What to look for with in-cab controls

Finding the right fit for your needs.

© shaunl | iStockphoto

When the snow flies, your equipment has to be up to the task. You’ll spend long hours in the dark and cold pushing snow under the worst possible conditions. What you don’t need is equipment that’s complicated or that requires too many steps to get the job done. “I like simplicity when it comes to features and moving parts,” says Steven A. Christy, president of LEI Corporation in the Greater Boston, Wooster, Providence and Hartford area. “The more complexity, the more that can break.”

But with technology constantly being updated, it’s also important to assess what’s available in the market and figure out if your fleet needs updating. “It’s helpful to know what new equipment and products are out there so you can clean faster and more efficiently,” says Don Nelson, president of Glacier Snow Management in Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. “Talk to a lot of people in the industry, as well as the vendors to figure out what will work for you. Then you have to choose based on serviceability and reliability.”

Here’s what else to consider when deciding what in-cab equipment fits your company’s needs:
1. Ease of use.

One of the most important issues for any snow removal operation is how intuitive the controls are. Your eyes need to be on the road, not fiddling with the controls. “I’ve used systems where you have to go through too many prompts to get to what you need, such as gallons used,” Nelson says. “We use salters now that have a small touchscreen that tells you the exact number of pounds per lane mile we’re putting down while we’re rolling. These types of digital controls allow you to see rate and amounts at a glance. It’s simple and accurate, which is important because I need to log what I’m using for each job.”

2. Joystick versus button-type controller.

Joysticks, which typically are mounted to the dash or console, and button-types, which are handheld but attached by a cord and connector, are the most common configurations. Other variations include the pistol grip controller or a thumb-controlled joystick. All controllers are similar in terms of function, though they vary a bit in size. It typically comes down to personal preference and, quite honestly, what your chosen plow system comes with, Nelson says.

There’s no consensus on what’s best, and you’ll find fans for every configuration. “The button-types don’t feel intuitive to me,” says Stanley Genadek, who posts instructional landscape videos through the Dirt Monkey University YouTube channel and is president of Genadek Landscaping and Excavation in the Greater Twin Cities, Minnesota area. “Also, the buttons may be too close together and too small. It can be tough to hit the right one if you’re wearing heavy winter gloves.”

On the other hand, some operators like button controllers because one button has multiple functions that can create different configurations, Christy says. “The buttons are straightforward, and you’ve got a lot of flexibility and options whether you need to push or contain snow.”

While you can upgrade to a different controller if you don’t like the original factory equipment, that usually runs a few hundred dollars or more per unit, which can get pricey fast. That’s why it’s always good idea to put your hands on each type before buying. You may find one that feels better or more comfortable to you than another, for whatever reason.

3. Wireless technology.

With the advent of wireless technology, some operators find that dumping the cord, which can get in the way when you’re getting in and out of the truck, is convenient. You’re also not bumping into a mounted controller, which sometimes isn’t located in the best spot in-cab. Wireless controllers require no dash wires or drilling, and some are designed to control both the plow and other equipment such as a tailgate spreader. Most users say connectivity hasn’t been an issue.

But just like the TV remote at home, the transmitter may have a tendency to do a disappearing act. “Wireless is definitely an option, but it can be easy to lose track of those controllers,” Genadek says. Most are about the size of a key fob or slightly larger than a credit card, so they can slip out of the truck or get taken home in the last operator’s coat pocket by mistake.

Your eyes need to be on the road, not fiddling with the controls.
4. Safety features.

Some controllers allow you to lock out the system, disabling the plow to prevent unauthorized use. Other features that make it easier to use the controllers include backlit controls for operation in dark conditions, status LEDs so you know what’s active, and automatic shutoff if not engaged for a period of time.

5. Universal control options.

Some manufacturers now offer universal controllers which fit any plow in their lineup of offerings. This enhances fleet flexibility since you won’t have to keep switching out specific controllers to individual plows.

6. Reliability.

Reading or watching online product reviews, talking to others in the industry, and picking the vendors’ brains is helpful for learning about product reliability. But there are no guarantees. “After more than 30 years in snow removal, I’ve learned there’s good and bad in every brand,” Genadek says. “I always say you need to pick the shop that will service you the fastest, and buy your equipment from them. Every single piece of equipment is going to break, probably at midnight on a Friday night. Will your shop get you back up and running by Saturday morning?

The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.

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