Winter sidewalk management less daunting with changing attitudes, newer technology
By Michael Frank
For years, sidewalks have been the bane of many a snow management professional’s existence. Armed with brooms, shovels and buckets of rock salt, crew members tasked with keeping walkways clear spend valuable man-hours that eat into profits.
When compared to larger, easier-to access parking lots and roads, sidewalks are time-consuming, labour-intensive and generally offer lower operating margins. They also happen to be some of the most scrutinized portions of any job. The aftershock of a hasty completion can come months later, as spring thaws reveal burned lawns and greenery from haphazardly-applied sodium chloride. It’s no wonder sidewalks are one of the more challenging aspects of any snow and ice business.
However, technology and attitudes toward sidewalk snow maintenance are changing. Recent products and methods have not only increased the efficiency of keeping walkways safe for pedestrians, but also have improved profitability for businesses that make a living battling snow every winter. With a little planning, educated investments and understating how to manage material costs, sidewalks may soon become an appealing undertaking after every Arctic blast.
Dreaded labour costs
The biggest reason snow and ice managers despise sidewalks is their inherent inaccessibility to most motorized equipment. Many sidewalk accounts are zero tolerance. Therefore a snow and ice business must clear even a slight dusting.
Often, contractors solve this by hiring a seasonal crew of labourers specifically to tackle such tasks. Led by one or two full-time professionals, 10 workers with shovels can clear a larger sidewalk relatively quickly. But even at minimum wage, they eat into a job budget. Also, turnover rates tend to be high. Searching for labourers to fill job openings in the middle of the season can put a strain on your crew’s ability to efficiently complete one job and move to the next.
Therefore, the best solution is to increase snow removal efficiency to the point where having a larger crew isn’t required.
Snow removal equipment
The first place to look is equipment already owned. Purchasing attachments such as plows, spreaders and sprayers to retrofit UTVs or ATVs is a great way to affordably tackle sidewalks with moderate investment. Research products that offer ease-of-use, as well as the ability to tackle a sidewalk in one or two passes.
For speed and efficiency, motorized or mechanized products are favoured. Snow blowers excel after larger snow events dropping three inches of accumulation or more. But if snow amounts are less, a motorized walk-behind rotary broom does a much faster and effective job of reaching bare concrete. These units pay for themselves through versatility, and some reputable manufacturers have created add-on plow blades to windrow deeper snow, as well as bristles ideal for snow removal. Recalling that sidewalk jobs typically are zero tolerance, rotary brooms can cover a vast majority of snow events, including light dustings when blowers aren’t practical and shoveling takes too long.
For the ATVs and UTVs in the fleet, new attachments make these all-season workhorses even more versatile. Progressive manufacturers are developing blades and V-plows with adjustable widths, covering a majority of sidewalk applications and making single-pass clearing possible. They make quick work of sidewalk snow removal, and all but eliminate the time concerns of regular maintenance.
Ice management methods
There are many ways to spread pelletized material on sidewalks, from hand spreading with scoops, to broadcast-style, walk-behind and tailgate spreaders, to sidewalk-specific technology such as powered drop spreaders.
Hand-spreading of materials is often the last resort of sidewalk crews. It gets the job done, but employees literally control margins in the palm of their hands. It is highly subjective, as there are no guidelines available for base-lining performance other than visual inspection.
Spinner-style broadcast spreaders are popular and offer great flexibility. There is a tendency to fan material in a wide pattern, which works for larger walkways and parking lots, but not on narrower paths. Material can easily be over-broadcasted, too, causing unneeded product to be spent and even harming landscaping. Utilizing deflectors around the spinner allow for greater control and effectively manage bounce and scatter in the desired treatment area.
Offering a higher degree of material control are drop spreaders, which are quickly becoming the preferred tool of sidewalk crews. Drop spreaders work much like they sound: the material is literally dropped straight down to the surface and only as wide as the gate. By controlling the feed gate and travel speed, materials can be more accurately applied to the desired area—a noted benefit for the narrow confines of a sidewalk. The results are efficient application and use of materials, which ultimately lower costs because material is placed precisely where it is needed and isn’t over applied or spread beyond the sidewalk’s edge. This saves the contractor money, as well as the client, who can decrease the investment into landscaping repairs due to salt-burned lawns. Drop spreader models come in an array of options, including manual and powered walk-behind units as well as UTV attachments.
UTV and battery-powered walk-behind sprayers are a preferred choice for contractors who have worked liquids into their ice management process. Applying brine to bare sidewalks can help prevent ice bonding, as well as make clearing snow easier after the storm. Look for models featuring hose-and-wand attachments to get hard-to-reach areas and stairs, which often are some of the most difficult aspects of sidewalk snow and ice management.
Beyond equipment, labour and fuel costs, de-icing and anti-icing material are easily the largest expenses for snow and ice businesses. However, those expenses can be controlled through proper application and usage.
Costs generally increase as the temperature drops, necessitating the need for higher performing materials. The three most common forms of rock/pelletized materials used on sidewalks are sodium chloride, magnesium chloride and calcium chloride. Knowing when and how to use each can result in more efficient clearing and better cost-savings.
Sodium chloride (commonly referred to as rock salt) is easily the most prevalent de-icing material, but is most efficient in the 20-degree Fahrenheit range. If temperatures fall below 16 degrees, salt can be a waste of time and money to apply. Magnesium chloride melts snow to minus 13 degrees, and is less harsh on vegetation than salt, making it a preferred choice as the mercury drops. It’s also more expensive, so using it when temperatures are higher needlessly cuts into margins. For really frigid temperatures, calcium chloride is considered the standard in terms of ice melting performance, but it’s also harsher than magnesium chloride on vegetation and surfaces.
Along with knowing what to apply, understanding how much to use is key to proper application. A contractor can better recognize effectiveness, make adjustments and track usage rates and costs.
Proper equipment settings ensure that material is applied in a uniform layer and density. A good rule of thumb for sidewalks is 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet in an even application during average temperatures and accumulation. Colder temperatures and higher accumulations may require bumping up to 15 to 18 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Accurately tracking how much material is applied and its effectiveness can allow a contractor the benefit of adjusting through the season for each job’s specific requirements. At the bare minimum, measure each jobsite and track the amount of material used to better understand how they work and if they are being applied correctly.
All the information regarding proper material placement and type, as well as equipment procedures, are of little value to a contractor who doesn’t educate his field crew. After all, they are the ones who will be spreading the salt and clearing the snow and ice. Spending time with employees prior to the first winter event can play a crucial role in proper site application.
Sharing best practices and knowledge about the equipment sets expectations and improves results for the client, as well as controls costs. It’s not a bad idea to demonstrate equipment and explain proper operation, especially if purchasing a new rotary broom, drop spreader or other sidewalk ready tool. A refresher for returning employees is always beneficial after a long summer. Also, a trip to the site in the daylight under controlled conditions is a golden opportunity to outline and communicate client expectations.
With better tools in place, one can be confident that the job will be completed more efficiently and effectively. But just as important, they can help make sidewalk snow and ice management a more profitable part of any winter contractor’s business.
Michael Frank is the product marketing manager for SnowEx.