Fleet versatility: Making sure your equipment is all things to all seasons requires creativity

It’s been said that landscaping was invented by snow professionals as something to do during the off-season. Maybe that’s us down the road; but at the moment, we’re still a snow-only company. The challenge for us is figuring out what to do with our equipment during the off-season.

A good chunk of it is highly specialized to perform one task: plow or shovel snow, spread salt, mix brine, etc. They’re seasonal use only and complete dead weight during the summer.

Even if you can’t make full use of it, keeping equipment at least somewhat employed is better than having it sit idle, especially if you’re still paying off the loan that you used to buy it. A lot of landscaping equipment has found its way into snow and ice management this way.

Innovation in sidewalk snow removal started from the landscaping side by custom fitting small plows and brushes to lawn care tractors. By adapting existing machinery to handle snow removal, landscapers were able to eke out additional profits year-round. More recent developments in sidewalk snow removal technology have come from the opposite angle, starting with snow removal as a primary function, and adding in turf sprayers and aerator attachments for all-season versatility.

Heavy equipment can be put to work any time of year. Skid steers, for example, are commonplace in our industry. They easily fit on a trailer and can hook up to several attachments, providing versatility through all four seasons. Larger loaders, while not nearly as versatile, are familiar sights at construction yards year-round, but their higher price tag makes them less of a commodity among small companies. However, nearly every company that purchases heavy equipment does so with some intention to ensure their use year-round.

There were several motives for our past investments in technology. Some occurred on the heels of “acts of God”-level, general unpreparedness (like the year we got three times the normal snowfall). Other times, we were proactive, sensing a possible shortcoming given our current equipment posture (e.g., sidewalk operations with a thick crust of ice on top).

In addition to solving a current or future problem, we also considered how that equipment might be integrated into existing operations. But as the business has grown, our biggest focus has shifted to how we might most benefit year-round from our equipment.

One truck to rule them all

When we transitioned to bulk salt, a prime consideration was how to most efficiently apply it. While it would require a big truck with a big spreader, we also saw an opportunity to maximize potential in multiple areas. We didn’t want our decision to get a specialized truck to result in another one-trick pony taking up room in the yard. Instead, we got a Swiss Army knife.

Our truck needed to meet several requirements:

  • Primarily, it needed to plow snow and apply salt
  • It needed to transport skid-steer loaders and other equipment
  • And perform other functions as we saw a need.

Furthermore, we didn’t want a truck that required a commercial driver’s license to legally operate. It needed to be big enough to do the big things, but small enough for anyone to drive. That meant the truck needed a short wheelbase for a small turning radius, still be able to carry a lot of salt, and stay under the 26,000-pound Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR).

The primary functions were all met in a cab-over Isuzu box truck. With a GVWR of just under 26,000 pounds, we were in the clear. The frame easily accommodated a shortened wheelbase (actually a few inches shorter than my F-250), making it an effective plow truck. The box would have to come off to mount a salt spreader, but what about the ancillary requirements?

Enter the hooklift. You’ve probably seen them before, even if you aren’t familiar with how they work. Often associated with transporting construction waste, “roll-off” trucks utilize this mechanism to pick up and unload large containers. When fully extended, an L-shaped arm hooks the container and rotates forward, lifting the container up and onto the back of the truck, rolling over a set of wheels. It brings the container level as the arm fully rotates, and a piston pushes the entire payload forward toward the cab.

By swapping out payloads, the truck would be able to perform various tasks year-round. Local specialists fabricated various payloads to interface with the hooklift. One would carry a 6-yard hydraulic stainless steel hopper spreader. Another was a flatbed custom-designed with hold-downs for transporting a skid-steer loader.

However, adding payloads isn’t a simple matter of plug and play. The hooklift operates via hydraulic system, the pump of which is powered by the truck’s PTO. Loading and unloading anything other than a “dumb” payload required additional hydraulics, which may not be sized the same as the hooklift. For example, our spreader required its own hydraulic system with much larger capacity. So, a custom solution was required. More payloads are in the works, including a dump bed for general hauling/removal use, and also a removable cap to turn it into a chipper box for arborist use. Investing in human capital

It’s easy to forget that investment in equipment isn’t the only consideration. Since we’re snow-only, our labor pool includes workers in a variety of trades, including construction workers, arborists, carpenters, real estate agents and masons. Many of them are in the same boat as us, running their own small seasonal businesses. Their success is often directly related to ours. How can we invest in our human capital as well?

With the addition of different payloads, we know a few people who could put that sort of functionality to good use, at favorable rates.

Snow and ice management is an intense and time-sensitive job. Sometimes it feels like we’re just scraping by, but we’ve been immensely blessed to have a diverse and resilient workforce helping us stay afloat. Their talent and reliability has helped us not only to keep our existing clients year after year, but also to service them at the highest standards. In building a multipurpose truck, we can support their businesses as well.

We’re not trying to expand into new markets. I’m perfectly comfortable with my feet on the ground and not up in a dead tree, sitting in a chair and not swinging a sledgehammer. By forging strong relationships with our workforce and helping out their businesses, our rising tide helps lift their boats as well.

Erich Oelschlegel, ASM, runs a website design consultancy and serves as technology manager at Suburban Snow Plow in Philadelphia. Email him at erich.oelschlegel@suburbansnowplow.com.

This article originally appeared in Snow Business magazine, the official publication of the Snow and Ice Management Association. To learn more about SIMA and additional resources that are available to snow professionals, visit www.sima.org.