Is snowmelting an option for you?

September 14, 2017 -  By

Round trip
Contractors begin to see savings when they’re unable to dump fewer than three times per hour, experts say.

Fewer snow farms and more regulations are expanding the market for snowmelters.

Figuring out where to dump snow is getting tougher for snow and ice management professionals. Dumping snow into bodies of water has fallen out of favor and is often illegal. The number of snow farms, or snow dumps, is also in decline—particularly in urban areas—due to factors like increased development, rising real estate costs and environmental regulations, says John Allin, president of John Allin Consulting, a snow and ice consulting firm. In Anchorage, Alaska, for example, Allin estimates that the number of snow farms drops by 10 percent each year.

“There are less than half the commercial snow dump areas in Anchorage than there were five years ago,” he says. “As development occurs, that land becomes more valuable if you build on it than if you put snow on it. So, hauling is becoming less financially viable.”

An increasing number of snow and ice management professionals whose companies haul large amounts of snow are looking for alternative methods to skirt high hauling costs. In a session titled “Using Snow Melters Successfully in your Operations” at the Snow & Ice Management Association’s Snow & Ice Symposium in Montreal, Quebec, June 20-23, ULS Maintenance & Landscaping CEO Steve Wheatcroft, whose company is based in Calgary, discussed the trend that is helping some firms save money.

These large machines, made by companies like Trecan, Michigan Snow Melters and Snow Dragon (which Allin helped found), resemble dumpsters and are hauled to the plow site using a semi or a pickup truck. Mounds of snow are loaded into them, and a heating element melts it into liquid, which flows from an output on the machine. The process can completely rid a site of snow without a single trip in a dump truck.

“The biggest use for them has traditionally been municipalities, airports and military bases, but we’ve seen an uptick in their use among private contractors, especially in high density urban areas,” Wheatcroft says. “After so many of the dumps were shut down, it became a way to combat long distance travel to dumps.”

But avoiding snow farms isn’t the only benefit. Firms that use the machines have seen drastic cuts in equipment and labor costs. A bare bones snowmelting crew needs only one employee plowing and piling and another loading and melting. A hauling crew is similar until you add dump truck drivers.

Wheatcroft also says owning a snowmelter can help firms qualify for municipal and commercial RFPs. The machines are often required for strip malls, schools, stadiums and government buildings. Plus, they can add a competitive edge in a bidding war by cutting costs and offering a greener service.

“It really helps when it comes to government jobs with strict security protocols, like a military base, because there will be less guys on and off the site,” Wheatcroft says.

A numbers game

Jennifer Binney, marketing manager for Snow Dragon Snow Melters, acknowledges that the machines are not for every operation.

“Contractors have to be hauling off-site to justify the cost,” Binney says. “If you push and pile and only haul when necessary, it’s not an economically viable purchase.”

Sticker shock warning, the machines can range in price from $150,000 to about $3 million for the largest and most powerful models. For example, the SND900 model, which is popular among contractors because of its combination of power and portability, Binney says, costs $225,000.

On top of that, the machines run on diesel fuel—a lot of diesel fuel. The company’s 900 model has a 30-ton capacity, melting anywhere from 100 to 250 cubic yards per hour, depending on snow density. To run that powerfully, the 900, which can store up to 550 gallons of reserve fuel at a time, eats about 40 to 60 gallons of diesel fuel an hour.

But hauling snow isn’t cheap either. On top of having to drive longer distances to dump snow, which means higher gas and labor budgets, many snow dumps have tipping fees. As competition wanes, tipping fees will rise, many experts say. The tipping fee is about $25 to $35 per load in a remote city like Anchorage, Allin says. But in a populous area, like Newark, N.J., where farms are even more scarce, the cost to dump just one load reaches $50 or $60.

“The biggest thing to think about is will the machine save my customers money and will I make a bigger profit margin,” Binney says.

Power
The SND900 (above) produces 9 million BTUs of power—enough to heat 75-90 homes.

Companies that are considering purchasing a snowmelter should first track the average number of cycles—from the time they start loading a truck on-site to the time the truck returns for another load—they can make per hour when dumping snow, Binney says. If a company using a 10-cubic-yard dump truck can make three round trips or more in an hour, a snowmelter is not going to offer a big savings. But if that company can only complete one or two round trips, which is not unusual in many urban areas due to traffic and distance, a snowmelter might be an economically viable option.

Environmentally friendly

Snowmelter machines are often lauded as environmentally friendly options. There are a few reasons for this reputation.

Snow often hides trash, chemicals and other contaminants, which can decimate land and taint water supplies when dumped. It’s a major reason snow farms have fallen out of favor. Some snowmelters have features that prevent these contaminants, like debris catchers, which are large baskets that catch anything larger than a grain of sand. Some machines also have a chemical-free output and steam emission. While some manufacturers add chemicals or use a direct flame to help facilitate the melting process, Snow Dragon’s melters use only agitation and water, which is heated by a tube that runs throughout the machine. Allin contends this approach is better than others that have direct flame to water contact, which produce hydrocarbons.

There are some claims that the liquid output from snowmelters contains chemicals that can seep into storm drains. Stagnant snow is known to soak up hydrocarbons from the air—the major concern regarding snow farms near water supplies. But Binney says companies that use snowmelters melt the snow before it can capture hydrocarbons. Along with the debris catcher, this leaves the liquid output cleaner than the snow that’s loaded into the machine, she says. Allin takes it a step further.
“When I was part of the company, I used to drink the water to demonstrate how safe it is,” he says.

And the state of Colorado agrees, according to a June 2008 report, “Low Risk Discharge Guidance: Discharges from Snow Melting Machines,” published by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. It said a snowmelter’s output is “not expected to contain pollutants in concentrations that are toxic or in concentrations that would cause or contribute to a violation of a water quality standard.”

Still, calling them “green” might go a bit far. As mentioned, the machines burn a lot of diesel fuel, which produces a lot of emissions. But the manufacturers, Wheatcroft and other contractors argue that the idea of green or environmentally friendly is more shades of gray than black and white. Hauling snow is a big undertaking that usually requires dump trucks. A large company might run 50 dump trucks during a snow event. Getting more than 10 miles per gallon in a dump truck is considered a luxury, and with snow farms disappearing, that dump truck might be covering many miles to drop just one load.

“When you’re working with large corporate companies that go through LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the government’s green certification program), snowmelters are actually looked at as very green because they’re more efficient than dump trucks,” Binney says.

Photos: Snow Dragon

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Dillon Stewart

About the Author:

Dillon Stewart graduated from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, earning a Bachelor of Science in Online Journalism with specializations in business and political science. Stewart is a former associate editor of LM.

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