Battling Ice, Snow And The Ocean Effect

By Paul Fournier | September 28, 2010

The same river that provided passage for the first settler into Hanover, MA, 360 years ago to this day still bears snowstorms stalled out on the Atlantic right into the South Shore community.

According to Curt MacLean, deputy superintendent of the Hanover Department of Public Works, the North River serves as an ideal corridor for that white stuff swirling about Massachusetts Bay less than 10 miles from Hanover.

"We get what we call the Ocean Effect, which brings in the snow and keeps it falling here while other parts of the state are not experiencing snow," he said. As a case in point, MacLean cited two much-publicized storms that struck southern New England on a weekend in late December in which there was a delay of about 24 hours between storms for most of the area, but no similar pause for Hanover. "It never stopped here, just snowed continuously over the weekend," he said.

When William Barstow, the first settler of what is now known as Hanover, sailed up the North River from Scituate on Massachusetts Bay in 1649, he built his house, then later the area's first shipyard followed by the first bridge over the North River on Washington Street. That street today is part of some 90 centerline miles of road maintained by the 38 personnel of the Department of Public Works headed by Director Victor Diniak. MacLean handles the day-to-day field operations of the DPW.

Lessons On Winter Operations

One of the most important responsibilities of the department is keeping roads clear during snowstorms, a task that takes a sizeable bite out of the department's overall budget. For this reason, MacLean has studied the techniques of snow and ice control over the years with an eye to cutting costs as much as possible while maintaining the town's "black road" policy. Only 49 years old, MacLean has been working for the DPW for 30 years, and was promoted from highway foreman to deputy superintendent about five years ago. He pointed out that he actually started working for the town when he was only 13 under the federal CETA Youth Corps program of the 1970s, mowing grass, painting fire hydrants and performing other public works jobs.

"I learned a lot from a lot of good people here at the department, and I took as many courses and seminars as possible," he said. Along the way he earned Class I and Class II truck driver's licenses and also licenses for water treatment and water distribution. His interest in the science of winter operations was furthered by his attendance of classes and seminars conducted by Paul Brown, former consultant and distributor for de-icing products and currently director of Snow and Ice Control Operations at the Massachusetts Highway Department.

"Paul is the guru of winter operations," said MacLean. "His classes gave me a lot of new ideas."

Wetting Salt, Dropping Sand

MacLean's philosophy of the best way to fight snow and ice has evolved over the years. In the 1990s, thanks to Brown's influence, the DPW had started using liquid calcium chloride on its trucks to pre-wet salt being used on the main roads. In the subdivisions, the department was still using sand mixed with salt.

By the winter of 2001/2002, however, they had abandoned the use of sand altogether, employing salt pre-wetted with liquid calcium chloride. The DPW progressed further, replacing calcium chloride with magnesium chloride. Most recently, the DPW has been using MeltDown, a de-icing chemical containing 30-percent liquid magnesium chloride and a corrosion inhibitor. Manufactured by Innovative Company, the chemical is distributed through territory manager Lauren Montenegro to municipalities and other customers in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and eastern Massachusetts.

Timing Is Critical

The DPW has nine International trucks — eight 6-wheel and one 10-wheel rig — equipped with 75-gallon "saddlebag" tanks for liquid magnesium chloride and either Flink, Torwel or Tymco salt bodies. Two spray nozzles apply the chemical to the salt as it falls off the truck body auger onto the spinner that broadcasts the salt over the pavement. According to MacLean, pre-wetting the salt with chemical reduces the bounce and scatter of the salt as it hits the road, speeds up the formation of brine, and lowers the effective working temperature of the salt.

The trick to beating the snowstorm is to pre-treat the roads to get a salt brine forming at the very beginning of the storm, said MacLean. All nine trucks are loaded with chemical and salt and are mobilized at the "first snowflake."

"Timing is critical. It takes 2-1/2 hours for us to pre-treat the roads using all of the trucks," he said. "When the snow hits the brine, it starts to melt immediately. This is working the snow from the bottom up." He added that this action prevents the snow from bonding to the pavement, and facilitates plowing. This method is a lot cheaper and more effective than the top-down technique of direct application to the fallen snow, a procedure that requires much more chemical to do the job.

A Team Effort

Hanover is divided into 26 plow routes. The DPW uses about 20 of its own trucks and roughly 40 hired contractor trucks to do the plowing. Personnel from several DPW divisions are enlisted in the effort — Highway, Water Treatment, Water Distribution, Transfer Station, Cemetery, and Public Grounds.

"Everybody participates because we don't have enough people in the Highway Division." Even with the additional personnel, there aren't enough to provide time for breaks during long storms. "That December storm lasted 60 hours, and we were able to give the operators just one six-hour break to go home, eat something, take a shower and sleep a little."

"They're excellent snow-fighters. And sometimes they have to work long hours away from their families. We have great people."

Economic And Green

Economics and environmental considerations have driven the evolution of the DPW's winter operations, indicated MacLean.

"Before we were pre-wetting with magnesium chloride, we were using 50 percent more salt than we are now. We used to average between 160 and 170 tons of salt per application. Now we use about 88 tons for each application. And magnesium chloride is much more friendly to vegetation. So this method has reduced the effect on the environment," he said.

According to MacLean, the chemical's corrosion inhibitor is a big plus, reducing the formation of rust not only on truck bodies but also undercarriages and brakes, cutting maintenance and repair costs. Also, being able to eliminate sand from winter operations has lowered spring sweeping costs, he said.

Getting Ready For Winter

Purchasing salt is another facet of winter preparedness where the DPW has realized savings.

"We've piggybacked the state's contract with the salt suppliers, so we pay the same price for salt as the Massachusetts Highway Department," he said. "This is saving us up to $10 a ton this season compared to what we would have paid if we hadn't done so." The DPW buys their liquid magnesium chloride off the state contract as well.

Buying and stocking salt is one of the first steps in the DPW's winter preparedness program. "We buy 2,000 tons of salt in September to fill our salt shed and a reserve salt storage area we built of concrete block and cover with tarps. And we order chemicals early, too."

The DPW has two tanks in its yard to store up to 5,600 gallons of MeltDown. "We place our order with Lauren (Montenegro) and she has it delivered to our yard usually within two to five days. She also checks in with us regularly to see if we need product."

Keeping a steady supply of chemical and salt on hand is crucial to the bottom-up method utilized by the DPW, MacLean concluded.