Pass the salt, please

Feb. 20, 2015

Before installing electronic spreader controls on its snowplow trucks, the Lowell, Mass., Department of Public Works (DPW) was applying tons of salt on city streets for each winter storm. “Our operators would typically set their existing manual spreaders to maximum and go, putting down about 1,000 lb of salt per lane mile. As a result, our streets were often covered in salt after a storm,” said city manager Kevin Murphy. The leftover salt also raised aesthetic and environmental concerns.

The City of Lowell recently reported to community members that the DPW cut its winter road salt use by 30% and saved more than $780,000 on its snow and ice budget. The city attributed the savings to its installation of SpreadSmart Rx spreader control systems on its snowplow trucks. Based on a truck’s speed plus air and road surface temperatures, the electronic spreader control system—rather than snowplow truck operators—regulates the rate of salt or other deicing prescriptions applied to winter road surfaces. SpreadSmart Rx spreader control systems are designed and manufactured by Cirus Controls of Minneapolis, Minn.

Over the last three fiscal years, Lowell’s DPW cut road salt use by 30% when measured in tons per inch of snow. The drop is significant for three reasons. The seasonal amount of snowfall tripled during this time. The average temperature dropped by 9°F over this period. And there were more ice-related events in the winter of 2013-2014 than the two previous snow seasons that required salt spreading—salt use not factored into the tons of salt used per inch of snow statistic.

Over the last two fiscal years, Lowell saved more than $780,000 on its snow and ice budget. In FY 2013, the city saved $463,556; in FY 2014, the city saved another $322,892. “Over the next few years, more savings are expected as additional trucks are upfitted with Cirus salt spreader controls,” said Ralph Snow, Lowell DPW commissioner. Lowell has also been saving more money by cleaning up less salt after each winter storm or ice event.

To date, Lowell has installed SpreadSmart Rx spreader controls on 24 new and older snowplow trucks. “The cost for equipping each truck was about $8,300 for a total investment of around $200,000,” said Snow.

The investment in salt spreader controls has helped Lowell both environmentally and financially. “We’ve significantly reduced the amount of salt runoff into our rivers, streams and homeowners’ yards,” said Murphy. “In addition, the salt savings over the last two snow seasons has reduced our snow and ice liability. The smaller liability has negated our need to dip into any other budget surpluses or incorporate a greater snow and ice deficit into the following year’s budget, which would add to our citizens’ tax burden.” 

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