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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.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.