Snow contractors earn their keep in Western Canada
The snow season in parts of Alberta can be longer than the growing season
There’s no business like snow business in Western Canada. On the prairies, and in the Calgary area in particular, the snow and ice management industry’s on-season can be longer than its off-season.
It’s something Western Canadians have come to realize every year – that winters are long and snow can fall most months of the year. Snow is a reality in Western Canada and, up until a year ago, there were no industry functions or trade shows in that part of the country that served to educate snow contractors and allow them to see the latest equipment and materials in an organized fashion.
The Wisconsin-based Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA) puts on an industry event of its own each year, but the symposium is usually held in the United States and in the eastern part of the country. Although the event is traditionally attended by several Canadian members of SIMA, most tend to be from Ontario and eastward who don’t have to face the inconvenience of having to make connecting flights to reach each year’s venue.
Steve Wheatcroft, managing partner with Spectrum Equipment in Calgary, said he took it upon himself to create a similar event in Western Canada that would bring a snow and ice management forum and trade show to contractors in the west. The event received the endorsement of SIMA, but other shows getting the association’s endorsement typically attracted about 120 people. Last year’s inaugural Snow and Ice Management Summit in Calgary drew about 300 people.
“We think it’s going to end up being an annual thing,” Wheatcroft said. “The show has grown by 25 per cent as far as exhibitors this year. We’re about 50 or 60 attendees higher than we were at the same time last year, so we’re shooting for 400 this year. The show looks like it’s going to be a really good success this year.”
This year’s snow and ice summit was held on Sept. 13 – a Friday – that proved to be a day of good luck.
For the second annual event, attendees came mainly from Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan with others coming from as far as Europe and across the United States.
Wheatcroft said plans are to maintain the same venue for the 2020 show, suggesting that events that are a proven success in the same location could possibly “lose traction” if they’re moved around to other cities.
Offers to run future shows have come from outside agencies, but Wheatcroft said he fears turning things over could result in a “money grab” for the interested parties. He said he prefers to keep things the way they are as more of a “charity cause” than a business venture since the end goal is to provide awareness of what’s happening in the industry and to deliver snow and ice management education. If the event became “monetized,” the price would escalate, he added.
The entire trade show and educational component are neatly wrapped together in a single-day presentation. Wheatcroft said the tight format is “intense,” but allows for plenty of education and networking without having attendees commit to two or more days.
Western Canadian challenges
Snow and ice management in Western Canada is a bigger challenge than it is elsewhere in the country. The season tends to be longer, and there is often no telling when it begins. Wheatcroft said the rule of thumb is to be ready by the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend in November, but a wrench can be unexpectedly tossed into the best-laid plans. In 2018, for example, it snowed Sept. 14 in Calgary and 40 centimetres of snow fell on Oct. 1.
“There’s a pit-of-your-stomach, sick feeling as soon as you get past Labour Day weekend where it might be 18 today, but tomorrow it could be minus five after it snows.”
In the spring, snow is possible in April and beyond. The past winter didn’t want to end in Calgary, and more snow fell in May.
“The season can be extended, so that’s the first thing in Western Canada that it really is kind of a kick in the stomach.”
The extremes in temperature add to the challenge, he said, noting Ontario might get heavier snow that is more moisture-laden while in Alberta and Saskatchewan temperatures are much colder, making the snow lighter and easier to manage. But it’s the unpredictability of Alberta’s Chinooks that pose a challenge to snow contractors, especially in the Calgary and Lethbridge areas. One day the temperature might be minus 30 degrees Celsius and then it’s plus 10 the following day.
Chinooks can occur regularly in the Calgary area and can move northwards toward Edmonton and outward into the prairies, but those areas don’t face the extreme swings in temperature that Calgary experiences. In Saskatoon or Regina, for example, a Chinook might produce a temperature swing that goes from minus 42 degrees for a week to minus five degrees for two weeks. In Calgary, however, the temperature might swing from minus 25 to plus 12, “where we’re sitting on our patio in January having a beer.”
Wheatcroft said Calgary is an area “plagued” by Chinooks whose freeze/thaw cycles pose a particular challenge to the snow and ice management profession. A year ago, the area experienced a period in which the temperature was plus 19 one day and plummeted to minus 20 degrees within 24 hours.
“I’ve never seen it like that before.”
Colder temperatures present other challenges. Wheatcroft said trying to operate equipment when temperatures are about minus 35 degrees is something that contractors in other parts of Canada cannot fathom. Last winter, the Calgary area experienced an entire month in which the temperature didn’t warm beyond minus 25 degrees.
Environmental, political challenges
Aside from temperature extremes and several seasonal freeze/thaw cycles, Western Canadian snow contractors face the usual environmental and political challenges. The use of salts and chlorides on hard surfaces continues to be a matter of environmental concern, but Wheatcroft said as long as traditional ice melting products are being used responsibly and in lesser amounts, the rule of thumb is “the solution is by dilution,” adding the environment can absorb a certain amount.
The hot political topic in snow and ice management is insurance.
“A lot of smaller contractors are finding their insurance companies won’t insure them anymore. It’s becoming harder and harder to get insurance for snow removal just because it’s the first place that any fraudulent claims happen. Everybody falls and slips and they all want to sue.”
It’s becoming more of a challenge for contractors to prove they are doing their due diligence, he said.
The environmental and political challenges clash with one another when proven ice melting products as salt help to reduce the number of slip-and-fall incidents yet are eyed as environmentally unfriendly.
“I always try to bring people back to common sense,” Wheatcroft said. “What’s the lesser of two evils? If you can use these things (salt and chlorides) responsibly and reduce risk on the side, what’s the best choice? I’m hoping that common sense continues to take precedence over these things.”
The salt shortage that took its toll on contractors in Eastern Canada last winter didn’t have the same impact on Western Canadian contractors who sourced their material from a mine in Saskatchewan. Some operators in Saskatchewan could get salt for as little as $40 a ton. Trucking it in to Calgary added to the cost by another $50 a ton.
“But we could get unlimited amounts of salt.”
With the unavailability of salt from a Goderich, Ont. mine last year, trucking in the material from Saskatchewan would have been cost-prohibitive. Buying material from a source as close as possible pays dividends.
Some companies will use gyra rock and mix it with a little bit of salt. The fractured rock is seven or 100 millimetres in size and is used in colder temperatures. The downside of gyra rock is that is leaves particulate in the air in spring, leaving dust on roads that requires cleaning. It also tends to plug drains and can be environmentally harmful when washed into rivers.
“It really comes down to temperature. Temperature drives what you can use. As it gets colder, salts become ineffective.”
Wheatcroft said different types of carbohydrates such as beet derivative causes a thermal combustion of the salt, allowing melting at a lower temperature.
An issue with which contractors are experiencing some difficulty is finding snow dumps where stacked-up snow can be removed and trucked away. Dumps are becoming more regulated, but new technology such as that offered by Trecan Combustion allows for snow melting from airport runways and other large areas that require snow disposal.
Verification of work allows companies to better document such details as the specific sites, dates and times of day a snow removal job was done. It helps combat against slip-and-fall suits because everything is precisely documented.
“There is an understanding that what you do is performed.”
Wheatcroft said it is important for companies today to invest in the technology required to keep their operations fully documented, and having the right equipment is equally vital. The days of showing up “with a Bobcat equipped with a bucket is old school.” Having the right equipment that does the job yet isn’t disruptive to the surface has a bearing on contracts.
The demand for snow services in Western Canada is approximately the same as that for landscaping.
“As far as the amount of effort put forth by a contractor goes, it’s way harder to deliver snow services, just because you never know when you’re going to go or what time you’re going to go. There are all these variables.”
Turfgrass maintenance, on the other hand, is more predictable, and scheduling can be performed accordingly. Snow and ice services – especially in the Calgary area – have contractors ready to go 190 to 200 days of the year, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
“You can’t leave town and you can’t go on holidays.”
The industry as a whole is becoming more aware of its importance, Wheatcroft said, and that a level of professionalism is required for snow removal. It is now about certification and accreditation. The level of professionalism is climbing at a significant rate, and the “snow warriors” are finally starting to get some credit for what they do, he added, “especially when they’re out there at all hours ensuring that people can get around safely first thing in the morning.”