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For College Employees, Snow Storms Are A Round-the-Clock Effort

Photo by Thy Vo '14.
Photo by Thy Vo ’14.

It’s hard to believe that only a week ago Haverford College was in the midst of a gigantic snow storm, now that the snow has crusted into grey icy patches, melting in the sudden sun. However, it’s a different story for Facilities Management and Grounds, who have an arsenal of devices devoted to dealing with snow, whenever it arrives.

“This is kind of snow central here,” said sustainability coordinator Claudia Kent, one recent snowy morning. The College had just received about an inch of powdery snow, drifting down through the bitter cold air during the night. The warehouse adjacent to the Facilities offices was crowded with all of the snow machinery, including the large snow brushes, melting after their recent use.

During heavy storms, the entire fleet of snow vehicles is unleashed on the College, and the warehouse becomes a 24/7 operation involving every Facilities, Grounds, and often Housekeeping employee.

Fern Hall, Haverford’s Housekeeping Manager, described the snow process in sequence.

“Claudia and I meet to review the snow plan. Identify equipment, staff, scheduling. Inform Administration of plan. Implement plan. Review plan during storm. Meet after snow event to review plan and make adjustments to plan,” Hall said, listing each step. The snow plan he is referring to spans 60 pages. Haverford does not take snow lightly.

“In the 13 inches or 14 in snow that we got, it becomes a 24-hour operation. We keep all the equipment operators on 12-hour shifts and then we switch off. We adjust shifts—people may come in late, they may not have their usual work time. Equipment operators work 12 hours, shovelers never work more than eight because shoveling is hard work. It’s still a lot of work, but it kind of gives everyone a break. And everyone is fed, we make sure that everyone is fed real well, and lots of coffee going. That’s pretty much the work,” Kent explained.

To accommodate everyone on overtime, the College utilizes every open space available for temporary housing.

“We call them crash houses. Depending on what’s available, sometimes it’s the campus center, HCA, 19 Railroad… whatever’s free. We have airbeds, HCA guest rooms, campus center guest rooms. Some people crash in offices, in conference rooms. It’s a huge slumber party,” Kent said.

Sometimes students send in cookies. The Dining Center sends food.

“When you guys weren’t here it was Ardmore Pizza,” Kent said. “It’s a bit more relaxed when you guys aren’t here, but when you’re on campus, it’s more critical that the campus stay open. You have to get to the DC, you have to get to classes, and they don’t like shutting down.”

The College has a wide array of techniques to manage snow in storms. The most important thing is to simply clear the snow when it’s falling.

“During the storm [the most important thing] is making sure that the snow doesn’t get too deep, because once we get four to five inches the machines won’t move it,” Kent said. “We have to keep it moving, that’s why we have to work around the clock. But once the snow stops, it gets real easy, because then you just have to clear it one more time and then we can go through and salt and all that stuff.”

To clear the snow, the College has two trucks with attached plows (“about the same number as Atlanta,” Kent joked), a tractor with attached plow, a collection of small and large snow throwers, and a special plow for sidewalks with an adjustable plow orientation.

“The tractors are fun,” Kent admitted. “Everybody has a preference. They usually get the same one every time they go out.”

There are also leafblowers, used to move light snow, and dozens of shovels.

“I go through dozens and dozens of shovels,” Kent said. “They disappear like you wouldn’t believe. We’ll call all hands on deck and they’ll call maintenance in. They all get shovels, they end up over there, they get broken, faculty take them to shovel out their cars, students take them to shovel out their cars, etcetera.”

In total, all of the equipment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“They can get pricey,” Kent said of the machines. “I don’t know prices off hand, but our equipment will last us 15 years and we have an excellent mechanic who takes great care of everything.”

Once the snow is cleared, the workers use a number of different compounds to melt the snow and ice.

“We try to make it as environmental as we can but with snow it’s hard,” Kent said. “It’s a tight schedule, and in this day in age, and I’m not saying this is Haverford College, but if people slip and fall, end up in the hospital… we don’t like people falling. Time is of the essence.”

The most important compound Facilities uses is rock salt, which while known for being corrosive and damaging to the environment, is the most effective tool for melting snow and ice quickly.

“It will rust everything, it will peel up concrete, it’s horrible and it’s bad for the environment,” Kent said. “But this is the only thing that will work on roadways. Every township, every municipality, everybody uses rock salt on roads. The other thing about [salt] is that it’s very cheap.”

“Whenever you’re putting something on the ground it’s going to end up in the water system some way. Rain washes it down there. Cities like Philadelphia actually dump the snow into the rivers, which has salt in it, because there’s just no place to put it. So you’re often dealing with stuff that’s going into our water supply, and that’s just the way that it is with snow. But there are chemicals that are better for the environment.”

These include a product called “EcoMag” which the College uses for sidewalks and walkways.

“Look at the ingredients: [Magnesium Chloride, Potassium Chloride], both better for the environment, not as corrosive. I’m saying better, not good, but it’s better,” Kent said. “It does have a little [sodium], very little, and another chemical called [Calcium Chloride]. This is as corrosive as [salt, but both Calcium Chloride and salt] work great on snow. They melt it down like that, it’s quick, it’s easy. This [EcoMag] takes a little longer. This will start working around 10-15, when the sun hits it.”

The College also uses sand for traction. Kent rules out the use of alternative compounds like beet juice, which some municipalities have begun using for more sustainable, though small-scale, snow melt.

“Beet juice is one of those things that just wouldn’t work. We don’t have the equipment, it’s very expensive,” Kent said. “Whenever you’re putting something down it’s going to have some kind of impact. We’re just trying to lessen it.”

In the large warehouse, salt stores occupy an entire corner, waiting for the next storm to hit. The pile is just below the “full” line, since some was used that morning to tackle the previous night’s light dusting. The College refilled on rock salt only the day before, shipping in 23 tons.

“Lately we run out of salt almost every storm. We got a load several days ago, that was full this morning [pre snow] and we’ll get another storm out of that, maybe a storm and a half. We have to order more,” Kent said. “We’ve already had over 35 inches, and our average is only 18-24. And we’ve still got a whole ‘nother month of winter.”