Look at what they can do

Snow tours of Europe,
Japan gives the U.S.
a new perspective
on snow and ice removal

Winter Maintenance Article December 28, 2000
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Returning from a trip to Europe that included stops in Switzerland, Norway and France, Mike Dooley, P.E., St. Louis County (Mo.) Public Works, could already hear the responses.
"We’re not going to change."
"Lets do what we’ve been doing."
"No way."
Try telling that to a tiger. Better yet, a team of tigers.
An idea was in motion. Dooley would gather a group of city workers, calling them the "Tiger Team," to exchange ideas and draw up some plans for a new course of action regarding snow removal. Then, those select few would serve as friendly liasons. The thought process was if it came from their own kind, there would be less resistance.

"We took people from all levels in the maintenance organizations that are involved in snow removal," said Dooley on the series of meetings that took place in May 1998. "We had truck drivers, we had mid-level management, we had upper management."

And, above all, they had a purpose. During the trip overseas, Dooley saw different ways of executing snow removal. Better ways.

Perhaps the most prominent and attractive procedure was anti-icing.

"Every place that we went that allowed salt they were very big on using anti-icing, wetting the roadways ahead of the storm with a diluted salt brine," said Dooley. "I felt the ideas for changes would be much better if they were ideas of colleagues rather than ideas of management."

The ideas were vast. Once the Tiger Team was selected, Dooley showed every slide he produced during his tour of Europe to establish a mindset. Once ideas began to surface they were placed on a board and then ranked. From there, subcommittees served as feedback mechanisms and the strategy was further refined.

"I thought the ideas were well accepted both by management and by the workers," said Dooley. "There was a lot of skepticism to some things, but we didn’t really have any failures and we really didn’t have any difficulty implementing anything."

Sticking with change

The Tiger Team met throughout the summer of ’98, and was convinced it would enter the upcoming winter season with a strong swing of the paw.

St. Louis County inked a contract with a weather service, Accuweather, which provided storm forecasts and data. If something big was in the works, Accuweather would call with a special bulletin 24 hours in advance.

A book of maps was placed in every snow truck. In the past when a storm would break, a driver would report for work and receive one map for his route. When he was finished, a return trip was made and another map issued. Now workers are handed a notebook full of routes, and a simple call to a supervisor is all it takes.

A mixer was constructed. The county used to lease a commercial mixer, but became so familar with the nuts and bolts of the operation decided to construct one of its own.

"They decided they could build one themselves, so it was just a matter of building a steel scaffold, getting an air compressor and pumps and a horse watering tank," said Dooley.

A leased truck equipped with a 3,000-gal tank used to spread material was also turned in, with the money going towards two 1,250-gal tanks which were set on the back of dump trucks.

A contract was developed for the subdivisions. St. Louis County maintains a 3,100-mile lane system, but 2,000 miles are subdivision streets.

"Our first priority is our arterial roads, and we don’t get into our subdivisions until after the arterial roads are open," said Dooley.

The drawback was packed snow and ice almost impossible to remove. In order for better response to the subdivisions, private companies were hired to plow two neighborhoods, while the county handled a third subdivision.

"We handled the third one to compare the results, the response and the cost," said Dooley. "The comparisons were really about the same. The residents liked the response and we were able to do a better job in cleanup at the end of the storm."

The move was so successful there are plans of expanding the program this year.

The Tiger Team also was determined to give anti-icing another shot. An attempt using a super-saturated solution of salt and water was made the winter before, but Dooley believed the county was "misusing it."

"We were putting it on too late," he said.

Putting on a show

Dooley saw the glitz and glamour of snow removal in Europe, and hopes St. Louis County will be a stage for similar programs in the near future.

The main attraction was a training facility in southern France. Built by one of the toll authorities, all levels of employees are brought in for snow and ice removal education. Workers are taught about application rates, weather forecasting as it relates to roadway surfaces, how to download satellite weather information and how to use data from Roadway Weather Information Systems (RWIS). The instructors also take people out on snow routes and teach them how to operate equipment.

On top of classrooms and labs, the facility comes with a bar and recreation area in the main building.

"The training facility was impressive, but what it represented more than anything was the investment that the countries made in their employees," said Dooley. "We could walk up to any maintenance worker and ask them how much salt they put down and they would give us an answer. They all knew exactly what they were doing and they knew exactly how to set their equipment so they got the desired rate."

And the countries knew exactly how to get snow information to the public. Dooley visited a traffic management center that could actually pre-empt a car AM/FM radio or CD player with emergency weather information. Another center could physically change the routing of traffic from lane to lane, using, for example, westbound lanes for eastbound traffic. Traffic reporters give live updates on road conditions, and some centers actually had contracts out on commuters so they could call in and give up-to-minute data about a particular highway or route.

Educating the public was big in France. Grocery stores had posters and fliers explaining certain "code words" that were used to describe current conditions. Newspaper advertisements were another tool to get the word out.

Friction measurement on the streets is the norm throughout Europe. Some go out with a separate unit and check the friction, but technology now allows a measuring device to be mounted on the rear of plows so information can be received instantaneously.

Privatization with a hint of government influence is gaining popularity. Sweden has made a recent move to privatize its highway maintenance operation, "and when they did that, they allowed the work units in their highway departments to do the work themselves," said Dooley.

The deal now is they maintain the roads under an agreed upon price, with the exception of the cost for snow removal which is negotiated with the government in the spring.

"But the private companies that are doing that are actually owned by the government, so in actuality what it is is not a privatization of the highway maintenance operation, but the government getting into the business of being a private contractor," explained Dooley.

When Sweden started bidding out highway maintenance there were seven privately owned companies in the country. Two years after the government became involved, three have gone out of business.

"The units actually had better advantages than the private contractors did, and as a result, they got most of the bids.

"To me, that’s what the government ought to be doing anyway. It shouldn’t have to go the route of bidding to a private company or to a state-owned company. They’re more bottom-line oriented," said Dooley.

Rising sun, melting snow

A kid in Japan looks at a snowplow like a kid in America looks at a fire engine. Many have aspirations of becoming a professional snow remover in Japan, where there is a strong financial investment on research and education.

"They’re teaching snow removal in some of the colleges," said Larry Frevert, P.E., deputy director of public works in Kansas City, Mo. He went on a tour covering Japan, Germany and Austria in the mid-’90s. "They see it as a profession, and it’s an honored profession."

Just like in Europe, hands-on experience is a valuable learning tool on the island. New drivers are taught how to manipulate snow-covered roadways and how to start and stop on steep grades that are blanketed with ice.

One area of research is snow drifting. They build prototypes of highway sections, place them in wind tunnels and blow fine clay particles to see where the clay deposits. The experiment gives an indication of where snow drifting might be a problem so designs can be altered.

Heavy studying has been done with different types of tires, and with it the creation of a very soft rubber steel belted radial tire with thousands of tiny holes in the tread which serve as suction cups that actually grip the pavement.

Remote areas aren’t hard to come by in Japan. Several dot the map, and when a storm hits crews are usually slow in reaching a town or village to clear snow. The problem created an idea: heated coils, running on solar-powered batteries, lined up underneath the surface to melt the snow. Other areas have water originating from thermal springs running through the coils. Both innovations are tied into a RWIS, which detects the pavement temperature or the presence of moisture and turns on the system.

"Japan is very dependent on RWIS," said Frevert.

The western seaboard receives a heavy blanket of flakes annually, but the temperatures are usually mild for the winter. This allows pavement sprinkler systems to be installed. The sprinklers are tapped into the ground water, which is warm enough to melt the snow and prevent freezing.

A self-propelled ice shaver was another break from the norm. The shaver looks and operates like a rotomill machine used for resurfacing jobs in the U.S.

Wet pavement

Salt consumption is down in Germany and Austria, and along with it the blood pressure of motorists during the snowy months of the year.

"They’re using less salt than they used to," noted Frevert. "They pre-wet very heavily."

In Kansas City, when temperatures are below 28°, crews pre-wet with 8 gal of liquid sodium, liquid calcium chloride or liquid magnesium chloride per ton of salt, creating a 3%solution. Germany and Austria each apply a 400wet solution which spreads like a mush and actually sticks to the pavement.

The conventional snowplow has the luxury of stretching its legs on the Autobon in Germany. At each end of the blade there is a hinge and another 3 or 4 ft of snowplow turned back. During daytime hours when traffic is heavy operators plow one lane, but during off-peak hours the additional pieces fold out and one can clear a path 18-ft wide.

Air foils have been installed on plows and the back of spreaders. The one on the plow reduces snow clouds, while foils in the back keep snow from sticking to the spreader.

Mounts are universal, unlike in the U.S. where there are several different types, and some spreaders come with a small antennae indicator. While the salt is being dispersed out on the road, pellets hit the antennae and light flashes to let the operator know the material is flowing. This eliminates a stop to check on the status.

To no surprise, RWIS is the technology of choice. Automatic bridge spreading systems use the concept in rural areas. If an automatic detector reveals the presence of moisture and freezing temperatures on the bridges, a liquid is automatically sprayed.

RWIS also is used for motorist information systems for the ability to display pavement temperature on motorist information signs.

The new American way

Frevert brought enough ideas back to fill a carry-on bag, but perhaps the most important concept was anti-icing.

Kansas City is in the midst of changing its entire fleet over to anti-icing and "hopefully in the next year or two we’ll have anti-icing capabilities on all our dump trucks," said Frevert.

The move, which will have RWIS applications, is expected to improve clearing service to residential areas.

The "City of Fountains" is now bottling its own salt brine, which costs about two cents a gallon to make as opposed to using liquid calcium and liquid magnesium chloride at the price of 55 cents a gallon.

Kansas City isn’t the only area where change is picking up speed. Studies on automated sprayers on bridges have been conducted by the University of Utah, the Utah Department of Transportation and the state of Minnesota, and the University of Iowa and Wisconsin now offer classes in snow and ice removal.

"I think we’ve made a lot of progress in this country," said Frevert. "Overseas scanning gave some of our people a chance to go over there and learn. There is no substitute for learning first hand from somebody that’s doing good work."

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