How high-tech is your city's snow plow?

A brutal winter means snow plows are working overtime. SmartPlanet looks at what's new in truck technology and why we could see beet juice on our icy streets in the future.

Last Tuesday, when a storm started dumping what would become nearly two feet of snow on Chicago, stopping the city and eventually claiming 11 lives, International Trucks' snow plow guy was at home, in his pajamas. "I can perform my work mobile," said Bob Neitzel, vocational marketing manager for the company.

Other than the occasional annoyance when my street wasn’t cleared, I had never thought much about snow plows until I went to Washington’s simulated snow emergency in November. About 250 of our city’s plows were lined up at RFK Stadium, where I was invited to sit in a new International truck. It’s hard not to be impressed by the shininess and all the gadgets. Before long, the drivers climbed into their cabs and practiced their snow routes around the city, noting any pavement issues that could pose obstacles for their plows.

To learn what’s new and exciting in the snow plow industry, I called Neitzel at home last week, where he was well protected from the storm. (Two days later, he emailed, the streets had not been cleared, and after nearly a week, plows are still working overtime.)

Let’s start off talking about the levels of plows. At DC’s dry run, I saw everything from giant plows to pick-up trucks with attachable plows.

If you’re in a big city—Chicago, New York, Minneapolis--if you trap people more than 24 hours in the snow, you’ll never get elected dog-catcher. So these cites have powerful vehicles and incredibly elaborate snow-removal plans. They determine who will go out and where. There’s a hierarchy.

Cities like this will have dedicated ice and snow maintenance vehicles. Generally those have a plow in the front and a plow on the right and left sides. That’s the highest order. That’s only common in areas where you’re guaranteed four months of snow a year. These high-order ones are able to do the job of about four converted trucks because they are fast, the wing plows make them terribly efficient, and their technology allows them to work at a higher speed and treat the road more accurately.

Next thing down is when they take a heavy dump truck chassis and make it capable of a plowing and spreading operation. That’s what you’ll find in most cities and communities north of I-20 across the country. So it’s a real good truck, and with a few hours of changeover, it can be used as a quite effective snowplow. It will only do one lane at a time, and you have to handle the equipment more gingerly.

Next is private individuals who will take their construction or landscape vehicles and put plows on them. They do that partly because they need work in the winter. So they put a small plow on the pick-up truck and clean the parking lot at a hotel or restaurant and sometimes even contract for the city. The downside is that it trashes the truck. It tears up the transmission and decreases the life of the vehicle.

What’s new in the de-icing process and materials?

You see things that look like pencils on the mirror pointing to the ground—those are temperature gauges. They determine the temperature of the road surface, which determines the spreading rate. There is a computer in the driver’s compartment on these high-order ones, which helps efficiency.

The computer will know if the ambient temperature is 10 and the road temp is zero, and the computer will say, are you sure you want to spread it? It won’t do anything for you. The computer will determine how much chemicals to add to the brine, based on the air, road temperature and speed. If you put too much down, it causes environmental problems. If you don’t put enough down, you’ve wasted it.

I imagine the chemicals aren’t good for any environment.

There are areas in the Rocky and Sierra mountains where they won’t allow chemicals on the road because it gets into the streams and lakes and affects the wildlife So usually they put down cinders, which come from industrial waste.

You’ll also see salt and cinders in areas where they are worried about corrosion problems—not for your car but maybe for an iron bridge. You don’t want to dump a lot of calcium chloride on there unless you want to see your bridge dissolve in the spring.

At O’Hare, on the long runway, it’s actually steam-heated. You better not put salt down, or every airline will be after you. So they put down exotic chemicals that are more like fertilizers. I’ve even heard beet juice talked about as a de-icer.

When I saw all the trucks in DC, I learned that they have timers that turn the vehicles off if they’re idling for too long.

Essentially all our diesel trucks have had these devices on the computer since 1998. But the device could be turned on and off. In our case, we won’t let it turn off the engine until it is warmed up first. Now our customers can decide to use it—whether it’s a state law or company rules.

What’s the most exciting new technology in the trucks?

On the highest order plows, there are computers that are close to being a laptop. They have communications, weather and location, so the guy can pull up GPS and is in constant communication. If he’s plowing in one area, he can be redirected. If you’re in the control center, you need to know where these guys are.

The other thing is the truck can transmit information on itself. They can tell if the truck is full of fuel, if the truck is running OK, or they will integrate it to the liquid road-treating chemicals and will tell dispatch how much chemicals are on there. It’ll send an alert if it’s getting low.

Does the design and technology reflect any change in the weather patterns we’ve been experiencing?

Every year there’s a big snow conference in April. Usually where I see technology moving more is in the areas of ice melters. The road maintenance chemicals--they’re trying to get more environmentally friendly chemicals. You see all the chemical companies with their magic mix. There’s nothing perfect out there. Cinders or sand are the most neutral thing, but they won’t reduce ice. Generally all of the chemicals have advantages or disadvantages—temperature range, environmental impact, impact on metals. We’ve seen corrosion far beyond salt, and I think people have experienced that in their cars too. It’s a balance—you’re going to eat up metals or eat up plants.

Are we going to start seeing beet juice on the roads?

Maybe. We’ve seen a demonstration of it. It’s environmentally sound, but the problem is that it’s not especially effective with ice melting at lower temperatures.

The one thing that caught me at the trade show was seeing all the conversions of the trash trucks to plows. I’ve also seen school buses converted to plows; they’ll put a center-mounted plow, mid-ship, but it won’t work in really heavy snow. I even saw one of those big agricultural combines with a snow plow on the front.

What’s changed in the cabs of the trucks to make life more comfortable for the drivers who are out there at all hours?

There are several things that make it more functional. There’s a heated windshield beyond where the wipers sweep. There are special steps that snow won’t build on because they are narrow and each bar is spaced apart, so when ice builds up on it the weight of the body will break the ice. You’ll often see additional hand rails on the vehicle, and we have a fireman’s seatbelt that’s 18 inches longer than a regular seatbelt. They might be driving in a snow suit and can’t buckle a regular seatbelt. We also have additional mirrors and put heating elements on the mirrors.

No hot chocolate maker inside?

There could be. In the west , some of them will use a large extended cab with a sleeper in it and the truck might run 24 hours a day. They have a 78-inch bed, and one guy sleeps and the other guy is driving. When they start working some of those high mountain passes and ski resorts, it’s a 24-7 job.

Do city budget cuts affect plow purchasing, or is this considered a necessity?

Most of the time when you get the dedicated snow plows, it tends to be high priority in the budget; you’re not going to keep your job very long if you strand people. A snow plow becomes an emergency. It’s like the fire truck.

If someone’s in a big squeeze they may come back from a dedicated plow to a multi-purpose truck. But in places that know they will have a lot of snow, they’ll buy what they want. You stand in front of the pundits and say, “When we can’t clear the city in 12 hours, we’ll remind you that you didn’t want us to buy those plows.” So many administrations have been turned over because of the inability to do snow removal.

How much does your biggest, baddest snow plow cost?

The highest end ones will have huge, high horsepower engines. And a dedicated plow truck will often have a lot of stainless steel components. So you can expect to rack up a bill of a quarter million to $300,000 for a high-order truck. You can expect it to be in service 12 to15 years. These trucks are pretty technical. You can’t just drop someone in there and say you’re a plow driver.

If you had your druthers and could design the perfect plow, with any bells and whistles you wanted, what would you like to see?

I’d like to see more in the extended cab, making that environment a little nicer for them. Maybe a Porta Potty, a microwave, a bunk. And that doesn’t add significantly to the cost of the truck. But it does change the image if a City of Chicago plow has a sleeper in it.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com