Waite Park man shares his experiences clearing snow for 22 years in St. Cloud
By Bill Vossler
One time Mitch was sitting in his stopped snowplow truck on an icy street, when the vehicle started to skid.
“The road had a crown,” the 66-year-old Waite Park man said. “A truck loaded with salt and sand weighs 14 tons, and when it breaks traction and starts to slide, nothing good is going to happen. Nothing you can do about it, either. But I was lucky as I only slid into the curbing at the side of the road, and stopped.”
After ice storms in certain hilly St. Cloud areas, Mitch had to first lay sand product through the entire development--driving in reverse--to provide enough traction. When you do that you really have to use your mirrors, until you got back where you star
ted, and can plow the snow.”
That was only one of several dangers in snowplowing.
Mitch transferred to snowplowing even though he was initially paid less, but had more opportunities for advancement. In his new job he needed training. “I attended a course at the Minnesota Driving Center for classroom and behind-the-wheel training, defensive driving, and learning about vision, body position, and reaction times.”
If a driver isn’t sitting in the seat properly, he won‘t look into the mirrors at the correct angle. “Maintaining proper positioning is better for your body, and also maintains your path of vision.”
Building a Snowplow
Snowplows are not simply trucks with plows attached, but are specially constructed, Mitch said.
“A truck frame and cab are ordered, and then equipped with a front plow, plow wing, and a sander. The box is added at another facility, and controls in the cab are added at yet another facility, or sometimes by technicians on site. Nowadays ,much more efficient diesel motors are added, with turbos to provide needed power to move wet snow, for example.”
New technology tells the driver so much, Mitch said. “It indicates the surface temperature, outdoor air temperature, how much sand and salt is used per lane mile. Years ago you pulled a lever attached to a steel cable. Now just push a button or tip a joystick. The control is completely different.”
Snowplows now have opticons, the same devices police use to control intersections. “With the opticon we can get enough snowplow vehicles side by side so traffic doesn’t get in the way. We can stay close together, trip the signal light, and keep moving to get the job done, so it’s faster, more efficient, out of the way of the public, and the treated road is a safer road to travel on.”
The Plow Itself
The plow frame stays on the truck the year round, Mitch said. “Before winter, the plow and wing are re-attached. Then you make sure the hydraulic hoses are hooked up, and the plow goes up and down and left and right.”
“Part of pre-operation is doing basic things like cleaning windows, checking that the electrical system is working, including the strobe signal and tail lights, along with tires and lug nuts. A complete inspection of the vehicle is required before you take it out.”
Of course the box has to be filled with a product to help vehicle traction on the roads. “Then you’re ready to go.”
Mitch added that generally the city of St. Cloud avoids using the salt and sand mix, for a variety of reasons, including pollution, plus it creates more work in the spring when it has to be swept up. “Today it‘s a completely different scenario for road treatments in winter. Newer technology includes pre-treating with salt brine, salt treated with calcium or magnesium chloride and even organic by-products.”
Mitch said he was normally assigned the same truck and route. “So I knew where the bad and busiest spots were, and where the sand mix had to be laid down. I got them first, then worked the outside edges little by little. First I took care of the arterial roads, then secondary ones, and finally residential roads. I’d start on the arterial road in the center of town, plow and put down product to the outer edge of town, which would accommodate the emergency services. The town has a certain amount of lane miles, a large area that has to be covered as safely and quickly as possible.”
With all the work scraping the roads, plows would wear down, Mitch said. “Years ago we had to replace three or four standard steel cutting edges during a season.” Plus, while out plowing, Mitch had to stop to check the steel cutting edge to make sure it wasn’t getting too low, which could damage the equipment. “If it was low you had to go back and get the cutting edge replaced, which set you back in your route time. If everything went well and you didn‘t have to wait for someone else, it took a half hour to 45 minutes to replace the edges. Lost time.”
So the cutting edge was changed to carbide, using two carbide edges with a thick piece of rubber between them. “The whole thing wears more evenly, so you don’t have to change it so soon. It can last a year, or longer. With carbide, you spend more initially, but save more in the long run.”
Mitch said breakdowns are common, because the road surface changes with cold temperatures and freezing and thawing, and you might hit things covered with snow. “But the biggest problem is blown hydraulic lines. With the lost hydraulic oil, you can’t control any of your hydraulic equipment.”
That means extra help is needed to lift the plow and chain it up, or fold the wing up into travel position so the vehicle can be moved, and taken in to be repaired. Sometimes, Mitch said, you need a front end loader to pick up a piece of broken equipment. “Even with proper upkeep, that can happen.”
Besides sliding with a heavily-loaded truck, snowplowing presents other dangers. “Often it’s night work,” Mitch said, “but it depends on when the storm hits and conditions need to be addressed, but the bulk of work is done at night, because there‘s less traffic. But sometimes you have to plow at night and at day.”
Tiredness is a major problem, because plowing can require working for twelve hours straight, Mitch said. “That‘s when you get very, very tired.”
Despite being off for eight hours after his shift, Mitch said it took a while to decompress. “It‘s difficult to get more than a couple of hours rest during those eight before you have to go back out. That little break in time doesn’t do much good for you. Sleep deprivation is a huge problem.”
Another danger is the snow. “The weather of course is the biggest problem, snowing or blowing so hard that it affects your vision. Often there isn’t enough heat on the windshield to prevent ice from building up on the wipers, so they stop cleaning properly. Many times I had to stop and get out and clean the wiper blades off. That works for a while, but then you have to do it again and again.”
Traffic is always a danger, Mitch said. “One thing that hasn’t been promoted enough is telling vehicles to stay back. A good rule of thumb is if you can’t see the mirror on the driver’s door, the driver can’t see you. That’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Sometimes cars in residential areas are parked on both sides of the street so the snowplow can’t get through. “Then you have to back up and go somewhere else. Most of the time the problem areas were around the college, and wherever you have several apartment buildings with limited parking, so residents spill over to streets and park there. That can be a problem too.”
He added that it’s better since the odd-even parking has been implemented.
What Mitch enjoyed most, he said, was the variety of the job. “A change of pace is good once in a while. You did different things depending on the season.”
“Winter was frustrating with working oddball hours at night. The phone could ring any time of day, many times at midnight or one AM. For us a snow event lasted three days, plowing one day, secondary plowing the second day, and hauling snow the third day to get everything cleaned up. Then revert to the normal eight-hour day shift. But when another storm hit, I just started over.”
“Storms seemed to come in waves. You’d get two or four inches, then a break, and then another four inches, and another break, and then another two to five or something like that. You‘d end up with a foot of snow in long run, but it didn’t come all at one time. Spread out like that the whole event is longer and takes longer to deal with. Most of time I tried to keep around twelve steady hours of work, but due to the nature of the storm and current conditions, it could take longer to make sure the roads were made safe, cleaned and passable. This also meant your spouse had to deal with everything at home by herself on top of everything she was already doing beside her full time job.”
Mitch, now retired, doesn’t miss parts of his former job. “I got a lot of nasty sign language from people, some people threw shovels at me, and didn’t appreciate what we were doing. The secretaries had to take a lot of angry calls. On the other hand a few people did appreciate our efforts, recognizing that when they got up in the morning, the roads were clean and passable and safer for them. When I came home after twelve to 14 hours of working, snow was piled across my driveway. That’s how the snowplow works. Everybody gets their share, and we all have to figure out how to deal with it.”
“When battling the elements, you learn quickly that the odds
are against you,” Mitch said.