By Janie Franz
You?re finishing up fall landscape maintenance and feeling that first chill in the air, heralding winter. You look over at your crew chief, who is supervising the fall mulching. He?s been with you for ten years, and you grimace at the thought of having to lay him off again, along with the rest of the crew, for yet another winter. You wonder if they?ll come back next spring, reliable as the first crocuses, or if you?ll have to train a whole new bunch. You?re still ruminating about it when you pull into your garage at the end of the day and spy your snowblower parked in a dark corner. Hmmm . . .
Many landscape contractors struggle with what to do with their crews and their own dwindling wallets come winter. John Allin of Allin Companies in Eric, Pennsylvania, found a very profitable solution. He does snow removal to the tune of $12 million a year, serving 14 states. He moves between 150 to 300" of snow a year in Erie alone, raking in a cool million for his troubles. More modestly, Joe Leopard of Joe?s Landscaping, Inc., in Fairborn, Ohio, turned to snow removal about eight years ago because, he says, ?I like to eat in the wintertime.? He keeps 10 to 20 people working in the winter, taking in $200,000 a year.
But snow and ice removal isn?t about profit alone. Ed Sinnott, CEO and owner of Clearwater Landscaping in Sun Valley, Idaho, says that he does snow removal and ice clearing because it protects many of the landscape installations he currently maintains. Nothing can elevate the blood pressure of a customer or a landscape contractor more than to see scraped and broken pavers, destroyed edging, or worse, damaged shrubs and trees after the first thaw, all due to snow removal mishaps.
Landscape-contractors-turned-snow-specialists like Sinott find ways to avoid, or at least minimize, snow removal damage. For example, using a snowblower or dragging a brush over decorative pavers can reduce scarring and breakage while efficiently clearing snow. That?s why contractors like Paul Richey of PR?s Lawn Care in La Porte, Indiana, do full-service maintenance, which includes snow removal, in yearly contracts for their clients.
There?s probably a snow removal job for every size business. Leopard?s customers, for instance, are mostly commercial: office complexes, shopping centers, hotels and motels. He does maintain some municipal parking lots such as the post office in Fairborn. Leopard?s company plows and spreads salt or calcium chloride. His crews don?t use sand; he says, ?That leads to more costs when the season is over due to cleanup. And salt works efficiently in the moderate temperatures of Ohio?s winters. Calcium chloride is used on sidewalks because it doesn?t scar as much.?
Richey also clears parking lots and loading docks for large commercial customers, as well as sidewalks for local hospitals. Located near Lake Michigan and about 40 miles east of Chicago, La Porte, Indiana, gets a lot of snow and a lot of wind, which causes drifts. Richey?s challenges come from finding ways to clear huge drifts of snow from large and small spaces. He chooses equipment depending on ?how many nooks and crannies there are.?
One of his bigger challenges was determining how to maintain two miles of sidewalk laid with brick pavers and studded with 132 planters. Because of all of the small spaces and the need for efficiency, and since he knew his crews would be out several times during the winter to clear the walks, he struggled to find ways to solve the problem. He used a combination of skid-steers with V-blades attached, zero-turn mowers with little blades, and chemicals. Richey even went to Denver for a landscape show to find out about liquid de-icers.
Allin, on the other hand, doesn?t worry too much about ice in Erie, Pennsylvania, but he does for other states his crews serve. For example, he says, customers in Columbus, Ohio, will have about fifteen salting events during the winter, but plow two or three times. In Erie, they?ll plow forty times and have only twenty ice and snow events. Allin?s customers are all commercial retail establishments like shopping centers which require a higher level of service. Handling 367" of snow last year in Erie, Allin says ?We?re prepared to move a lot of snow. Parking lots here are designed with snow dump areas so we don?t have to haul it.?
Sinnott?s crews in Idaho don?t usually deal with salt products in the ski area towns of Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey, and Bellevue, but they are prepared for heavy snows and high altitude working conditions. At 6,000 feet, his crews plow and spread sand from mid-November to late March or early April, clearing commercial and residential parking lots, driveways, private roadways, and sidewalks. Unlike Allin and his crews, Sinnott?s challenges are dealing with snowstorm after snowstorm, and finding places to put 100" of snow a season. ?We run out of places to store it [snow].? When the storage areas are piled too high, his crews have to haul it out.
So, what do these contractors use to move all of that snow, dig into drifts, and fit around small, tight areas? First of all, these guys know snow and ice in their regions just as well as they know rainfall amounts, soil conditions, and quirks in their individual growing seasons. They suit their equipment to the size of the job, the type of snow that they deal with (wet or grainy or icy slush), and what they already have in their fleet garages.
Equipment ranges from 30-foot snowplows to walk-behind snowblowers and shovels.
Most contractors use straight blade or V-blade plows fitted to the front ends of their pickups or skid-steers. It?s just common sense to put plows onto your existing pickup fleet, because many of the commercial jobs and nearly all of the residential ones can be done with a five-foot or six-foot blade.
Manufacturers are making more plows that can easily fit nearly every American-made or foreign truck. D. Dwayne Shaufler, vice president of sales and marketing for Sno-Way International, in Wisconsin, sells plows and spreaders mainly to landscape contractors, not only here in the United States but in other parts of the world. His products are built to attach to lightweight trucks like the half-ton Ford Ranger or Dodge Dakota. For example, Ford F10 and F15 series trucks have been equipped with plows used to clear pathways in parks in Wisconsin. Straight blades push the snow, letting you pile it in storage areas. They?re great for driveways, parking lots, streets, and apartment complexes. They come in sizes from five feet to twenty-four feet.
The V-blade is the most popular choice for moving a lot of snow, since it can tackle heavy wet snow or lots of grainy stuff. You can clear a path quickly and efficiently. V-shaped plows are most often seen on big highway plows that clear municipal streets or interstates. These are great for areas that need fast removal, where the snow can be just pushed aside into ditches or holding areas. Many streets in heavy snow areas are built with a parking lane wider on each side of the street so that cities can pile up snow quickly as they plow, freeing city streets for traffic faster.
The BOSS V-blade and Sno Way?s Lobo plow are hinged in the middle so that they can be inverted to resemble a V-shaped scoop. This allows you to direct the snow into a holding space as you clear the area. This is great for big jobs, moving snow in parking lots, apartment complexes, and some residential driveways. According to Rick Robitaille, marketing director for BOSS snowplows, the V-blade can cut working time by 25 to 30 percent. V-blades can also be positioned as a straight plow, making them versatile and able to fit almost any snow condition.
Shaufler says ?Contractors don?t have to have a huge fleet. The seven-foot, eight-foot, and nine-foot plow comprise a large portion of the market.? And you can fit them onto your existing trucks and skid-steers.
Some contractors like the back plow by Snowman Snowplows because you can back into a driveway or loading dock and not have to turn around or back into the street. The plow is constructed so that you can lift it like a backhoe and scoop out the drift close to the building. Sno Way has also developed a polymer cutting edge on its Suzuki Samurai units instead of steel. ?It won?t damage ornamental concrete, and the curb guards that fit on the blade keep it away from decorative edging,? Shaufler says.
Sno Way?s Boomer Sweeper attaches to the front of the truck and can handle snow as well as standing water, stone, gravel, and other landscape materials. Grotech?s Broomer Power Angle Broom attaches to the back of a truck as an independent unit, or can be attached to Snowman Snowplow?s lightweight Sport/Utility Power Angle plow.
Snowblowers range from the small walk-behind machines that many homeowners have to large six-foot wide blowing units that attach to front-end loaders. Sinnott finds the Volvo 75 horsepower snowblower to be very effective in blowing paver driveways.
Salt and sand spreaders can be fitted to truck tailgates. Sno Way offers a number of small spreaders. The V-box spreader spout is five feet to nine feet wide and ?puts 1/4 to 1/3 of a yard of sand right where you want it,? Shaufler says. The Snowman Snowplow also has a heavy-duty commercial spreader that can be attached to full size 3/4-ton and one-ton 4-wheel drive vehicles.
The best plan to attack winter snow is to use a variety of snow solutions to meet whatever comes your way.
Tips for Contractors
So, you?ve got your interest peaked about doing snow and ice removal. Can you really make it work? First, your initial capital outlay is minimal since you already have the labor and the fleet. All you need to do is buy a snowplow and/or a spreader. And boom, you?re in business!
If you?re thinking about raking in easy money during the winter with few headaches, though, Sinott advises you to reconsider. ?Take your profit and go to Hawaii instead.? Snow removal is tough on equipment and on crews. Be realistic, he advises. Know that your crew will be called out at 2 a.m. and on holidays.
Snow removal is an expensive tax on equipment and human beings. Make sure you charge enough to make it worth your time and overhead.?
Allin, who is also board president of the Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA), tells landscape contractors who?d like to pick up extra profits in the winter to ?treat snow as a profit center. Price it properly. Your best margin is to price it per occurrence.?
In years with few snowstorms and little snow removal, Richey builds a safety net into his profit margin. He bills his customers for year-round service, heavy snow or not. Year-round contracts are one way to keep your business afloat, even in a year of few snowstorms or stiff equipment repairs.
Finally, Russ Kimball, owner of Kimball Property Maintenance in Salt Lake City, Utah, tells would-be snow specialists, ?Make sure you know what you?re doing. Don?t over-schedule and make sure you are covered by insurance.? He also suggests jobbing out contracts to subcontractors. That way you can take care of all of your customers? needs and not have to carry the total burden of equipment maintenance. ?You can?t buy enough equipment to take care of all of the customers out there. Let the subcontractors share the load.?
As you face the winter ahead, this year you might be looking at it differently, realizing that snowfall doesn?t have to mean profit fall. Offering snow removal services can put dollars in the bank at an otherwise bleak time of year.