When Jeff Hoeksema reflects on his snow removal business during the 2018-19 winter season, he doesn’t think about how snowfall accumulation was only several inches above normal.
Instead, the production manager at Summit Landscape Management recalls how three-quarters of the 75-plus inches of snow that accumulated in and around Grand Rapids, Mich., dropped in a span of just 44 days. Drivers worked nearly round the clock from February to early March plowing and salting driveways, parking lots, and private roads and then hauling accumulated snow to approved dump sites.
“It was all hands on-deck,” says Hoeksema, who operated the company’s Caterpillar 938 wheel loader during the height of the storms.
Over the East Coast and much of the Midwest beginning in late January, this winter season was characterized by wildly unpredictable winter weather, from Winter Storm Jayden and the polar vortex to the ultra-rare “bomb cyclone” that struck Colorado.
Summit Landscape Management controls a fleet of more than 60 vehicles, which the company typically leases for five years. The fleet includes Ford E-150 and E-250 vans and Ford F-150, F-250, and F-350 pickup trucks.
Summit also operates heavier Ford F-450, F-550, and F-650 pickups with dump bodies. The company, which installs irrigation systems and provides lawn care mostly from spring to fall and year-round tree services, also runs a few medium-duty trucks.
To prepare Summit’s trucks, in-house mechanics start the winterization process with extensive pre-season inspections before the first snow falls, Hoeksema says.
“Before the season starts, our mechanics examine our trucks from top to bottom, paying close attention to the fluids, especially with the hydraulic systems on the snowplow attachments, and the brakes,” Hoeksema says.
Before the first snowfall, Summit’s snowplow drivers visit customers’ locations to familiarize themselves with where they will be plowing so they don’t inadvertently run into or over something during the winter. Hazards such as raised manhole covers, fire hydrants, and power and cable junction boxes are flagged.
With the first snowfall, usually in late November or early December, Hoeksema repurposes a number of the company’s trucks from landscaping and lawn-care duties to snow removal. He says the hydraulic-powered snowplows can be quickly re-installed using a mounting system installed on several of its pickup trucks.
Throughout the winter season, the company’s in-house mechanics conduct routine inspections for common issues such as irregular tire wear, damage to the plow or the vehicle’s undercarriage, corrosion from plow salt, and cracked or broken bolts on the snowplows, Hoeksema says. When the bolts on the plows get damaged drivers can easily overlook them, particularly when things get really busy, he adds.
Drivers and mechanics regularly check fluids and tire pressures since tires can lose 1 PSI for every 10 degree drop in temperature. They also watch for damaged mudflaps, broken tail and running lights, and cracked or chipped windshields.
“Our trucks and equipment cost our company a lot of money,” Hoeksema says. “We try to keep them in top shape so we can continue to run them year-round and return them to the leasing company in relatively good shape so we don’t get dinged.”
Change Fluids, Equipment
Derek Broderick, owner of North Pole, Alaska-based BlackHawk Works takes a similar approach to preventing vehicle damage and downtime.
Broderick recommends trucks carry parts that drivers can easily use for quick field repairs and emergency supplies such as extra fuel, hydraulic fluid, engine oil, blankets, flares, lights, first-aid kits, food, water, and tools, including a digital tire gauge.
While Broderick always prepares for cold and snowy winters, this year the weather in North Pole didn’t live up to the image of the community’s namesake. Much of the central and western parts of Alaska experienced well above-average temperatures and significantly below-average snow accumulations.
In addition to graders and loaders, BlackHawk operates a fleet of seven trucks, six F-series Ford models and a dump truck for its tree, grading, snow removal, and mobile welding services.
Even with the recent warmer- and drier-than-average winters, Broderick says he has his mechanics change out the hydraulic fluids in the snowplow systems, which he keeps on his trucks year-round. Because temperatures can typically drop well below 0 degrees in North Pole, BlackHawk’s mechanics switch out the hydraulic fluid for a lighter aviation grade so drivers can raise and lower their snowplows quickly in frigid temperatures.
Because of its location in the Northern Hemisphere, North Pole remains dark nearly 24/7 from early October until early March. To help drivers see more clearly, the company installs racks with Vision X light bars on the rear of the trucks. Cold weather grille inserts limit cold air inflow through the truck radiator, which insulates the engine and helps accelerate warm-up time.
And rather than switch out the tires before winter, Broderick has the local tire dealer replace the OEM tires with all-season radials that are “siped.” Tire siping involves cutting small slits in the tire’s tread block. Siping opens the tire’s tread, giving it more gripping ability as it makes contact with the pavement or snow and ice.
Mitigating Tire Expense
Corrosion can be a big concern, particularly when road maintenance departments use magnesium chloride as road de-icers.
Greg Katheiser, vehicle and maintenance operator for Colorado’s Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA), says when the co-op’s drivers are not out on storm duty and when the weather allows it, they regularly wash association vehicles to avoid corrosion.
GCEA, a nonprofit, member-owned electric co-op, runs a fleet of 24 trucks and cars, including Chevrolet Bolts, Chevrolet Sparks, Nissan Leafs, Chevrolet Silverados, diesel-powered Chevrolet 3500s, and Dodge 5500 utility trucks.
Katheiser says all vehicles in the co-op’s fleet are parked in garages overnight with plug-in heaters to help avoid problems with cold engine starts and to maximize battery life and performance in the electric vehicles.
Katheiser says during winter storms utility truck drivers will chain their truck tires to gain better traction in the deep snow and ice, particularly when roads have not yet been plowed.
With many vehicles traveling predominantly on dirt and gravel roads and with snow remaining on the ground in the higher elevations well into the spring, GCEA runs mud and snow tires year-round on nearly all its cars and trucks.
“Tires are one of the biggest maintenance expenses that we have,” Katheiser adds. “So, we do monthly inspections on tires — checking inflation, tread depth, and abnormal wear. We also look at the wipers, lights, and turn signals on a monthly basis.”