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Snow and Ice Management with John Lawter

Associate Director, Plant Building and Grounds Services with the University of Michigan

John Lawter

John Lawter
Associate Director, Plant Building and Grounds Services
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Your department has a comprehensive snow and ice removal plan, which includes an operations matrix. What goes into developing such a matrix?
We actually have several matrixes. For example, we have one for sidewalks, roadways, and parking lots. The matrix determines what our response will be to any particular snow event based mainly on ground temperatures and the predicted precipitation. The response includes what our action would be, plowing/salting versus spraying, what material we will use, and the matrix gives the rates at which we set our equipment.
We rely heavily on mechanically removing snow and ice as our key to reducing salt. Applying our anti-ice mix at a lower rate prior to the storm helps keep the snow from bonding to the pavement. We then use rotary brooms to remove as much as possible before applying any additional deicer. In addition to what I already mentioned for our matrix, we consider the time of day, air temperatures, and what the extended forecast is calling for.
Considering all this, we determine when and how many staff members to call in and what their tasks will be. In other words, the matrix sets the framework.

Your department has minimized the use of rock salt. How has this practice helped protect concrete, steel structures and planted areas close to sidewalks?
There have been lots of studies to determine the effects of deicing chemicals on concrete and steel. A smaller number of studies have been done on the effects on plant materials, but the damage is more obvious. Overall, it’s a matter of picking our poison to determine the least damaging, yet most effective way to remove ice and snow, balancing safety with budgets and the environment.
We have been actively working on reducing the use of salt and sand since the late 1990s because of its negative environmental effects. We have been successful, for the most part, in eliminating sand and have reduced our salt use by 40 percent. We had a pretty rough winter last year and actually ran out of salt a couple of times. But when we looked at the data, our use was still showing a significant downward trend.

How does the university's attitude toward sustainability affect snow and ice removal?
The University of Michigan has environmental sustainability as one of its strategic goals. We have many initiatives and programs related to this. Salt and sand reduction is one of them and one of our most successful programs.
Our use of brine and the mixes we have developed are much more common now, but when we started this program, we had to build our own sprayers out of farm equipment. Now most of this can be found off the shelf, but we still strive to be on the cutting edge of this important task. Our efforts in the last couple of years include replacing equipment specific to snow removal only with equipment we can use during all four seasons.

What key issues should managers address when fine-tuning a snow and ice removal plan?
Training is probably the most important issue. As programs become more advanced, it is critical for the operators to understand systems and procedures. The margin for error increases as the response to a snow and ice event becomes more sophisticated.
The second issue is continuous research into best practices. We have a dedicated team of individuals that makes a point of staying up on the latest technologies, equipment, techniques and products. The industry has been in a state of change since departments have recognized the effects of these products on the environment. We have done a lot of experimentation with successes and failures to get to the level of service we have today. We will continue to experiment, looking for the next big breakthrough to continue that downward trend I mentioned earlier in sand and salt use.

The Office of University Landscape Architecture provides landscape design and installation services for your campus. How do you collaborate with that office when designing or renovating landscapes?
Fortunately, the campus landscape architect and his office is part of my department. I’m a landscape architect myself, though I only get to practice it vicariously through our campus landscape architect.
We are involved in all the major project design reviews, as well as leading our own projects on campus. Our landscape architect is well aware of our maintenance concerns and works to ensure our design standards are followed, minimizing the potential conflicts.
Where we need to improve is being more present during the actual construction process. Change orders and value engineering quickly can undo the work we did during the design phase, so we are developing a grounds commissioning process similar to what facilities maintenance and utilities has on the building systems. Being at the table when these decisions are made is critical.

posted:  10/7/2008