Nighttime Snow Removal: Good News & Bad News

All things considered, nighttime may be the best time to remove snow. However, don’t overlook the potential pitfalls.

I am sure you have all heard someone tell you, “I have some good news, and I have some bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” Well, nighttime snow removal provides us with both, and I’ll give you the good news first.

The good news

The really good news is revenue. In the snow-removal business, it is better to have snow—regardless of the time of day. However, your efficiency goes up when you perform your services at night, whether you are providing snow removal at a per-event price or at an hourly rate. Thus, nighttime snow removal can be better for your bottom line and also make your clients happier.

Everything just seems to go better at night. The peace and tranquility after a fresh snowfall seems to put you in a better frame of mind to do your work. There are fewer phone calls, and a longer time frame that allows you to service your properties on time (barring breakdowns or continued snowfall). You may also have more people available to work during nighttime snow removal than when it snows during the day.

Here are some other reasons why nighttime snow removal is more efficient.

  • Labor. The ideal scenario for snow removal would be a snowfall that begins around 6:00 p.m. and ends around midnight. Your staff then knows that they will be reporting to work shortly after midnight and can get a little sleep without worrying whether or not they are going to get that phone call in the middle of the night.
  • Traffic. In Denver, major traffic problems during daylight hours severely affects our productivity. I’m sure it’s similar in most metropolitan areas. By contrast, plows, sanders and hand crews do not have to deal with the hassles of traffic between 7:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. In fact, I think the single most important benefit of nighttime snow removal is not having to deal with traffic.
  • Reduced liability. With less traffic, the chances of being involved in an accident that could result in personal injury or equipment damage are much lower. Everyone is faced with ever-increasing insurance rates. Anything you can do to reduce this risk is going to have a positive effect on the bottom line. Transporting heavy equipment, plows and sanders across town at night is certainly easier than dealing with traffic.
  • Empty lots. At the property, you can more effectively perform your work without cars in the lot and people in the offices or retail centers. The plow operator is able to plow an empty lot without worrying about parked cars or vehicles coming and going. Almost all accidents involving other vehicles occur during the day when other drivers are in a hurry to get somewhere. For some reason, they never look out for snowplows.

Another benefit of nighttime snow removal is that the plows are able to push the snow to the correct locations for proper drainage, resulting in less ice build-up when melting. Finally, sand trucks can spread sand evenly throughout the drives and lots without the problem of spraying parked cars, which usually results in liability claims.

  • Hand crews. Many of these benefits hold true with the effectiveness of hand crews. During the early morning hours, we can use more mechanized equipment such as snow blowers, ATV plows and power equipment with brooms without the fear of throwing snow and ice on pedestrians or vehicles. At night, the hand crews are able to get the walkways cleared and apply ice-melt, if necessary, prior to any foot traffic. This reduces the chances of a “slip-and-fall,” which are more prevalent during daytime snow removal.
  • Customer satisfaction. We have found that getting an early start on nighttime snow removal increases our customer satisfaction level. Without traffic congestion, area managers can check the following areas relatively quickly and easily to make sure everything was completed as required.
    1. Lots plowed completely
      • Piles in appropriate locations
      • Snow cleared from curb areas leading to walkways
      • Handicap areas cleared and sanded
      • Sand applied, if necessary
    2. Walkways cleared completely
      • Ice-melt applied, if necessary
    3. Trash enclosures cleared
    4. Loading docks cleared

Our experience has shown that when we have the time to check our properties thoroughly, we receive few, if any, phone calls from property managers regarding poor service.

An important benefit of high customer satisfaction is fewer problems with client retention and prompt payment. It also leads to increased growth for your business through customer referral without the cost of advertising. We are one of the largest snow-removal contractors in the Denver area, and we have never spent a dollar on direct advertising for our snow-removal services. The only limiting factor related to our growth in snow removal seems to be the ever-present problem of finding dependable people.

The bad news

Everything has a downside, and snow removal is no exception. Some of the same factors that are a great benefit at night, if not properly managed, can also be your worst nightmare.

  • Personnel. Plow-truck operators seem to have the best job. They are in a warm truck and do not have much manual labor. However, this can bring on drowsiness. Keeping the heater low and a window slightly open can help reduce this risk. Dressing properly in layers can also help to alleviate this. It is recommended that the drivers get out of the truck every hour or so to help break up the monotony as well as check on the condition of their vehicle. The plow, lights, tires and chains, if used, should be checked on a regular basis to avoid any serious breakdowns.

The glare from parking-lot lights and truck lights, coupled with continuing snowfall, can severely restrict the driver’s visibility at night. We have found that using the same driver on a route and relying on a parking-lot site plan help to alleviate problems related to these conditions. Parking-lot islands, light poles, manhole covers and other obstacles, which often can be difficult to see at night, are highlighted on the lot site plan.

The hand crews have the most difficult job at night. Assuming they have the proper equipment to perform their job, the most important thing is to make sure they are properly dressed. Like the plow drivers, they should dress in layers, and have adequate head, hand and foot gear. Also, depending on the time of year, they should have a change of clothes available to prevent mild cases of hypothermia when perspiration or heavy snow causes their clothing to become wet.

For safety reasons we make it a point that anyone doing handwork does not work alone, especially at night. Teams working together can check on each other for injury, fatigue, frostbite and hypothermia. Colder temperatures at night increase the chances of these problems.

  • Equipment maintenance. Most equipment breakdowns seem to occur at the most inopportune times. Nighttime snow removal is a classic example of this. Unless your maintenance shop is properly prepared, breakdowns during the early morning hours can make it unlikely you’ll complete the removal of snow on time.

During snowstorms, our shop staff operates on split shifts so that one mechanic is always on duty regardless of the time of day. We stock spare plow parts, pumps, electric motors, batteries and tires, not only for our use, but for our subcontractors as well. Getting parts at night or on weekends or holidays is almost impossible.

  • Area management. Another major problem with nighttime snow removal is that if the storm does not end early enough, you have to compress all your work into a tighter time schedule. It is important to remember, when securing contracts, not to overload your equipment and crews. For a small storm, it often is easy to complete all properties, but when you get the heavier nighttime storms later in the evening it is often impossible to finish the job, resulting in client dissatisfaction. I cannot tell you the number of times we have had everything under control between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m., only to have the storm return, putting us in an out-of-control situation. This is discouraging, to say the least, and is when the real challenge begins. At this point, the crews are tired and often not thinking clearly. A good snow-removal plan is critical if you are going to salvage the night.

Area managers should focus on the following key points for their properties:

  • Current property status: Have the lots and walks been cleared at least one time?
  • Know and understand the current status and location of all of your crews and equipment.
  • Know the schedule for the various opening times for your properties. Office buildings, retail centers and multi-family housing all have different time schedules for completion. Use that to your advantage.
  • Use equipment and crews to meet priorities with the least travel time.
  • Communicate with other area managers or crews, especially during the wrap-up process.

Nighttime snow removal has both its good news and bad news, but we prefer providing this service at night. Despite its potential pitfalls, it is cost effective, leads to greater client satisfaction and is less stressful for our employees and subcontractors.

John Bartley is branch manager for Real Property Maintenance, Inc. (Denver, Colo.), a TruGreen-LandCare Company that has provided snow-removal services for commercial, retail and multi-family properties for over 25 years.

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