What to consider before you buy

A contractor handling smaller jobs, such as residential driveway and sidewalk applications, would likely want to use a small tailgate spreader to enable better visibility and more efficient operation.

Selecting a material spreader is hardly rocket science, but it does require examining a number of factors to determine which model will make a winter maintenance business efficient and profitable.

Material

First and foremost, you need to determine what kind of material you will be spreading. Bulk salt is generally regarded as the industry mainstay because of its ability to melt ice quickly and effectively. Bagged salt is the primary choice for smaller spreaders for the same reason. Some geographic areas of the county prefer sand because of the traction it provides on a driving surface, although it doesn’t melt ice. Many contractors utilize a salt/sand mix to get some of the benefits of both materials at once.

Certain customers may want you to use specialty deicing materials for various reasons. Magnesium chloride is spread in parking garages because it doesn’t corrode the rebar in the structure’s precast concrete panels. Calcium chloride pellets are usually called upon for sensitive concrete surfaces, around doorways or on brick pavers.

Spreaders are available in just about every capacity imaginable, but material matters first. A correctly sized unit can be wasteful if it allows too much of the wrong material to flow or is unable to put out any material at all. Many spreaders are capable of handling a variety of materials, but even the most versatile spreader won’t effectively apply every type of material.

If you have a wide array of clients, it’s possible that deicing material requirements may dictate that you purchase several different spreaders to service them. The more cost-effective alternative is lining up similar accounts that utilize the same type of spreading material, but that isn’t always possible.

Capacity

It’s certainly wise to bunch your clients closely together, and it’s also helpful for those clients to be of similar size. This can’t always be accomplished, but giving due consideration to both factors should allow a maintenance company to operate more efficiently. Once you establish a route and narrow down the field of spreaders to those designed to spread a given type of deicing material, you can make a determination on the capacity needed.

Spreader sizes run from 75-pound-capacity push spreaders all the way to 4-cubic-yard, truck-mounted units that hold nearly 8,000 pounds of material. In between, styles range from smaller tailgate units that connect to a vehicle’s 2-inch receiver mount or three-point hitch mount, to an assortment of V-box-style models that rest inside a truck bed.

Smaller jobs, such as residential driveway and sidewalk applications or facilities with tight corners or confined areas, would likely warrant the use of a small tailgate spreader to enable better visibility and more efficient operation. Using a large spreader in these situations would make it more difficult to maneuver the vehicle, and material may be wasted in the process. Additionally, using bigger equipment means more fuel consumption, another expense that may not be necessary.

For larger jobs, such as big parking lots, a V-box-style spreader will be more effective. Many contractors try to save money by purchasing a spreader that’s too small, but they can quickly find themselves incurring unnecessary costs. The biggest problem with inadequate capacity is the need to constantly stop and refill the spreader, which equates to less time on the job, reduced productivity and, potentially, a group of unhappy clients. This is also another situation where more fuel will be consumed in the process of driving around to get more material.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF SNOWEX.
A swing-away tailgate spreader is an option that allows the user to still have access to the truck box without having to remove the spreader.

In addition to determining which equipment is appropriate for the size of each job, you need to figure out the total amount of material that needs to be put down over the entire customer route. If the total is just 1 cubic yard, for example, it wouldn’t make sense to buy a spreader with a capacity of 2 cubic yards. Conversely, if the route requires 8 cubic yards, a spreader that holds just 1 cubic yard isn’t big enough. Both the individual jobs and the route as a whole need to be considered to strike the right balance of operating efficiency.

Some contractors will place a fair amount of importance on their plan for reloading the spreader. In the case of spreaders that occupy the entire bed of a pickup, there’s no option for carrying extra deicing material outside of the spreader. Instead, contractors either have their own supply of bulk salt or other material at their headquarters, or they have to visit a landscape supply center each time they need to reload.

Those using tailgate spreaders can load their empty truck beds with bulk or bag material and then reload their spreaders as needed. A swing-away tailgate spreader can also be loaded without having to remove the unit.

Design and performance

Once you have determined what deicing material to spread, what capacity is needed and what mounting style will work best, there is only one more set of differentiating factors: the construction of the spreader itself and how this design affects performance.

Though the industry trend has been toward spreaders made of polyethylene (poly), steel and stainless steel units are also available. There are a number of points of comparison among these three choices, and durability tends to be at the top of the list.

When considering overall durability, steel spreaders are naturally the most susceptible to rust and corrosion issues. Steel and stainless steel share the disadvantage of incorporating several moving parts, such as belts, sprockets and chains, and an engine that must be maintained. Many poly spreaders are electric-powered and don’t typically require such parts.

Equipment weight is another issue for comparison. Poly weighs significantly less than steel, offering poly spreader users the opportunity to load greater amounts of deicing material before reaching the designated gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) for a particular vehicle. Less weight on a truck also means better gas mileage and lower fuel costs. According to fuel economy statistics published by the Environmental Protection Agency, eliminating 10 percent of a vehicle’s total weight can improve mileage by 7 percent. Over the course of several snow events, and depending upon the total number of vehicles in your fleet, fuel savings can really add up with a lighter weight spreader.

The construction of a spreader also affects how well material will flow out of the spreader and onto the target surface. Poly is smooth and naturally slippery, allowing material to slide without catching. Steel and stainless steel are rougher by comparison, and material may catch on the sides of spreaders constructed of these metals.

Spreader design elements can also affect material flow. While a gravity-fed spreader can get the job done when applying dry, smaller-sized bag material, a spreader needs a system to keep material flowing when clumpy, bulk material is being used. Because material clumping is the biggest obstacle in material flow, some designs use a vibrator as part of a multi-angled hopper to help chisel and break up the material. These spreaders also feature an auger system that delivers a consistent flow of material to a precise spot on a spinner.

Spreaders have different abilities when it comes to controlling the manner in which deicing material is applied. In many cases there may be a single lever used to control both the flow rate and the spinner speed. This might work in conjunction with a manually adjustable rear gate that could be lowered to reduce flow. Another system provides independent controls for the auger and spinner in the truck cab, allowing for adjustments on the fly. Flow can be increased or decreased as needed by dialing the auger to a faster or slower speed. These changes to flow rate can be made without affecting spread width, which has its own adjustment. Being able to control these two aspects of material application independently allows for variation and flexibility.

An auger system with independent controls allows a driver to control and know exactly how much material is being put down in a given area. Contractors who’ve switched to this system estimate they’ve cut the use of bulk material by 20 to 30 percent because of the ability to be more precise with material application. To see how this adds up in cost savings, take an example of a contractor who currently puts down 10 tons during a typical snow event and pays $80 a ton for bulk salt. By reducing material use by 30 percent, his costs drop from $800 to $560.

So, following all of these differentiating factors, what’s the right choice for your operation? The most critical thing you can do when selecting a spreader is to remember that it’s a business investment. Cutting corners on purchase price and failing to meet the basic needs of a winter maintenance program will only lead to a smaller return on investment, and a lot of dissatisfaction. Take the time up front to examine each aspect of a spreader, and you’ll be ready to make a choice that will reward you for many winters to come.

The author is a sales coordinator for SnowEx.