Is there any innovation in the snow removal world?

Right now, snow is falling from the Rocky Mountains to the Northern Plains; northern Minnesota has up to 26 inches, and metro Denver could have 15 by tonight. I was walking around the Minneapolis area earlier today — fell on my ass probably three times — and noticed that, despite rapid technological innovations in almost every facet of our life (including potential plans for a hyperloop between LA and San Francisco), we essentially use the same approaches to moving or getting rid of snow that we did six decades ago: plows, trucks with front plows, shovels, etc. This is going to be a tough winter in terms of snow for a large swath of the country, so … is there anything new we can be doing?

First off, there’s good news: there is an annual Snow and Ice Symposium, sponsored by the Snow and Ice Management Association. (The 2014 edition is in June, in Columbus, Ohio.) There’s also a Snow Business Magazine. Snow and ice removal is a $2 billion industry annually; obviously that fluctuates depending on the year. That last link provides some financial how-to for the snow removal industry, including setting snow level points (i.e. 60 inches) and if the goal isn’t hit, customers on the 60-inch contract get 50 percent off. Salt is another major issue:

The cost of salt is high and, more importantly, the ability to get it is low. Industry experts point towards several solutions for the salt shortage, including inventory management adjustments and investing in salt alternatives. The price of salt  is leveling the snow and ice removal industry playing field –smaller businesses are now just as capable of getting salt as the larger removers. They key in this competitive climate is to differentiate from the competition by offering customers something they really want: guaranteed prices, no matter what the winter has in store.

One of the big issues in the snow removal industry appears to be that condos and homeowner association plowing doesn’t secure the plowers (the removers) any money. The attitude is, “leave that to the little guys” (i.e. the management association, or a smaller contractor). There’s a Kage Innovation for plowing condo/home lots that makes it quick and relatively effective for a bigger outfit to rattle off a couple of dozen lots in a day, thus helping the bottom line:

In terms of broader innovations available to individuals or families, this is probably your best read. Here’s a demo and some more explanation on the i-Shovel, which seems really cool:

Advanced metrics haven’t made much of a play in snow removal that I can find — the video embedded at the top talks about vehicle location technology, which can allow a city to know if a certain street has been addressed (and how many passes have been made at the street), since a good portion of snow-related complaints come back to one area thinking they’re being ignored while another area is getting fully plowed (that sounded oddly sexual, but wasn’t intended as such). This is an article about benchmarking in the snow removal industry, which ties in data; this is a good history of how Americans have dealt with snow removal over the last century.

In 2009, the U.S. started moving away from complete reliance on road salt — 15 million tons of road salt are used in America annually — because of environmental concerns. The city of Syracuse (upstate NY; lot of snow) started using brine, or a mixture of road salt and water. It’s much cheaper and leaves behind less salt residue. Milwaukee uses cheese brine:

This is a great read on how different cities approach the idea of snow removal; in North America, it appears that Montreal takes one of the more proactive roles in clearing snow, actually carting away the snow instead of pushing it to the side or into a large hill. Moscow may be one of the more effective cities in the world at snow removal as well, but there, the technology they’ve adopted conflicts with the conveniences of modern life:

“Modern machines can do 10 things at once: collect the snow, sweep, spray or sprinkle agents, take note of potholes for future repairs, check the temperature of the asphalt, etc. Snow-removal combines drive along the roads in a staggered formation, three or four abreast, so as to clear all the lanes at the same time. On the one hand, this sort of snow removal is effective. On the other, motorists complain that it makes a bad traffic situation even worse, since those snow-removal machines can only go so fast (10 to 15 miles an hour) and the cars pile up behind them.”

In Europe, the trends mirror those in North America; a lot of it comes back to judicious use of salt, for both financial and environmental reasons. (By the way, I just realized I never linked the base Wiki for ‘snow removal,’ so here that is.)

(A train as a snow plow would classify as an innovation.)

Solar-powered ‘smart roads’ could eventually make plowing equipment obsolete, and unique approaches are available even in small-to-medium-sized cities. According to this article in The Atlantic Cities, the “last major technological innovation” in snow removal came in 1959 with mapping from space. The article was written in January 2012, and it appears we’ve seen a few innovations since then. Jeez, solar-powered smart roads?

Lest you think robots haven’t yet entered this world, here’s a 3 million+ view count video on just that:

Not everyone lives in Arizona, California, or Florida; a good portion of America, and a major portion of the world, deals with snow. It’s interesting that in the centuries it’s been coming down, we haven’t advanced that far beyond the plow and the road salt, but it’s further than you might think (robots, solar-powered roads, i-Shovels, Honda power blowers that can process 830 tons, analytic mapping, etc.) And now, just because it’s one of my favorite episodes, ever, of one of my favorite shows, ever:

Ted Bauer