January 2001

Uncovering extra profits

You're not in this business for the cool hours and great working conditions. You need to make a profit.

By Jim Baugh, Cutting Edge Enterprises, Inc.

Snow removal is an important service that is often required to retain annual contracts. Many customers prefer to deal with one service provider for all their grounds maintenance needs—including snow removal. It maintains consistency and is less work for your client; however, snow removal is more than just plowing lots, and like any other business, it is competitive. Efficiency, equipment and employees are the keys to a successful operation. In order to make snow plowing pay, you need to consider the following points.

Be ready!

 Hire good employees. You must have quality people in your organization. They are essential to consistent, quality service and client retention. Train them to use the equipment and compensate them at a professional level. Also, find people who are dedicated. Snow removal requires working in some of the most adverse conditions. Mother Nature does not recognize holidays or the time of the day. Be it Christmas Day of New Year’s Eve, if it snows, it is time to plow.

 Prepare your equipment. Keep your equipment maintained and operating reliably. Before snow season begins, check your equipment and gather it in an accessible place. If you remove your plow during the season, be ready to reattach it quickly if unexpected snowfall begins.

 Communication with clients. You need to talk with your clients before and during the season to determine what their needs are. If it snows on a holiday, some commercial clients, such as banks, may not need immediate attention. This gives you the opportunity to prioritize jobs and allocate resources accordingly.

Also, discuss with your clients what their expectations are vs. what you can do. Be sure to explain that lots may be full of cars during snowfalls. Let them know ahead of time that you will not be able to manicure a lot in these conditions, so clearing the driving lanes may be the only option. Tell them that you will be back after hours when the cars are gone and clean up the rest. This way, their expectations can be more realistic.

Also, determine the maximum number of inches of snow your clients can tolerate before you need to start plowing. Some clients can tolerate several inches before they require removal. This gives you leverage to work on other clients’ properties. However, some clients may have a "no-accumulation" policy that needs constant maintenance.

Efficiency is critical

 Equipment. You need to thoroughly analyze each job to determine what type of equipment will be the most suitable. For example, if you are plowing large parking lots and streets, a vehicle with a snow blade will have plenty of room to operate efficiently. When sizing-up smaller driveways, parking lots and commercial properties, snow blowers may be more appropriate. In areas such as housing units with short driveways, side walks, front entryways, mailbox areas and small parking areas, it is more productive for you to use snow blowers. Walk-behinds and units mounted to a vehicle with a short wheel base are available.

Always have extra equipment available. Unfortunately, snow removal and icy conditions take a toll on equipment. Breakdowns will occur and you must have equipment to fall back on. Keep a ready supply of easily replaced parts on hand. You can quickly replace a lost bolt or belt if you have it with you. However, if you have to leave the site or go find an open parts store at 3 a.m., you will be losing opportunity.

As with all equipment decisions, you must asses your current and projected needs. You need to assess the size of your jobs to determine the size and range of your equipment needs. You can put a plow on most vehicles or equipment, but a crewcab, long-bed pickup truck will not efficiently get you into tight areas. The plow-length you choose is also important. Long plows are more efficient in large lots, whereas shorter plows are more maneuverable in tight areas. If you are removing snow on sidewalks and entryways snowblowers are more effective than shovels. However, there will always be a need for shovels.

 Maintenance. Implement an ongoing maintenance schedule. Check your equipment every couple of hours. Inspect all lights and moving parts. Inspect the hydraulic pump, fittings, actuators and hoses for leaks or damage. Check hydraulic fluid levels and change fluids on a regular basis. Inspect the hook-up mechanism and points of attachment to the vehicle. Look for any obvious damage that will impair your ability to do a quality job. If you can switch equipment soon enough, potential damages can be minimized and you can fix them later.

 Communication with employees. If your company is operating multiple plows and drivers, communication is absolutely necessary. You must keep track of where your equipment is so that you can delegate work efficiently. It is critical that you also know what your current work load status is and when clients can expect service. Two-way radios, CB’s or cellular phones are essential pieces of equipment.

What price to charge?

How you price your services can make or break your company’s ability to show a profit. Know the different kinds of conditions that you might expect. Heavy, wet snow takes more effort to push than light snow. Ice also limits what you can deliver to your clients for a given price. Depending on your geographic location, pricing can be based per accumulation of snowfall, by contract or on an hourly basis.

 Price per amount of accumulation or price per inch. When using this method, you must be able to approximate the time required to move "x" amount of snow. This approximation will be determined by your equipment and the limitations of your employees. Understand how many inches you can effectively remove per push. After large snowfalls you may run out places to put the snow. Be aware that after a certain amount of snow has fallen, you may have put forth extra effort and expense to properly complete the job.

 Contractual pricing. Be careful when using this method. It can be risky due to weather fluctuations (too little or too much snow). With weather patterns as unpredictable as they are, second-guessing Mother Nature can be costly. If your client insists on contractual pricing, you should try to get some specifications included that will protect you if snowfall is above average. Explain some of the pricing attributes and make the contract flexible so that you are not committed to something that you have little control of.

 Pricing by the hour. Use this method for new clients and in locations where snowfall is unpredictable. It allows you to charge for the actual production hours and operating expenses that will be required to get the job done. For new jobs that you are having difficulty estimating, this method allows you to accurately determine how long it will take and what equipment is best. However, it also limits your income to an hourly rate.

Keep these points in mind as the snow season continues. Continually analyze jobs and schedules to increase efficiency. New equipment is constantly being added to the arsenal. Some may be the right fit for your operation. Look at your pricing system and determine if the system you are using is best. Make a commitment to squeeze a few more dollars out of jobs by adding more services. Talk with other operators in your area. Find out what works for them. Also, if some small operators are not making consistent money, you may be able to convince them to work for you. It will decrease competition and give you the pricing advantage.

Jim Baugh is president of Cutting Edge Enterprises, Inc. (Bloomington, Ind.).

Slippery conditions? Get a grip

You have a lot of options when it comes to snow and ice control strategies. The key is to find the combination that works best.

By Wendelyn Crosby

Put a working plan in place and your crew and equipment will be well-prepared for snow and ice removal. Just a few simple procedures can assure a smooth, successful and profitable snow-removal season. Of course, crew readiness, availability and communication are a top priority. However, regular equipment maintenance and wise product choices for your geographical area and customer sites are equally important to make your operation as efficient as possible. Early planning and crew training will help you make the best use of available manpower and equipment.

Crew readiness and communication

Be sure you have qualified operators and a team of good mechanics in place; this is essential during winter. The key to having a successful plan is having it in place long before you need it. When a large storm hits, there’s no time for equipment breakdowns or miscommunication. Set your schedule for operator training sessions and routine mechanical inspections. Your mechanics can establish a timeline for daily, monthly and yearly maintenance needs for your equipment.

"The most important factor is being ready beforehand," says Dwayne Parris, Washington, D.C., operations manager for Chapel Valley Landscaping, Woodbine, Md. With 30 to 40 commercial urban sites on which to maintain a "no-snow" policy, Parris says it is critical for Chapel Valley crews to be completely familiar with the sites that they will service during a snow event. "We have the crew members walk the sites well beforehand, when there is no snow, to spot and mark obstacles that could damage equipment and to identify areas where property damage could occur. We don’t want them going in blind."

Chapel Valley crews stay on site during the entire snow event to maintain the "no-snow" policy required by their customers. By using phones and two-way radios, crews are always in close contact with each other and the main dispatcher. Parris says maintaining total coverage can be tough. "During the blizzard of 1995, we had crews on site for four to five days, ensuring full snow-removal coverage without letting the accumulation get out of control."

Weather radio updates and computers accessing weather information from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have taken much of the guesswork out of planning for snow and ice removal. H. Robin Milliken, President of H & R Lawn and Landscape, serving the metropolitan Kansas City area, utilizes the NOAA weather computer in his office for specific storm information. "It lets us know when the storm is going to hit, where it’s coming from and allows us to pinpoint the exact conditions we can expect," says Milliken. "We also often refer to the local television station’s ‘city cams’ mounted at many major intersections and roadways to keep current on local conditions."

Equipment choices and maintenance

Long before you begin your snow and ice season, carefully consider the appropriate eqipment and product selection. Analyze your snow-removal sites and choose the best equipment and products for the job. Consider each customer’s specific snow-removal needs, and assign equipment and operators accordingly. Be prepared to modify your needs as the property changes or when more effective equipment reaches the market.

Designate a staff member to be responsible for purchasing supplies before the season begins; it can be difficult to buy emergency supplies during the peak of the season.

Different weather conditions call for different equipment and treatment. Equipment choices range from walk-behind snow throwers to skid-mounted snowplows to truck-mounted plows, straight-bladed or with a flexible "V" scoop. It’s up to you to decide what works best for your crews and clients in each weather and property situation.

Powdery snow with light accumulation can be effectively treated with walk-behind snow throwers, or small areas and sidewalks can be hand-shoveled. With dry, powdery snow, there is little likelihood of the snow compacting on the surface and removal will be fast and complete. Hand shoveling is often the best treatment for hard-to-reach areas like steps and winding walkways that are difficult to navigate with power equipment. Don’t forget to include a broom on each truck. The final steps for snow removal before applying ice melt can make a big difference.

During accumulations of 3 inches or more, a blade mounted on a skid-steer loader can be your best choice for shopping-center sidewalks, city plaza areas or other tight spots that cannot be accessed by truck. A blade mounted on a riding mower can accomplish the same purpose and allow more maneuverability than a skid loader and more speed than walk-behind snow throwers or hand shoveling.

When snow is heavy, wet and continuous, truck- or tractor-mounted plows in widths of 7 ½, 9 or 10 feet can ensure total removal from large areas. Parking lots, city streets and right-of-ways with curbs are most effectively treated with truck-mounted plows requiring only one operator, freeing up manpower to deal with more labor-intensive sites. Truck-mounted plows are available in many lengths and configurations, with various mounting hardware and "cutting-edge" capability. "Down-pressure" plows are not required for normal plowing but are sometimes used for their superior cutting-edge pressure in difficult plowing situations, such as back-dragging and scraping operations. Most domestic snow plows operate with a cutting-edge weight of 325 to 400 pounds, depending on the make and model of plow.

Especially on "no-remaining-snow" sites, some contractors prefer that the snow roll off the moldboard as quickly and cleanly as possible with the least amount of energy. This saves considerable wear and tear on both plowing equipment and vehicles. Standard straight blades rely upon blade height and the "push" effect to accomplish snow removal. On sites that have a "no-snow" requirement, Parris of Chapel Valley assigns loaders to pile the snow into flatbed trucks that remove it from the site.

In other parts of the country, especially on job sites with more space, plowed snow can often be piled on the site, away from traffic and driveways. In Kansas City, H&R Lawn and Landscape utilizes the flexible "V" plows in parking-lot clearing operations where rows of parked cars must not be "plowed in" and snow can be easily moved and piled in a remote area of the lot. "The ‘V’ scoop allows the snow to roll to either side, clearing parking areas and making it easier to pile the snow on a far side of the site," Milliken says. "This keeps the snow away from traffic, driveways and out of the path of prevailing winds that could cause the snow to drift back into plowed areas."

Snow blowers and throwers that are truck- or tractor-mounted are highly effective for road clearing in mountainous or rural areas where the thrown snow will not affect businesses or residents by blocking traffic, parking lots or roadways. In large, sudden snowstorms and when heavy snow continues to fall, roads treated continuously by truck-mounted snow throwers are not as likely to build up significant amounts of snow that could compact, become icy and endanger traffic flow.

When snowfall has decreased or stopped, in most cases, areas you should treat with ice melt or a combination of sand and ice melt to keep plowed surfaces from freezing.

Sand, salt and ice melt

Ice melt is the finishing touch on every snow-removal job, and there are several components from which to choose. The treatment of plowed areas with ice melt is critical to prevent ice from building up during continuing cold weather conditions. Ice-melting compounds are available in pellet form with various chemical compositions that produce different melting points, handling and effect on vegetation, animals and humans.

Sand, on its own, does not have ice-melting capability. Its primary use is as an abrasive to provide temporary traction. It works best on hard-packed snow where it can embed itself into the snow and remain there. It is effective in sudden, heavy snow, at intersections and on hills to keep roadways open until snowfall decreases or snowplows arrive in the area. When you apply sand to ice, be aware of sand’s tendency to "bounce" when it hits the surface. It may end up at the side of the road. Many contractors and highway departments use a salt and sand mixture of approximately 30-percent salt and 70-percent sand. The salt prevents the sand from freezing in the pile and helps provide some ice-melting capability to the mixture. This mixture is also effective in freezing-rain conditions to melt ice and provide traction.

Pure salt is used on primary roads and problem intersections to help control ice. It has a practical working temperature of 15 to 20°F. If you’re using rock salt, remember to be careful in planted areas because it may be harmful to desirable vegetation and grass. It may leave a white film stain on concrete surfaces. However, you can safely handle it without special clothing or gloves and it will not harm skin, carpets or floors. Rock salt is inexpensive and readily available.

Potassium and sodium chloride blend is an effective ice melter in the 5 to 0°F range. It is safe to handle with no detrimental effect on skin, carpets or floors. Some potassium chloride products have an outer coating of calcium chloride that grips the frozen surface better and promotes faster thawing.

Calcium chloride ice-melting compounds are effective to -25°F. Calcium chloride is not safe to use on vegetation or grass, so you must exercise extreme caution when using this low-temperature, commercial-grade product. It also is highly recommended that you use skin protection when using this type of product. To avoid any skin irrigation, always wash gloves and clothing that come into contact with the calcium chloride before you wear them again. Calcium chloride is highly effective, although it is expensive and can leave an oily residue, which can only be removed with soap and water.

Any ice melt is potentially harmful to humans, vegetation, property and pets if used incorrectly; it is very important that the proper application of these products is thoroughly outlined in crew training sessions in preparation for snow and ice removal. This will allow you to maximize effectiveness and value from the product you choose. Most problems that occur due to the use of commercial ice-melting products are due to "operator error," not product composition. The most common mistakes are made as a result of incorrect application or overuse of the product. Applying more of the product doesn’t mean it will work better or faster.

Application of ice melt is the last step in a successful snow- and ice-removal program. The piling up of snow to which ice melt has been applied can result in a high concentration of potentially dangerous chemicals. For this reason, it’s important to remove the snow before finishing the job with an ice-melting product. "It’s pointless to put an ice-melting product down and then just plow it back up," says Parris.

Spreading of ice melters

In close areas with planting beds, shrubs and trees, hand-held spreaders are the most effective and accurate application method for ice-melting compounds. Residential sidewalks that have been hand shoveled or other tight-entry areas also benefit from this hand-held coverage. Truck- or tractor-mounted ice-control-product spreaders are available in a variety of sizes and heights to accommodate larger areas. Some truck bed-mounted spreaders have a low profile with a "pay load" sufficient to meet the ratings of light-weight vehicles for salting and sanding areas where larger equipment cannot properly maneuver. Carefully avoid overspray of any salt or de-icing product to minimize damage to plants and grass in the immediate spray area.

Have your plan in place

The key to any succssful plan is to have it ready to implement long before it is needed. Let customers know before an event that you have a working plan in place for all types of expected precipitation, from freezing rain and sleet to heavy, wet or continuous accumulations of snow. Establish procedures for personnel notification, equipment-operator listings, specific removal procedures for each site and routing information and assignments. Take into consideration procedures that could impede traffic flow and make allowances for holiday schedules. Plan for relief equipment operators, as snow removal can involve long hours. Good communication among crew members, supervisors and dispatch staff is vital. Monitor the weather radio or computer before and during the storm and keep all units informed of current conditions.

With plenty of snow-removal equipment on site before snow or ice occurs, and sufficient sand, salt and ice-melting products for different sites and conditions, even the most unexpected winter storm won’t take you by surprise or compromise your smoothly running snow-removal operation.

Wendelyn Crosby is a freelance writer and graphic designer. www.wcrosby.com










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