Charlotte Observer
9:48 am
Mon April 8, 2013

In Our Warm Embrace, Snow Movers Convention Plows Into Charlotte

The American Public Works Association opened its snow conference at the Charlotte Convention Center Sunday.
The American Public Works Association opened its snow conference at the Charlotte Convention Center Sunday.
Credit Charlotte Observer

  So get this – there’s a snowplow convention in town.

Yes, in Charlotte – where the official winter snowfall total is a wimpy 5 inches – the American Public Works Association Snow Conference opened Sunday.

It’s a gathering of about 1,500 professionals who muscle snow out the way in latitudes more inhospitable than these.

Mike Kennedy is one of them. He’s the guy who oversees the plows in Minneapolis, which typically gets about 50 inches of snow each winter. There’s still snow on the ground there now.

“It felt pretty good to get out of the plane here,” Kennedy said Sunday as the conference got under way.

Kennedy has plenty of war stories. He’s been in the snow business for 20 years and he’s responsible for 1,000 miles of streets.

“Our biggest problem isn’t snow,” he says. “It’s parked cars.”

When there’s a snow emergency is Minneapolis, motorists are told to park their cars on the even or odd side of the streets so plows can do their jobs. Plenty of people disobey.

“We’ll tow in 1,500 cars in a typical snow,” says Kennedy, who has 80 tow trucks at his disposal. “Oh, they love us.”

Technology vs. snow

Many are attending the conference to talk shop about new technology.

Like sugar beets.

Mark DeVries, maintenance superintendent of McHenry County north of Chicago, says that in the last decade the biggest development in the war against winter has been the mixture of additives put into road salt.

Before the mid-’90s, most road crews waited until the snow fell and then went to work. Now, agencies track storms days in advance and coat the roads before the first flake.

“Water freezes at 32 degrees,” DeVries explains. “Have you ever tried to freeze a Coke? Coke freezes at 24 degrees because of the sugar.”

So sugar products, derived from sugar beets and other sources, are being mixed with salt brine and spread early. When snow and ice do hit, they don’t bond with the pavement, making them easier for plows to shove aside.

Plus, DeVries says, as anyone who has ever spilled a Coke on the kitchen floor knows, it remains sticky for days. Sometimes the applications last a week on a sparsely traveled road.

That not only saves governments money by reducing the use of salt, but it’s better for the environment because it can reduce by up to 75 percent the chlorides that flow into groundwater, says Wilfrid Nixon, a civil engineering professor at the University of Iowa. Also, it tends to act as an anti-corrosive agent.

Using GPS tracking for plows is also changing the balance of power. Analyzing the effectiveness of plowing circuits gives planners another weapon against weather.

Against big storms

Marc Valenti, highway superintendent for 150 miles of streets in historic Lexington, Mass., says he gets great ideas from the annual conference.

His town bought a brine-making machine after he saw one displayed at an earlier meeting.

Valenti can adjust the recipe of salt and additives to fit the kind of storm approaching.

This winter, Lexington got 24 inches in the so-called “Nemo” storm that socked the northeast. How does one deal with a storm dumping snow at the rate of 3 inches per hour?

“Plow, plow, plow, plow,” Valenti says.

Lexington had about 100 pieces of equipment on the streets to fight back, including tractors, trucks and plows. Valenti is also responsible for clearing 64 miles of sidewalks leading toward the city’s schools.

“It started snowing bad on Friday morning,” Valenti says. “Our guys had the streets in fantastic shape Saturday afternoon. They had school on Monday.”

Those at the conference will get a taste of Carolinas-style weather this week as well. One session focuses on common problems created by blizzards and hurricanes.

On Wednesday, they’ll get a tour of Charlotte’s street maintenance facility, the Freightliner Trucks plant in Mount Holly and one other center engineered for those on the go – Michael Waltrip’s Racing Shop in Cornelius.

Go to the Charlotte Observer.