The commercial truck equipment industry has come a long way during the time that H A DeHart & Son, our lead story in this month's issue, has been in business.
Back in the company's early days, customers sometimes controlled snow by packing it down, rather than moving it out of the way. Packing the powder down made it easier for horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles to travel city streets. The method of choice was to hook a heavy roller up to a team of horses. For a look back at yesterday's technology, thumb ahead to Page 14.
Compressing the flakes with a snow roller may have worked for horses and buggies, but it certainly wouldn't meet today's “bare pavement” standards. Today's motorists expect roads to be clear, and local politicians have been voted out of office for failing to meet those expectations.
But there are signs that states and municipalities may be stretched more than usual to meet those standards. While some government entities appear to be in good shape financially as this winter approaches, others are feeling the pinch brought on by tighter budgets and unprecedented costs for road salt last year.
It was an extremely tough winter for salt users. According to figures compiled by the Salt Institute, demand for road salt reached record highs — up 8% from the previous high set in 2005. More importantly, the cost of that salt topped $766,900,000 nationally, up 31% from the previous record high bill that customers paid in 2007.
While the supply of road salt is almost unlimited, our logistical systems are not. Shortages of salt were widespread. The Iowa Department of Transportation, for example, reported being unable to get salt delivered to 31 of its 110 garages last year.
When shortages occur, prices can skyrocket. Not surprisingly, the cost for salt approached $140 per ton at the height of the shortage.
As would be expected, Iowa DOT and others have been taking steps to keep that from happening this year. Despite salt prices that remain higher than normal, Iowa DOT reports that its salt storage sheds are nearing capacity.
Chicago area municipalities report similar experiences. Multiple times last winter, they were unable to receive bids for salt, or they had to pay triple the normal price.
Given the tumult of recent months, it's understandable that snow and ice control equipment customers are modifying the way they approach the task of keeping roads clear. Many are trying to balance their limited resources against the expensive “bare pavement” policies that the public has come to expect. For example, Elgin, Illinois, cut salt consumption 20% last year in part by only salting intersections of residential streets. Other municipalities are questioning the value of treating low-traffic streets such as cul-de-sacs.
Such cost pressures present opportunities for truck equipment distributors to help their customers seek ways to stretch their budgets — and the materials that they consume.
Will distributors be able to offer more in the way of liquid deicing equipment? This equipment offers users a variety of benefits, including the ability to reduce the amount of wasted salt. We expect continued growth in this area, not only as an option for salt but also as a means to help salt stick to road surfaces. DOTs are continuing to experiment with various mixtures of liquid deicing agents that can be applied in different ratios as conditions dictate. A number of government entities are constructing their own blending facilities with which to produce bulk quantities of deicing mixes. This is a brick-and-mortar commitment to truck-mounted deicing equipment.
Ground-speed controllers continue to gain acceptance in order to minimize waste of deicing materials. A recent report by the Clear Roads organization of state DOTs issued a strong endorsement, stating that ground speed controllers can dramatically reduce salt usage and liquid chemical dispensing rates.
Finally, driver training will continue to be essential so that the state-of-the-art trucks that distributors assemble are operated as effectively as possible. Can truck equipment distributors play a role in that training? State and local transportation officials are making plans to develop standard nationwide guidelines and training practices. Some are proposing a mandatory certification system for drivers. How might the truck equipment industry assist in this effort?
Snow and ice control has changed a lot since teams of horses pulled snow rollers and drug wooden snowplows. The equipment and techniques may be different, but the goal is still the same — to do our best to keep the roads clear — and safe.
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