OMG! SNOW in February in Wisconsin!

It's SNOW-magedden!  It's the SNOW-pocalypse!

There's SNOW in February in Wisconsin!  Have you ever heard of such a thing?! 

Well, of course you have.  It's not The End of the World.  It's not global warming.  It's not even the Obama administration.  It's snow.  We've all lived though nasty storms before and will again.  Make some hot cocoa and relax.

I thought I'd run a slightly updated entry from December 24, 2008 on a favorite topic.  It's still accurate.  After snow, snow is snow and has been for a long time.

I spent a couple hours the morning of December 24 on a ride along on a city snowplow.  I learned a lot.

First, here are a  few photos of plow trucks.  I rode in the one on the right.  It's the same truck you see in the summer hauling dirt, picking up brush, etc.  There are two plow blades, one on front to clear the street and one on the right to push everything to the side.  All city trucks are orange, are staffed by full time city employees and are paid for with your city property taxes. 

County highway trucks are yellow, are staffed by county employees, clear only state and county highways (Pilgrim Road, North Avenue, Barker Road, Capitol Drive, etc.) and are paid for with your county property taxes.  The county is also responsible for most repairs on their highways, including potholes and striping.


Modern plow trucks have a lot of technology to help them out.  The transmission is (mostly) automatic.  The console in the center controls the plow blades and the calcium chloride spray.  The picture on the right shows you what plow operators drive to get to work.


The trucks carry a salt (sodium chloride)/sand mixture in the back. The salt is the same stuff as at the dinner table, though it's not food grade.  It is spread from the back of the truck at intersections and lowers the freezing point of water (snow), preventing ice buildup.  The sand provides friction, just like sandpaper, and is useful at all temperatures. Since the truck is rear wheel drive, the weight over the tires increases traction which is important when pushing snow on an icy street.  The ratio between the two changes with road conditions and materials availability.  The front end loader may also be used to clear snow, especially in city owned parking lots.

The sand becomes a problem in the spring since it's still on the road and is swept up by the city crew.  It's treated almost as toxic waste since it has a lot of salt and junk from the road in it and must be disposed of in a special way, not just used as fill dirt.  Rain will wash the leftover sand into the storm sewers and ultimately streams, clogging them, making them cloudy and aggravating flooding.

By Te way, did you see the story in mid-December about the city of Ankeny, Iowa using discarded food grade garlic salt on their roads?

"Facing Ice, Snow, Iowa Town Looks To ... Garlic Salt" - National Public Radio


The photo on the left shows a truck with a calcium chloride solution tank on the back.  It's the same idea as sodium chloride crystals but it works at lower temperatures and is sprayed when the driver presses a button.  The large orange box under the tank has an augur like the one on a snowblower that pulls the salt/sand mixture out of the truck and directs it to the wheel on the rear left corner.  The photo on the right shows the bottom of the augur box and the salt wheel.


The city is now divided into 20 plow routes, each assigned a plow truck.  On average, each route takes 4 to 5 hours, but this could be much more for rapidly falling or very wet, heavy snow.  When it's snowing more than an inch an hour, the trucks can't keep up.  Also, main arterials roads may be plowed several times for each pass on a low traffic neighborhood street.

Snow plows do get stuck and have to be towed out.  During my ride we went through a street with a very high snow drift when the truck was low on sand and the truck nearly got stuck.  Trucks also break down and it takes time to make a repair.  In some cases, the remaining trucks have to take over that route, lengthening the plow time for everyone.  Plow drivers get sick, go on vacation, etc. and a reserve driver from another department (water, sewer, parks, etc.) has to be brought in.  All the drivers belong to a union and are paid overtime when beyond their normal working hours.

In the last few years there have been retirements from the city crew and the positions were changed to police patrol positions.  The routes were rearranged so that there are now 20 routes instead of 21.  The one old route was divided among several other remaining routes, lengthening the plow route completion time for each of those routes. Thus, a neighborhood that had been plowed early on the old route might now be plowed late on the new route.  Police staffing improved but snow plowing got slower.  The alternative would be fewer officers or filling the street crew jobs and raising taxes for new police positions.  Which would you prefer?

There are a few plowing myths:

  • The drivers intentionally dump snow into a "snow bump" at the end of driveways,  just to be mean. 

The two plow blades move the snow to the right of the truck, which is the right edge of the road.  Driveways empty onto the same edge of the road.  Where else can the snow go?

However, there is a device called a "snow gate" that can help control the snowbank.  The following link and video shows a snowplow and a road grader with this device.  They cost $6,000 - $10,000 depending on size, etc. 

  • City officials get their streets plowed first.  You can also move up in the list if you make a donation to the mayor's campaign.  

 The city streets are broken into 20 routes. Drivers are not told to plow certain houses first.  They are instructed to drive efficiently and give priority to main streets.  For example, making right turns as often as possible means they don't have to back up, make U turns, etc. and that gets them through the route faster.  If you happen to live in the first house on the right in a subdivision, the road by your house will be plowed first.  Claiming it's a special favor or perk of power is a delusional fantasy by someone who probably complains about having to shovel snow to get a car out to go to the gym for a much needed body shaping workout.

  • When a service plows my driveway or I snow blow it, I can just push the snow into the street and the city trucks will push it out of the way.

Moving the snow from your property, whether by yourself or a plowing service, into the street is a violation of city ordinance 12.08.010.  I believe the fine is $200 per offense.  The intent is that snow on the streets is unsafe and residents should not intentionally create hazards by driving a plow across the street, dumping snow into an otherwise cleared street, clogging their neighbor's driveway or storm drainage inlet with more snow, etc.

Parking your car on an unplowed street, thus obstructing plowing, is a violation of ordinance 10.08.120.  The car may be towed and impounded by the police and subject to a fine of (I believe) $50 per offense.

For more information, see:

Wisconsin Department of Transportation rule TRANS 277 - Road Salt Storage

Using Salt and Sand for Winter Road Maintenance

Wisconsin Transportation Information Center LTAP - Crossroads, "Winter roads: juggling salt supplies and alternatives",  Winter 2009, 12 page PDF file.

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