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Features - 2013 Snow and Ice Report

In-cab controls have come a long way in helping snow operators do their jobs more efficiently and profitably. But the industry is still pining for more.

October 4, 2013
Jason Stahl

Mike Clark, manager at the Acres Group in Wauconda, Ill., admits that in-cab controls have come a long way compared to 20 years ago. He remembers when everything was manual, versus today when everything is electronic and the cab is more user-friendly. Still, his company is still searching for the ultimate system, especially when it comes to salt distribution.

“I don’t think the technology is there yet,” Clark says. “You get bits and pieces of what you want, but you don’t find one that has everything. We’re at the point where we might customize it ourselves. We’re not technology savvy, but we’re going to figure something out.”

Just the right amount. Since salt is such a huge expense, Clark is looking for a system that can have the specifics of a job site programmed into it so that it knows how much salt is supposed to be applied there and only allows that amount to come out. The system would dictate the gear for the driver and how many RPMs the truck should be at, setting up the ideal auger and spinner speed for that site. Right now, the driver controls how much salt goes down, which can be an issue.

“They like to do their job so well that they usually put too much down,” Clark says. “You can bid the job for two tons, but in all essence, they do the job until it’s melted off and it’s a big headache. They might do an extra ton to finish up, and all of a sudden you do the site 40 times and you’re 40 tons of salt over. “Now you have 45 trucks that are all a quarter to a half ton more than what you bid at. It adds up really quick.”

The other issue Clark sees is not all trucks’ hydraulics run the same. Thus, one would have to pretest each truck to calibrate the system to it. To his knowledge, there is no system on the market that can control the auger, spinner and RPMs.

“To me, that would be the perfect one because then we could tell the drivers to run 125 RPM in second or third gear, and they could do the job exactly how we bid it,” he says.

“Obviously, you would have to calibrate it also based on how much snow you’re trying to melt. But that would be the perfect system.”

Clark says he has tried four or five models so far. In the last few years, he has gravitated toward more electronic models. When he settles on one particular kind, he plans on standardizing it across all his trucks, but due to the cost, that standardization may take several years.

Make it easy. For Brian Grant, fleet manager of Case Snow Management in Attleboro Falls, Mass., in-cab controls come down to operator comfort, whether it’s operating the plow or salt spreader. “Ease of use is our biggest concern,” Grant says. “We don’t want to create another barrier for our operators. We want it to be something intuitive and simple where they can just hop in and figure it out pretty quickly.”

His company uses handheld controls, which is the new standard, versus the old joystick. Even though some “old-timers” prefer the joystick, he said his operators have adjusted well.

“In the beginning, it might be age that makes the difference on how guys accept the new technology, but once they use the new push button with handheld control, they’re normally right on board with it,” Grant says. “The older operators, whether it be a piece of equipment or a pickup truck, are hard to break, but they do end up breaking.

“We uniform everything on every truck. It’s exactly the same setup, and we’ve never gotten a single complaint from any of our drivers. They might complain going in, but once they use it, they’re immediately swayed.”

Case follows a formalized training process for the controls, including classroom and in-the-field instruction. They don’t do a lot of “dry runs,” but drivers are invited to practice in parking lots and training areas to familiarize themselves with the technology.

“Most of our guys have some experience, but still we don’t just throw them in the truck and say, ‘See ya!’” Grant says. “We not only teach them strategy but also how the equipment works.”

Grant leaves the installation of the controls up to the experts, typically a dealer. The wiring harnesses can be a little complicated, so he feels it’s best to let the guys who deal with them all the time do the work. Maintenance is another matter, though.

“When you get into where the sander or plow connects to the wiring harness, you’re talking about open connections, so we have to focus on making sure our guys grease them and cover them when they’re driving down the road,” he says.

“Because as soon as salt gets in there – and it will – it will start corroding. The best thing is to grease them really well, connect them and leave them hooked up all winter if you can.”


Photos courtesy of Case Snow Management and Western Plows

The revolution of evolution

All around us, technology seems to be moving at the speed of light. Smartphones, vehicle telematics, computers, TVs, you name it. It seems competition, the free marketplace and consumer appetite have resulted in more technological advances the last five years than in the previous 20.

While technology in the snow industry may not have moved that fast, operators are seeing a renewed dedication to applying some of this new technology to the service of managing ice and snow.

“It’s exciting for our industry to finally get some attention and see some innovation because, for so many years, it has just been ignored,” says Brian Grant, fleet manager of Case Snow Management in Attleboro Falls, Mass. “Now, we have some great vendors in the marketplace who are doing some serious innovation and coming out with entirely new plow types that none of us even thought of before. They’re built bigger, tougher, better and faster and allow us to go out and keep people safe, improve our efficiency, pass some cost savings on to our clients and increase our profits as well. The investments we’ve made in technology have paid off for us in many different ways.”

Grant says that if his company wanted a joystick for their in-cab controls, they would have to special order it because it’s no longer the standard. It’s being phased out by manufacturers in favor of handheld electronic controls.

“We work very closely with several manufacturers, and they do their due diligence, tremendous amounts of research and come out with equipment that’s most effective and reliable,” he says. “Having rolled that out, we kind of follow their wisdom, and it turns out they’ve been fantastic partners for us.”

While Mike Clark, manager at the Acres Group in Wauconda, Ill., agrees that snow technology has taken huge leaps, he feels there is still some room to improve and innovate, especially in the private sector.

“The municipalities probably have the perfect systems that work well for them because they’re doing ‘lane miles,’” he says. “But in the private market, we’re doing parking lots, which are a whole different deal. In city trucks, they can just push a button and go. The private businesses aren’t that easy, but it’s getting there.”