Predicting the weather with 100 percent accuracy is an elusive goal. And although technology has advanced the science of measuring weather conditions, Mother Nature is capable of throwing a curveball that can create havoc for custodial departments. This makes snow and ice removal challenging.

Fortunately, it's never too early to plan for potential snow and ice storms. Brian Birch, assistant executive director of the Ice and Snow Management Association in Milwaukee, recommends that custodial managers start thinking about snow and ice removal in the summer — after spring landscaping and before fall cleanup.

"[Facilities managers] need to create their own snow and ice removal plan and prepare preseason," he says.  

Mark Feist, assistant director of facilities management at American University in Washington, D.C., begins prepping for snow in August.

"Our emergency snow and ice removal plan incorporates all aspects of how we're going to approach the coming winter regarding staffing, equipment, materials and supplies," he says.

But even the best laid plans can fail when surprise storms catch managers off guard. George Thomlison, manager of grounds, human resources and procurement, at the University of Alberta in Canada, found himself in a predicament when the campus was hit by a huge snowstorm one year in late April.

"We had just finished our spring cleanup and removed all the gravel off our sidewalks and turf areas," he says. "The leaves had come out on the trees, and we got hit with 10 inches of snow."

Safety First

Whether facing a light snowfall or a surprise blizzard, identifying critical areas that need to be cleared takes precedence in any snow and ice removal policy.

"Before the snow flies, you want to identify the pinch points," says Birch. "Where is it critical to keep access open, and where are the places people are most likely to slip and fall?"

Sidewalks, parking lots, handicap parking spaces and stairs are usually priorities when planning for snow and ice removal.

"We have a tremendous amount of stairways," says Feist. "Along with sidewalks, we do snow and ice removal on stairs the old fashioned way — with hand shovels."  

At the University of Alberta, priority areas include sidewalks, roads, stairs, entrances and handicap ramps.

"In the morning we clear entrances to buildings, handicap ramps and the sidewalks leading to those buildings," says Thomlison. "We pay particular attention to the areas where the buses drop students and staff off on campus."

But safety concerns extend beyond slip-and-fall incidents. On busy campuses where students and staff are constantly walking from one building to another, snow and ice removal vehicles and equipment can be hazardous.

"Our biggest challenge is having people around when we're doing work," says Thomlison. "I've seen kids walk into vehicles because they're not paying attention. So our operators are well trained to be aware of the people around them."

Prepping For Service

Once a facility has identified key areas for snow and ice removal, it's time to prepare the machinery and materials needed to clear those areas. In-house departments often outfit their existing equipment to remove snow and ice in the winter. Pick-up trucks, for instance, can be used to plow parking lots, while ATVs with attached plows are suitable for clearing sidewalks.

"We store all equipment on site, and some of our equipment has multiple purposes," he says.

A stake body dump truck, for example, is used for landscape maintenance during the summer and fall. Thereafter, a salt rig body is transferred onto the vehicle for use on asphalt roadways and parking lots.

The university also uses a combination of tractors with attached snow brushes, plows and snow throwers, as well as skid steers and tractors with front-end loaders. Feist also stores roughly 100 tons of roadway de-icer on campus and replenishes inventory when depleted by 50 percent, depending on weather conditions and time of season.

At the University of Alberta, skid steers are used primarily for snow and ice removal on sidewalks. The campus also relies on tractors with front-end loaders for clearing parking lots and street graders for clearing roadways. Three pick-up trucks mounted with front-end blades remove snow in off-campus areas.

"Our equipment's ready to go by the middle of September," says Thomlison. "We take the water tanks off our trucks and put the spreaders on, mount all our blades on our equipment and we're ready. We also make sure our ice melt, gravel and sand are stockpiled."

In addition to having enough equipment to service the site, Birch recommends that facility managers keep some snow and ice removal machinery in reserve.

"Snow and ice removal is tough on equipment," he says, "especially when you're plowing with a pick-up truck. The cost of having equipment go down during a storm and not having something to fill that void can be pretty dramatic. So we recommend 10 to 20 percent capacity to do work in reserve."

Kassandra Kania is a freelancer based in Charlotte, N.C. She is a frequent contributor to Housekeeping Solutions.