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Stake Out

By:
  • Douglas Freer, CSP
- Posted: September 19, 2016
Hidden obstructions can be dangerous for your drivers and operators, which may result in equipment or property damage that costs your company money. Marking pavement boundaries and hidden obstacles with stakes reminds drivers that danger lurks below. The benefits gained by proactively marking a site far outweigh the relative cost of installing and maintaining stakes.

While our company has been fairly consistent each season about marking properties, we have not had a well-defined process. As a result, the inconsistencies were beginning to cost us money, meaning something needed to change. We studied our staking process and made adjustments that helped us realize significant benefits with comparatively minor effort and investment.

Why stake?
A system of marking stakes that is understood by your team serves as a legend on a road map, communicating important details on how to read the site so they can avoid making costly mistakes like pushing snow on top of drainage structures, fire apparatus or sidewalks. The type, color, size, markings and locations of stakes can communicate specific details to help your drivers identify key property characteristics and minimize the potential for having to send crews back to correct improperly serviced sites.

Staking your clients’ properties communicates professionalism and is part of your brand. From the type of stakes you use to the manner in which you install them, the stakes will be on your clients’ properties for four, five or up to six months, reminding your clients of your company and the service you provide. At a minimum, staking properties sends the message that you are proactive and care about minimizing damage to your clients’ sites.

One excuse for not staking properties is that you and your drivers know the property inside out and don’t need to invest the time and energy into installing stakes to mark obstructions. While you and your team may know the property really well, stakes are useful to new or substitute operators to identify hidden dangers. Depending on the size of your crew, not all of your drivers may know each property as well, particularly if they are helping on a route they have not serviced frequently.

Additionally, stakes can be helpful to drivers who may be on the property during heavier events where pavement boundaries may not be as obvious. Damage caused by other drivers during the winter could be blamed on the contractor.

An additional criticism is that the property owner should be responsible for staking boundaries, thereby removing the cost and responsibility for the contractor. While passing this task off to the property owner helps reduce the immediate out-of-pocket cost, you miss the opportunity to not only conduct a preseason site assessment but also to consistently mark the properties. Assuming property owners are responsible for marking pavement edges and other obstructions leaves your company open to the possibility that they may not mark the property completely, if at all, and may do so in a manner that is not helpful to your staff.

If you have concerns about your crew properly staking your clients’ property in relation to neighboring properties, you can add to your contracts that the property owner is responsible for checking the property stakes to ensure the site boundaries are accurate and advise if adjustments are necessary.

Preseason site assessment
Conducting a preseason site assessment while staking your properties makes your preseason site visit more valuable. While it may take extra time to conduct your preseason site assessment, the time invested has the potential to return significant dividends. Just like staking is a preventive measure against your team causing damage, your preseason site assessment is a preventive measure in documenting site conditions to help your team identify issues before they become a problem.

Your preseason site assessment gives your team an opportunity to discover heaved pavement, raised drainage structures or manhole lids that could potentially cause damage to your equipment or driver. Further, by cataloging the current site conditions or documenting existing dam-age, you may be better prepared to defend yourself against future damage claims.

Cloud-based photo services (e.g., www.sitefotos.com) are a cost-effective method that make documentation easy to conduct in the field while easily storing the photos for future reference if needed. Take photos of the general site conditions as well as any existing damaged pavement, curbs, landscape or other items that could become a potential point of contention at the end of the season. Clients who are not aware of critical damage issues that may affect service will appreciate knowing about problems that need corrective action. Further, it may provide a chilling effect on potentially erroneous property damage accusations when your client knows that you have thoroughly documented the condition of the property.

Postseason site assessment
At the end of the season, you will need to collect stakes, which gives you the opportunity to assess your sites for damage that may need to be repaired, as well as to determine if your staking process needs to be adjusted. Perhaps a particular route or driver needs remedial training, or the placement of your stakes was not adequate or appropriate to prevent new damage.

While you are inspecting for new damage, you have the opportunity to catalog the current site conditions. A photo record of the current site conditions in April may prove helpful if damage occurs after the season and a property manager claims in May or June that your company needs to address winter plow damage. The property manager may be drawing a logical conclusion that damage was caused by your company, particularly if they have not seen the site since the end of the season. It may also be that an unscrupulous property manager is trying to pass the cost of repair off to the contractor so they don’t have to absorb repair costs in their budget. Photo documentation will provide you with a reference point to decide if refuting the claim is worthwhile.

Stake program

Our program is relatively simple. You can create your own program for your company. The key to a successful program includes defining how things are to be staked and communicating this information to drivers and operators so that everyone on your team knows how to read the “leg-end on the map” when they arrive at the site.

The type of marking stake you select is not arbitrary. Consider how you might color code stakes to provide useful information about what you’re marking. Use wood, fiberglass or some other product that is substantial enough to last, but if struck by equipment will not cause dam-age. Steel fence posts may be the ultimate in sturdy but they can cause significant body damage if a vehicle comes in contact with them.

Different-colored stakes may be used to represent different obstructions. A rainbow of colors may become confusing or difficult to remember so try to keep it as simple as possible. You may want to mark pavement boundaries, curb lines, sidewalk edges, catch basins or drainage structures, fire apparatus, speed bumps, and parking bollards that may be below site lines. We chose to use a 4-ft. blue fiberglass colored marking stake with reflective tape to indicate the edges of driving surfaces while a plain 3-ft. blue fiberglass pole with no reflective tape is used to mark sidewalk edges, preventing tractors from causing damage to lawn and bed areas. To mark drainage structures, we use 4-ft. green stakes with reflective tape and fire apparatus receive a 6-ft. red stake with reflective tape.

Freer_Stakes1 (223x300)  Freer_stakes3 (187x300)
Color coding site markers can help drivers identify specific hazards.


Timing
Installing stakes prior to the start of the season and before the first snowfall is important. Check your local ordinances to make sure you don’t run afoul of any local rules regulating stake placement or timing. Pick up stakes near the end of the season, but not too late into spring. Leaving stakes behind longer not only decreases your chances of recovering your stakes but you’ll also miss a chance to do a timely and effective postseason site assessment.

Review your snow staking program prior to the start of the season and make adjustments even for minor improvements. Minimizing property and equipment repair costs will mean more money to your bottom line while minimizing the stress that can occur when managing client frustrations related to property damage. 
How to mark a site
We use an overhead map with markings to show a typical site and how it should be marked. We provide drivers with marked site maps showing where snow should be piled and the location of fire apparatus and catch basins. The marking stakes reinforce the information and provide real-time guidance since the driver isn’t consulting a written map while plowing.

Stakes_Legend
Blue_Moose_map (600x447)
Stakes serve an important purpose. They communicate property features that are often hidden or obstructed by snow cover. Stakes are like a legend on the map providing a key to let drivers know where catch basins or drainage exists as well as property boundaries and fire apparatus.
Recovering the cost
Program costs will include the cost to purchase stakes; the labor to install, maintain and pick up stakes; as well as the time to administer the program and communicate issues to clients that may arise from your crew’s site visits. Preventive measures that minimize damage to proper-ties and equipment, and improve driver efficiency and effectiveness while reducing rework contribute to an improved level of service. This, in turn, improves your relationship with the client.

Sample cost for one-acre retail property:
  Preseason  Midseason End of Season   Total Cost
 
Stakes (1)
 $50  $5  Recover ½ (-25)   30 used x $1 = $30
Labor (2)  $11.42    $5.33   $8  $24.75
Vehicle/fuel (3)   $2.50   $1.17  $1.75    $5.42
Total variable cost for entire season on typical 1-acre site =                          $60.17 
Additional administrative costs may be added 
(1) Assumes $1/stake x 50 stakes per average site at the start of the season with an additional 10% used to replace midseason while recovering approximately half at the end of the season.
(2) Assumes loaded labor cost of $20/man hour x 8 man hours = $160 per-day labor cost
  • Preseason: Assumes you can stake 14 properties per 8-hour day, approximately 30 minutes per site. ($160/14 sites = $11.42/site).
  • Mid-season: Assumes you can evaluate and adjust stakes at 30 properties per 8-hour day, in-cluding drive time, spending approximately 10 minutes per site ($160/30 = $5.33 per site).
  • Post-season: Assumes you can retrieve stakes at approximately 20 properties per 8-hour day, spending approximately 20 minutes per site ($160/20 = $8 per site).
(3) Pickup truck cost per day assumed to be $35 for this example. Use your own company costs for your budget. Divide vehicle cost per day by sites visited.
 
Douglas Freer, CSP, owns Blue Moose Snow  in Cleveland. Contact him at  doug@bluemoosesnow.com.
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