How to manage extended snow seasons

August 15, 2019 -  By
Boss Snowplow (Photo: Polar Snow & Ice Solutions)

Photo: Polar Snow & Ice Solutions

Imagine your area typically receives about 50 to 60 inches of snowfall a year. One year, you experience less-than-average snowfall from November through January, until out of nowhere, your region is pummeled by back-to-back blizzards within a week of each other, dropping 20 and 30 inches of snow, respectively.

The rest of February and March yield extremely cold temperatures, leaving no room for warmup periods to melt off the snow pack and delaying spring cleanup work. What do you do?

This was the scenario that befell JC Grounds Management, a Danvers, Mass.-based snow management firm that was left to contend with 100 inches of annual snowfall — double the usual amount — across 90 commercial properties during the 2014-15 winter season.

Jeremy Darling, account manager at JC Grounds, and Anthony Pennella, owner of Polar Snow & Ice Solutions and business development manager of its parent company Pennella Landscape Designs in Towaco, N.J., shed light on the strategies they employ when faced with an extended snow season.

JC Grounds is a $9-$10 million organization that employs 350 people during peak snow season and provides 75 percent snow services to a 100 percent commercial clientele. It offers maintenance and enhancement work in the summer. Polar Snow & Ice Solutions is a $1 million company. It employs 75 people in the winter. Its parent company, Pennella’s Landscape Design, employs about 35 people in the summer and provides design/build and maintenance services.

Adapt on the fly

Sometimes, JC Grounds Management starts spring cleanups despite slight snow cover. (Photo: JC Grounds Management)

Sometimes, JC Grounds Management starts spring cleanups despite slight snow cover. (Photo: JC Grounds Management)

Whether a storm unexpectedly hits late in the season or roars in early in October like one did about eight years ago in Pennella’s neck of the woods, the ability to adapt is key.

“I’ll never forget it because we were actually plowing leaf piles, school was shut down and they canceled Halloween because we had such an immense amount of snow,” Pennella says. “That was very challenging because our trucks were prepared for picking up leaves, servicing maintenance customers and designing patios. We needed to flip the switch in a matter of two days to get ready for that storm that came in.”

To adjust quickly enough to service its 90 commercial accounts, Polar Snow & Ice Solutions includes polysalters on the back of its pickup trucks because they’re lightweight and easy to put in and take out of the trucks.

“We’ve found ourselves tossing a salter in the night before and taking it out the next morning after we salted because we’re going to do a patio or cut the grass,” Pennella says.

He adds that the company’s shop is organized so that each snow-dedicated truck backs up to a salter to make hooking up the equipment more efficient.

For those seasons when snow takes a long time to melt, Darling suggests constantly evaluating properties.

“Don’t wait until the snow melts to have a plan in place of where you’re going to go and when you’re going to start,” Darling says. “Always be assessing your properties as often as possible because the stuff on the southern side of a building is going to melt before the northern side of building.”

Large piece of snow equipment (Photo: JC Grounds Management)

JC Grounds Management makes use of larger
equipment for the sake of efficiency. (Photo: JC Grounds Management)

Sometimes, JC Grounds Management makes the call to start performing spring cleanups on a property once the snow has melted off by 50 percent. Then, the company goes back a week or two later to finish off the job.

“One of the most difficult things is having to decide, ‘Do I go to a property and start the cleanup or wait until it completely melts off?’” Darling says. “That’s done on a property-by-property basis, depending on the property type, the timeline for the contracts and the time we usually start mulching.”

Darling says overall, the company tries to get started on spring cleanups as soon as possible.

“We have so many deadlines to meet that if we have to work extended shifts, we do that. If we have to do mulching at night versus day to get caught up, we do that,” he says.

Prep is key

It’s not all about pulling together at a moment’s notice, however. Both Pennella and Darling tout the benefits of being organized months in advance.

“In our business, we’re an emergency service,” Pennella says. “We’re called upon in a moment’s notice. If we don’t have things ready to go, somebody else will service our customers better than we will.”

To stay on top of their game, JC Grounds and Polar Snow & Ice make use of historical data by documenting items such as site details and dates of service.

“We do a lot of the same properties year after year, so we can tell which properties are going to melt off fast and which ones aren’t,” Darling says.

Pennella adds, “Just being able to keep track of your time on-site, of your salt usage, of materials and man-hours, that’s huge.”

Dedicated piece of snow equipment (Photo: Polar Snow & Ice Solutions)

A few properties allow Polar Snow & Ice Solutions to keep equipment on-site. (Photo: Polar Snow & Ice Solutions)

Taking the documentation a step further, Polar Snow & Ice Solutions has used a service called Site Photos to monitor its sites and plans to implement video cameras on its commercial sites this year.

“We’re making sure we’re fulfilling the needs of our customers and protecting ourselves as a company from any liability or potential loss,” Pennella says.

Darling says JC Grounds pays close attention to almanac data and weather systems and reassesses long-range forecasts every month. Polar Snow & Ice also uses a company called Weather Works, which provides storm alerts and live weather updates.

It’s also helpful to make sure schedules and contracts are laid out well in advance. For example, Pennella says snow and ice contracts are drawn up and signed before October. Darling says JC Grounds starts putting together spring schedules before March.

Keeping equipment in tiptop shape is also important to contend with early- and late-season storms. Polar Snow & Ice keeps on four dedicated snow employees year-round to handle snow equipment preparation and make sure everything is ready to go.

In addition to keeping its snow equipment prepared, JC Grounds also makes sure its landscape equipment is ready to go, in case an early thaw allows crews to get a jump on spring cleanups.

“We do all of the prep work for our landscape equipment in late January and early February,” Darling says. “We start going through stuff early to make sure everything runs properly and blades are sharpened, so if we do get an early melt, we can get up and running in March.”

Other odds and ends

Being prepared and adaptable may seem like no-brainers, but there are other ways snow contractors can ensure they don’t get buried under snow removal and landscape cleanup work.

For example, Pennella says his company seeks out contracts that will allow Polar Snow & Ice to keep snow equipment on-site, ready to plow at a moment’s notice. The company’s snow-dedicated pickup trucks are snow-ready until May 15, he adds.

“You’ll never know if we get a late-season storm and need to transition,” he says.

Darling suggests using larger 10- to 16-foot snow plows and clearing snow off of properties in the winter whenever possible.

“That helps because we’re not damaging turf by moving those bigger snow piles,” he says. “We will also blow snow way off the property into the woods. You may get a thicker snow pack in the woods, but at least around the property, it melts off faster.”

Pro Tips

Boss Snowplow: Adding a back-drag plow to operations can help snow contractors gain productivity over a front-mounted plow. Seasoned back-drag plow operators can realize a 30-50 percent increase in productivity versus a truck with just a front plow on it, Boss Snowplow says.

John Deere: Contractors located in areas with less snowfall should consider using a rotary broom or blade to remove lighter amounts of snow. Also, skid-steers can be transformed with attachments for snow removal applications. The machines can be used throughout the rest of the year for moving materials and landscaping projects. Finally, contractors should work with their dealer to ensure the parts inventory is stocked ahead of time.

Buyers Products: It’s important with unpredictable weather that equipment quickly adapts to ever-changing needs. Invest in equipment where the plow can be changed from the driver’s side in one minute or less. No one wants to waste time messing around with complicated systems or driving around with a plow hanging off the front of the truck when it’s not needed.

Sarah Webb

About the Author:

Sarah Webb is Landscape Management's associate editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at LM, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

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