to look for ways to keep morale up and keep employees rested. "We try to be sensitive to the fact that they're putting in really long hours, so we didn't take on a lot of additional work (such as tree care jobs); we tried to keep it to just snow this winter," he says.

And he notes that it's important not to forget about the mechanics that are kept busy triaging equipment during a storm. They are still in the garage to get everything ready for the next snow even after everyone else has gone home to rest.

"Invariably after every event, there was a list of equipment that needed welding or parts or whatever," says Monk. "It was really hard on our mechanics."

The winter also proved to be an expensive one.

Things balance over time

"We went over-budget on most of our line items: labor, material, fuel, everything," says Monk. But MPS Property Services also did more than a normal amount of snow relocation and haulage, which brought in extra revenues that offset some of the higher costs.

In that particular market, there are very few examples of contracts that pay by the push (most are inclusive for the season), so there's not much negotiation that can be done. After a heavy winter, it's important to remember that, typically, things balance out over time, he notes.

"We do it on a five-year running average, and this will increase the average a little bit, so that will be reflected in the pricing next year," says Monk, adding that this is why it's so important to keep meticulous records, even during a chaotic winter like the last one. "You just can't be in this business unless you're tracking the numbers daily."

Drawing on Nemo

Debora Katz, director of business development at Fairway Snow Management, a division of Fairway Lawn Care Corporation, says the prior winter (2012-13), which featured the Nor'easter Nemo, helped prepare the company for what was thrown at the Boston area this winter.

"That storm really forced us to look at everything we do when it comes to snow," she explains. "So, if anything we were probably over-prepared for this year. This was a good thing, because this past winter was even worse than the prior year. Nemo was a long-duration event, and this year we had a number of long-duration events; and what posed an extra challenge this winter were the extremely cold temperatures. But I think we met those challenges pretty well."

The unrelenting cold meant that extra care had to be taken with hand-shoveling crews. "We were very strategic when it came to our shoveling teams this year; we considered the winds, the temperatures and the time of day and strategized when we sent shovelers out based on all of those factors," says Katz. The company expanded its usual investment in blocks of hotel rooms through its service areas, to be sure that those employees - some 150 shovelers - had a nearby place to get warm and rest and receive provisions.



Fairway Snow Management is constantly looking to use its equipment more effectively and to incorporate more technology into its operation.

"They know that when they are done with their assigned area, they can get the rest they need, and that they won't be reassigned to another area; that really helps them get through long-duration events," she emphasizes.

Fairway is headquartered in South Easton, Mass., but also has a branch office in Plymouth to handle that area and, also, Cape Cod. Given unpredictable coastal winds, the weather can be completely different in Plymouth than the rest of its service areas, Katz points out, which adds to the challenge. So does the scale of the work done: "We service many community associations including 550 homes in one development in addition to commercial accounts." Those factors combined require a sophisticated approach to scheduling and management.

"We're constantly looking at advances in equipment and new methods for clearing snow, as well as GPS technology and real-time tracking of performance," says Katz. She notes that Fairway Snow Management utilizes the Crew Tracker system to monitor when snow removal teams arrive at a site and how long it takes them to complete each job. This provides an immediate indication if there's a problem or if a crew needs backup. That system, along with other technologies, is very valuable in terms of keeping things running smoothly and also reduces stress for the managers, she says.

Another stress-reducer is the company's policy of having back-up equipment staged in every service area to ensure that the occasional, but inevitable, equipment issue problem doesn't halt progress. "It's a real aid to the morale of our management team to know that if a piece of equipment goes down, they know that we have back-up equipment in our snow response plans so that there will be a piece of equipment easily diverted to that site," explains Katz.

"Our account managers are constantly out in the field and there's constant communication going between them, our founder and President Jim Burns, our 24/7 staffed operation center and our clients. We are very proactive in telling our clients what the plan for clearing is," she says, noting that keeping those lines of communication open can head off a lot of customer questions or complaints when things get hectic. That's something that Fairway always does, but the value of being proactive is highlighted during a busy season like last winter, adds Katz.

One thing that was different this past winter, for Fairway and many others in the snow removal business, was the salt shortage, a crisis made more pronounced because of the severe weather. "Everyone, no matter where they were located, experienced challenges with the shortages," she reports. "It really posed an unexpected challenge for us as a supplier of melting agents." In addition to needing salt for its own snow removal operations, Fairway is also a wholesaler to others. "Our clients who were smart enough to order trailer loads in advance were OK," she adds, and Fairway was fortunate not to run out itself, but there were times when the level of supplies got scary. Katz says that experience will likely lead to several changes for next year. The company will strongly encourage its salt clients to order early and stockpile more, will likely stockpile more salt for its own use, and will likely add a clause to its snow removal contracts that adjusts the price to market rates and also provides flexibility for mixing the treated salt with sand.



Jim Monk, president of MPS Property Services, says the brutal long winter caused incredible wear and tear on equipment, and beat up employees, too.
Photo courtesy MPS Property Services.

Planning will begin almost immediately to be sure everything is ready for next winter, whether it turns out to be the same kind of beast as last winter, or a little more tame. "If anything, I think we over-plan when it comes to snow removal. And I think that's helped us grow our company," says Katz. After all, if you over-plan and get a winter like the last one, you're prepared. If you are simply planning for an average season and get hit with a bad one, your company might fail, she points out.

Phill Sexton, director of education and outreach at SIMA, and also a snow and ice contractor himself (with WIT Companies in upstate New York), says the past winter seemed extreme, but really was more of a return to past meteorological norms. Still, with companies making projections for salt, equipment and staffing based on more recent winters that have been lighter, the sudden transition to a heavy winter created challenges. "People, materials and equipment all require money, but budgets, in a lot of cases, have been decreased," he explains, citing not only lighter winters of late, but increased competition and price pressures brought about several years ago by the economy. "Everyone got comfortable with 'the new normal,'" he explains.

Sexton says that a return to a more event-filled winter, extreme as the transition may have been, has come with a silver lining: namely, the opportunity to rethink the way a company - and the industry as a whole - does business, and to have frank conversations with clients. "The client has two goals: they want to spend as little as possible, but they want you to be ready for Snowmegeddon or any of the big storms that have ever happened," he explains. "What we're not doing is charging them for that level of preparedness." The client needs to understand that the money needs to come in in order to be ready to move that amount of snow if it comes, he emphasizes. "After a season like this, wouldn't we want to be looking at this to say, 'Is the model really correct? Am I charging for this correctly?'" If the answer is "no," then it's time to hit the reset button, he states.

Pre-season planning matters

Sexton thinks the winter has focused the attention of contractors on the need to prepare for the worst. "I think you're going to see more pre-season planning, more pre-season ordering, and companies are probably going to take more seriously the idea of 'capacity planning,' ensuring they have the right amount, and probably excess capacity, for breakdowns; and larger staffs so they can create shift schedules when necessary," says Sexton. "But a lot of that comes at a cost, which would need to either be passed on to a client, or would impact their profitability."

Sexton cites a SIMA survey showing that the vast majority of members plan to make investments to expand their salt storage facilities in order to stockpile more material in the future. "One thing that's surprising is that the same survey showed that very few planned to ask their clients to pay for that additional salt up-front," he notes. Sexton wishes contractors industry-wide would charge their clients for costs like these, making the comparison to insurance: You need to pay for insurance up-front, you can't wait until you house burns down to decide you want to buy it.

Sexton says the final lesson from this winter should be that this wasn't a once-a-decade phenomenon. Severe winters like this might happen every three years, and there have been a number of huge isolated snow events in recent years, as well. So after taking a little while to recover, the pressure should be on to start planning for next year.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry for almost 20 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. You can contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.