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Calibrating Road Deicing Equipment by Dale Keep, Winter Operations Consultant and Trainer
I have been fortunate in that I have been able to work with snow and ice control professionals from a wide variety of locations and agencies, including the private sector, government agencies, and airport personnel.  At snow and ice operations gatherings what often happens is an “informal roundtable discussion,” during slack time, and usually over a cup of coffee. In this environment snow professionals from different backgrounds get to know each other.  They are normally talking snow and ice control equipment, deicer(s) utilized by them, and work methods.  The relaxed atmosphere and the subject matter always lead to some very interesting listening and learning opportunity if fortunate enough to be at the table.   The deicer being utilized, why it is their choice, and how it is typically used is always interesting with these groups since it often has snow and ice control representatives from different walks of life, including airport workers that are limited in the deicer chemicals they can use.  As we all know, FAA rules prohibits the use of deicers with chlorides on the air traffic side of the fence.  During these informal deicers discussions, the subject of how the different deicers are being utilized always seems to come up.  The pros and cons from their perspective of the deicers used and the different methods of snow and ice control are thoroughly vetted.  At times there are minor differences of opinions regarding the value of some of the work methods and how their deicer products are being utilized, but since this session is informal and the win or lose attitude is not present the discussion always remains calm, informal, and the learning opportunity continues.   As the informal discussions continue, another common thread during them is money.  Whether from the private sector point of view regarding increasing or maintaining a profitable bottom line or from the public-sector point of view of meeting an agency budget, discussions regarding money are always good for some interesting comments and overall discussions.  During these informal discussions it became clear that deicers and their use while meeting level of service goals was a major subject for everyone.  With deicer use, the subjects of a proactive vs reactive approach were discussed providing opinions on the value of each.  As for work methods, the use of sweepers, and plows to remove snow to minimize deicer use is typically thoroughly vetted as well and about every other snow and ice control methods imaginable.  These informal discussions collectively are always very interesting for someone like me to set in.  They normally present me with great insight into the operations and challenges of the companies or agencies present and the perspective of the individuals present from those agencies.  It was during one of these discussions that I had to ask what one of those present called the “million dollars” question.”  So, what was that question?  Well it had to do with equipment calibration.  I simply asked, “With the correct use of deicers being so important to all of you, is it correct for me to believe that if you were asked to accurately apply say 250 or 150 or 300 or whatever pounds per acre/lane mile, or 100 or 50, or whatever gallons per acre/lane mile you and/or your crew are prepared to accurately go do it?    The response to this question for me after hearing previous discussions in this group was somewhat surprising.   As was soon revealed, only a small percentage of those present stated that they calibrate their equipment and the balance stated they did not, and the way it was stated, led me to believe they never had.  They additionally stated that if they were asked to apply a specific amount of deicer they would estimate the settings and equipment speed required to get that application rate based on their experience.   The discussion for those that stated they don’t calibrate then often went to how good they were at knowing how much they applied from experience.   This was met with polite amazement by those that do take the time to calibrate and know its value.  After asking the question, and listening to the conversation, my thought was, “How does one estimate the equipment settings and application speed required to accurately make the desired application rate desired based on experience, when that experience it seemed did not included making applications where the actual application rate was accurately known?   It was then it struck me, this is another one of those subjects like liquid deicers, and cost versus purchase price.  No matter how many are using liquid deicers with great money-making success, no matter how many realize that the best buy is based on cost of use or ownership and not the purchase price, and no matter how many realize the benefits of knowing how much deicer was applied because of calibration, some are not doing it and don’t seem to believe it is necessary or important.   So where did the million-dollar question comment come from?  One of the people involved in the discussions stated that with the number of applicators there are nationwide, if on average, each one of them overapplied by only $100.00 a season the amount of money wasted would easily be over a million dollars.    Although at the time it was made, all involved seemed to agree it was reasonable, being a numbers guy, when there was time, I had to research that assumption. This statement it turns out was way off.  I read that there are 110,000 snow and ice contractors/companies in North America, and I have not tried to verify that number.  Also, I am not sure what that means, as surely many of them have more than one truck, and some of them I know do use calibrated equipment.  So, just using the 110,000 number, at $100.00 each, the number would be $11 million dollars.  In conclusion, I know my math is based on data that is not verified, and there for some may call it a WAG (wild a-- guess).  However, I believe my numbers are much closer than the results obtained by those that use WAG’s regularly while they apply deicers.  I simply do not understand their logic or lack of when there is so much at stake?