Contractors say they’re prepared for Mother Nature’s surprises this season.

PHOTOS: EXECUTIVE SNOW SERVICES

It’s midseason as far as snow and ice services, and the industry has already experienced one huge storm. This past November, Buffalo, New York, and the surrounding communities were paralyzed with lake-effect snow of some 7 feet. But that’s old news. What snow removal contractors there want to know is what’s coming next. They also want to know if there is enough salt and deicing products to go around when winter really digs in and deals out some big storms.

Snow and ice removal experts share their thoughts on how the season is going so far and what we can expect for the rest of winter.

Sources differ

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) says the West will be warmer with less precipitation, unless, of course, another El Nino comes driving in from the Pacific Ocean. NOAA says there is a 58 percent chance of that happening. NOAA’s latest reports are a bit more encouraging for the rest of the country, which “falls into the ‘equal chance’ category, meaning that there is not a strong enough climate signal for these areas to make a prediction.” Not exactly sticking their necks out are they?

Just 150 miles east of Buffalo, in Jamesville, New York, Rick Kier, founder of Pro-Scapes, says maybe we should pay more heed to late summer’s woolly bear caterpillars as weather forecasters. Woolly bears have 13 stripes, and folklore has it that each stripe represents one week of winter – the darker the stripes the worse the weather. (See “The Woolly Bear Predicts Harsh Weather” below.)

Kier can mobilize 140 employees for each snow event. He takes weather predictions seriously, but says long-range forecasting is just too spotty to be of much good. “We’ll look at the National Weather Service’s 24- to 48-hour forecast, but with lake-effect snows nothing is certain. We geared up for the big blast that Buffalo had, and ended up with less than 3 inches,” he says.

In New York City and Ridgewood, New Jersey, Brian Tauscher, president, Artisian Gardens LLC, and Executive Snow Services, ramps up to 50 employees for each snow event. Employees are given a 24-hour alert by phone. The company relies mostly on local forecasts and has little confidence in long-range predictions, but watches them just the same.

“It’s the prudent thing to do,” Tausher says. “Watching trends is about as much as anyone can really plan for with winter weather; it, at least, gives an indication. We had one event in November of about 5 inches, so we’re off to a busy start.”

Perhaps more personalized weather predictors are weather-forecasting companies, such as WeatherWorks, which offers more than just a look-out-the-window plan. Its service allows snow-removal companies to speak to a meteorologist who can provide an up-to-the minute update for the company’s market.

Frank Lombardo, president, WeatherWorks, and a certified meteorologist, explains the services as a detailed analysis of storm-alert weather events as they approach. The storm alerts are issued 24 to 48 hours before the event. Alerts provide details on anticipated arrival, intensity, duration, temperature, accumulation and other types of critical hazards that may affect operations, such as black ice or freezing rain.

Lombardo explains there’s enough weather data, but sorting it out is the tough part. He adds: “The industry trends that I have seen in recent years say with more weather information available, snow and ice contractors are more frequently and consistently reaching out to private meteorological consulting firms like WeatherWorks to provide clarity on the data they see, hear and become overloaded with. They realize that an association with a weather consultant is also a great way to brand and showcase their services.”

Stocking up on salt and deicer

Many snow and ice professionals learned a bitter lesson last season when they couldn’t get salt or had to pay exorbitant prices for it. Many locked in their salt supplies prior to this season.

Last year the season started early and ran late for Tausher. “We ran short of salt, like everyone else, and mixed some sand and grit with the remaining salt supply and made it through,” he says. “This year we’ve stockpiled a little extra just for insurance.”

That hedging, based on last year’s salt shortages, is understandable and prudent. Municipalities are also increasing their amounts of salt for this snow season. It remains to be seen if this increased demand affects salt supplies and salt prices once the industry gets into the heart of the snow season.

Brian Birch, chief operating officer, Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA), says there is not a salt shortage this year, but there could be a logistics problem. “There is almost an unlimited capacity of salt in the earth, according to the Salt Institute, but it takes time and effort to mine it, store it and ship it,” he explains. “It really is a logistics issue that is impacting our industry. There was huge demand last year, coupled with extreme cold temps and heavy snows which can snag up distribution channels of salt supplies. This led to a shrinking of the pipeline of available material over the last season, which has continued through this fall. In general, I think contractors should prepare for the worst and assume that salt supplies and other ice management materials will be in high demand and potentially difficult to secure.”

The Woolly Bear Predicts Harsh Weather

One Sunday each September since 1973, more than 150,000 people flock to the small lakefront city of Vermilion, Ohio, (pop. 10,134) to have some fun at its annual Woolly Bear Festival and learn what Mother Nature has planned for them for the approaching winter. Their oracle is a fuzzy caterpillar commonly known as a woolly bear, sometimes also called the woolly worm. It is the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella), and is found throughout most of the eastern U.S. and Canada.

The climax of the festival is when veteran Cleveland TV weatherman Dick Goddard examines the reddish and brown stripes on a woolly bear and shares the caterpillar’s prediction for the winter.

This year’s forecast called for “harsh periods, but with more kind and gentle breaks” than the bitterly cold winter of 2013/2014 that dropped 85 inches of snow in the region. This season the region can expect about 60 inches of snow, says Goddard, a fixture at each annual event.

So, when did folks start examining the rings on woolly bear to gauge the severity of winters?

It seems a gentleman by the name of Dr. C.H. Curann initiated the practice in 1948 when, as curator of insects at the American Mus eum of Natural History in New York City, he spent a day collecting woolly bears at Bear Mountain State Park, about 45 miles north of the city. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, he shared his theory with a newspaper reporter that he had determined a correlation between the reddish brown segments of the caterpillar and the severity of winter weather. Curann continued making annual fall pilgrimages to collect and examine woolly bears for the next eight years, which seemed to give credence to the possibility that he had stumbled upon a reliable weather forecaster.

As it turns out, Curann, his wife and a small circle of friends were using the trips to get away from the city, relax and have some fun as members of the Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear.

Vermilion, located on Lake Erie’s shoreline about 35 miles west of Cleveland, isn’t the only town with festivals celebrating the woolly bear’s amazing ability to predict winters. Communities in North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario, Canada, also conduct woolly bear festivals and consult the caterpillar to prepare for winter.

“We prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” adds Kier, offering advice.

Out in the Midwest, Elliott J. Henderson, CEO, Henderson Companies, Independence, Iowa, says, “So far, our weather patterns have proven to be just as difficult to predict as last year. We have had three measurable events before the first of December and one event right before Thanksgiving; we watched the radar showing snow for 12 hours before we saw the first snowflake.”

Henderson isn’t about to come up short on salt again as he has increased his inventory heading into winter. “I recently spoke with my friend, Mark Arthofer, one of the area’s largest salt retailers and, from what he has gathered, all of the major salt suppliers have strategically placed their inventories where they will be needed most. I get a sense that the new policy for this year’s salt supply is triage.”

Last winter, “it was not the amounts of snow but having so many events of 2 or 3 inches that helped to create the shortages,” Tauscher says. “Most snow removal is contractual, and safety is the overriding principal. We must perform every time. We service one college where 7,000 students are parking and walking to classes. No matter what the weather, it is our job to make their journey as safe as possible.”

Adds Henderson: “When you hear that municipalities are having to resort to replenishing inventories through retailers because they can’t get loyal suppliers whom they have contracted with for decades to return their calls, the writing is on the wall. If this winter keeps coming like it already has, we’re going to be in for something we have never seen before.”

Kier concurs and adds that in 2014, because of last year’s polar vortex (large winter cyclone sliding from the North Pole) affecting southern cities like Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta, they too needed help with salt deliveries and that need interrupted normal distribution to the Midwest and East, where snow events are much more common.

The good news is that salt usage and shortages can be offset with best practices, Birch says. “Other than availability of materials, there are a variety of methods and helpful tools for ice management, including calibration of spreading equipment, understanding the production ranges of salt spread per unit of area, use of pavement surface temperature ‘guns’ to understand the key variable of pavement surface temp and ice management, along with the quality training of operators,” he explains. “Some education of facilities management buyers of snow services related to the potential over-application of salt and its consequences are important as well.”

PHOTO: PRO-SCAPES

Business is where the snow flies

Hindsite Software, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, published its 2014 “Snow Industry Benchmark Report,” a survey of 150 snow removal companies, and, with little surprise, noted that 69 percent of its survey indicated increased profit margins of more than 20 percent last year, with the Northeast averaging more than 30 percent increases. Because of increases in salt prices and labor, 55 percent of those surveyed indicated they are raising their prices this season.

Kier and Tauscher experienced the benefits of the polar vortex last year, and business was good and stayed good until early spring when they turned their sights onto the landscape markets. Labor became a problem at times last winter because there were so many events and some employees got burned out.

Henderson says he wishes they’d had that same problem this past season in Iowa. “Last year was a tough year for growth. We had anticipated good growth but fell short of expectations. We never had challenging snows events, just a lot of little ones,” he says.

“So far this month (November) we’ve already exceeded our season’s expected growth. This growth so far has been credited to the failing of service providers last year. Typically, unprepared customers wait until the last minute to get the cheap, unqualified service people and then end up disappointed.”

Mike Ingles is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio.