Storm watch

Weather systems aren’t a must-have when it comes to snow removal services, but they might be able to give you an edge.

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A weather system can be an aid when predicting the arrival of a storm or reporting official snowfall amounts to a client, but it is in no way a requirement in order to provide snow removal service. Two commercial snow contractors weigh in on their experiences using weather systems.

Selecting a system.

Beverly Companies has been using a weather system for the last eight or nine years and general manager Tom Marsan says it provides short-term forecasts and weather updates as they get close to possible storms.

“They put weather warnings out for us and kind of continue to give us updates through a storm,” he says. “Then after the storm they do provide us weather reports for that event.”

Beverly Companies is a commercial outdoor property maintenance company based in Markham, Illinois, that services healthcare buildings, office buildings and industrial properties.

Prior to using a weather system, Marsan monitored storms by watching the news, something he still does in conjunction with using a weather service.

“If there is any surprise storm or some weather not expected, they will call, email, text perhaps,” Marsan says. “They kind of reach out in multiple ways when something does happen.”

Jay Presutti, CEO of East Coast Industrial Services, says his use of weather systems has been the opposite. He used a weather system in the past and now monitors storms on his own.

“We’ve used a couple of different weather systems,” he says. “The problem I found with the systems is some property management companies will only accept certified snow totals.”

If a company doesn’t accept the levels offered by the service Presutti is using, there’s conflict.

Additionally, Presutti says he has noticed differences in the amounts of snowfall reported by different weather systems.

“When you’re getting paid by the inch after a certain amount of a threshold, it’s a huge problem for one weather service to say you had 70 inches of snow, and then another provider says you had 60 inches of snow. That could literally be the difference between thousands of dollars,” he says.

Another factor that influenced his decision to self-monitor storms was the cost of the service itself. It averaged almost $2,000 for the service for a season, depending on how many area or zip codes he was using. So he switched to self-monitoring about seven years ago.

“I found that I’m pretty accurate with monitoring it on Weather Underground and then comparing Weather Underground to AccuWeather and doing my own comparison through two or three different free services and laying out the totals and see which one’s the closest,” Presutti says.

He uses the free services in conjunction with watching the local news, and also uses a free local service run by two hobbyist meteorologists.

Forecasting the storm.

In terms of forecasting a storm, Presutti says he begins to seriously monitor a storm once it’s about three days out. Any sooner and the storm may not even happen.

“They’ll start talking – on a Monday – a Nor’easter the following Sunday, and a million and one things can happen between now and then. You get all worked up, and you try to get everybody on standby, and you go crazy, and you find out it ends up being nothing,” Presutti says. “I keep an eye on it, but I don’t really start honing in on it until three days out.”

Marsan says he starts to take note of any storm systems about one week out, but like Presutti, says a lot can change during that time. “I would say within three days is when we kind of are starting to think about planning to dispatch,” Marsan says.

Plan of action.

After a storm is determined to be serious, the next step is notifying crews.

“We have a messaging system that we always try to give (crews) a heads up a few days before,” Marsan says. “We have them set up with email and text. It’s nothing fancy – just based off of our communication lists and our best ways to communicate with the groups.”

This contact usually happens two to three days before a storm is projected to hit.

“Sometimes we don’t know exactly until maybe six hours before we plan. We want to give them at least six hours’ notice,” Marsan says. “If we can give them more, we will.”

At East Coast Industrial Services, Presutti says he usually notifies his team a day before the storm is projected to hit.

The company employs 38 during peak season, bringing in an annual revenue of approximately $2.5 million.

“They’re all watching the weather too, so a day out, we’ll get ahold of everybody,” Presutti says.

Inaccurate snowfall reports can lose thousands of dollars for companies charging by the inch.

Crews will be notified what time the storm is supposed to begin, the type of precipitation or amount of snowfall projected, the plan of action (such as salting or shoveling) and what time everyone will likely begin working, he says.

This is all done through phone call or group text.

No matter how a storm is monitored, the next step of action is preparing for the storm before it hits.

“If there’s a storm on a Friday, we’ll go out on Wednesday or Thursday and make sure all the equipment is fueled, make sure all our salt is ready to go, make sure all the machines start and there’s no issues with any of the machines running,” Presutti says. “We’ll get everything ready to go so that we’re not scrambling right at the start of the storm.”

Once a storm begins, crews are assigned to a location for their shift and stay there – this helps ensure safety and that every employee is accounted for.

At Beverly Companies, managers monitor sites, breaking down their market into five areas, Marsan says.

“We do spot check conditions and check properties when there’s anything in question. There’s always a chance that one area gets weather and maybe a few miles down the road they don’t,” he says.

During the summer, Beverly Companies employs 50 to 60 individuals. That number jumps to 200 in the winter and includes seasonal employees and some subcontractors.

The company’s annual revenue is usually between $10 and $12 million. Snow removal has been offered as a service for the last 19 years.

While Marsan uses a weather service, he also pays attention to the local news as a storm approaches.

“We have to be ready for anything. We’ve got to be prepared for the worst and know what to expect,” he says.

Weather systems, when accruate, can help contractors prepare for impending storms.
Photo courtesy of Beverly Companies
Documentation for clients.

Whether a weather system or self-monitoring is used, documentation of snowfall amounts is important for clients, and for contractors who want to cover their bases for internal record keeping and liability reasons.

Total inch snowfall documented by an outside agency can give clients an extra level of confidence in the numbers reported, Marsan says.

“You always have a few people that’ll question the conditions, but for the most part that gives us documentation of what the conditions were and how much snow we got and otherwise. It’s also our benchmark for our seasonal agreements that might have a cap on them,” he says. “You have ready information that we like to send with all our billing. If the customer does have questions they can look at those reports and after that call us and ask.”

Presutti says he mostly avoids contracts that are straight by the inch. Usually they are seasonal with a snowfall cap.

“Then, over that, we’ll usually go hourly and then so much per ton of salt spread, but most of the time, it’s usually hourly. Time and material is just the easy way to sum it up,” he says.

For any contracts that do require a specific snowfall total, Presutti says he will use the snow totals from his weather monitoring system.

If the client requires a specific weather service Presutti says he can contract with the company to obtain the certified snow total for a fee – usually $350 or $400.

Personal preference.

At the end of the season, the best weather system is whatever works for the individual contractor and their book of business, Presutti says.

“It’s just really contractor preference. Mine was I found that I was monitoring it and was being more accurate with the information I was giving to my people than (with a service),” he says.

For Marsan, the convenience of having a meteorologist on call can’t be beat.

“That’s been a big thing for us is just taking advantage of the opportunity to call up and talk to a meteorologist and see what they’re thinking and kind of get as much information as you can,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.

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