By Cheryl Higley
Shifting to sustainability: The Elbers Landscape Service team has fully committed resources to reduce its salt use, including adding a liquids program, investing in better plows, and adding better tracking, calibration and measurement tools. The team managing the processes include (from left): Brendan Grabowski, Peter Schmit, owners Jim Hornung Sr. and Jim Hornung Jr., and Kevin Burke, CSP.
Until about five years ago, rock salt in the Buffalo, NY, market was readily available and really cheap. Jim Hornung Jr., CSP, president of Elbers Landscape Service, admits the company had a “Wild West” approach to salt use - spreading it freely without much regard for the impact on the environment or the company’s bottom line. But a salt supply shortage resulted in prices that more than doubled. Higher prices, lower availability, a client-driven shift to all-inclusive contracts and a growing involvement in SIMA made Hornung and his operations team sit up and take notice.
Before, there was no real business reason to do anything differently; but those changes gave us [motivation] to manage salt use beyond our costs. We had to protect our profitability,” says Hornung, who served as SIMA Board Chair in 2012. “We were doing all the wrong things from an environmental and business standpoint. We knew the company needed to do better.”
About the same time, Hornung and a few fellow SIMA board members were asked to go to Ontario to look at a project that was focused on sustainable salt reduction. SIMA committed to research funding, and Hornung was one of the first to sign on for a similar program once it made its way to the states.
Four years ago, Elbers Landscape Service became part of a pilot program in which hardware and software were installed on trucks that would track application rates on client sites. Eventually, the company added smartphone technology, photos, remote cameras, scales and more to gather as much salt usage data as possible. It has proved to be invaluable.
The company was able to fine-tune application rates, better track materials and streamline routing, using far less salt than they had during their Wild West period. The management team is able to job-cost each site and determine which are over or under budget.
“For us, it’s a very powerful tool. That’s why I’ve been so adamant about the implementation and execution of the program. I’m extremely pleased with our control over salt use but recognize there are areas that we can still improve upon,” Hornung says.
Adding liquids required the use of dedicated equipment and additional equipment purchases. This piece of sidewalk equipment, for example, was previously used to transport materials on site. Now the back is full and the equipment limits the vehicle’s use.
Jumping to brine
With progress being made on bulk salt tracking, he decided it was time to take the next logical step - moving into liquids. He was unprepared for the challenges ahead of him.
Hornung found that it was not as simple as expanding from a V plow to a winged plow or from a truck to a loader. The learning curve was much higher than he and the team expected.
Elbers now pre-wets its salt, has two brine trucks, a sidewalk machine dedicated to brine spraying and a brinemaking system.
“Getting into liquids isn’t just about money. I learned that it requires a totally different skillset and approach to make it work,” he says. More staff, altered scheduling, dedicated equipment, different sales techniques and knowing when to use liquids - all of these and more must be considered when building the program.
Hornung says the amount of available technology and equipment options is mind numbing; but after much trial and error, he has finally settled on brands that he trusts and that deliver the results he and the team desire.
“It’s not the silver bullet, but when we put (the liquids) down it’s incredible,” he says. “I was naïve to think that it would all come together on its own. When we got into it and it wasn’t going the way we wanted, I thought I could just throw money at it. The reality is we had to take the hard knocks, and spend the time educating ourselves to make it work. No money in the world was going to fix that.”
As difficult as the implementation was for the team who had to be trained, Hornung says an immense roadblock has been how to educate the end users on the benefits. What was even harder? Positioning it as a revenue center.
“Because of the learning curve, it’s difficult to sell this to clients. They don’t understand it, and then when you tell them it only works about 80% of the time? That’s a hard sell. People from Buffalo know snow and expect salt; so the idea of implementing new treatments can be a challenge,” Hornung says. “We’ve struggled to monetize it from a revenue standpoint. The financial benefit has come almost exclusively from the savings side. We’d love to get people to see the benefits of paying for this service; but for now, I can take every dollar saved and push it to the bottom line.”
Eric Paolini sprays an anti-icing treatment.
Worth the effort
Despite the headaches, Hornung says the company is finally starting to realize the cost savings of its hard work. Over the past three years, the addition of the plow equipment, brine and measurement tools resulted in six-figure savings. Hornung notes that the company has been able to reduce salt usage for one client by 60%, from 1,000 tons per year to 400.
“A 600-ton savings on a five-year account? That’s a tremendous savings that allowed us to reinvest those savings back into capital investments,” he says. “The initial investment was so great for us that failure was not an option. We had to make this work. We’re now starting to see the benefits.”
Now that the team has a solid handle on brine making, Hornung says they’ll turn their attention to expanding into enhanced brines with mixtures of brine and calcium chloride, creating different blends for different events and temperatures, and trying to reduce the amount of bagged product, which has been a thorn in his side.
“We have made such strides on the bulk side, but I’m frustrated by not being able to automate bagged material usage. We’re wasting product, which is wasting money. We’re working to rein it in - it’s not perfect but we’re making progress,” he says.
The area where Hornung has seen some of the best results in salt reduction is on sidewalks and stairs; this is an area where he’ll continue to focus. On one university account alone, the company has been able to reduce materials use from 10 pallets of salt to 1½ by adding brine treatments to the doorways. Cutting out more than eight pallets is a cost savings of nearly $2,500.
“That’s big money that is helping to pay for the brine equipment I bought!” he says.
While admitting he’s made missteps along the way, Hornung doesn’t regret embarking on the journey.
“I think back and it’s a miracle we’re still here. I was wasting money left and right, pounding my chest about how much salt I was buying,” Hornung says. “We’ve made progress. My hope is for continuous improvement. Despite all of the investments, I wouldn’t say we’re more than 30% to 40% into the journey. I cannot see the finish line. Maybe I never will.”
Beyond salt: plows help reduce chloride use
In addition to investing in the Sustainable Salt Initiative, Viaesys and brine making, Elbers Landscape Service has invested extensively in plows that will allow operators to get a better scrape. A cleaner pass means no more trying to burn off a quarter-inch of slush that gets left behind. This investment will be a gradual process given the price tag of the equipment, but President Jim Hornung Jr. says the capital outlay is worth it: “We’re providing better service, are more efficient, are reducing our salt use, and our sites are safer.”
A. Joseph Henley uses plows to reduce salt use.
Lessons learned from building a brine program
1. Have a champion
Elbers Landscape Service President Jim Hornung Jr. has learned several lessons as he’s built his salt management program. One was not having a “champion” to guide the company through the process of adding brine to its operations. A champion is needed due to the investment of time, effort and money required to successfully implement liquids into an ice management arsenal.
“We needed someone to live and breathe it, and it wasn’t me or Snow Operations Manager Kevin Burke,” Hornung says. “Fortunately Brendan Grabowski, who is a member of the management team and very mechanically inclined, stepped up. He designed everything, tested it. Without his leadership, we might have given up.”
Brine champion Brendan Grabowski has taken the lead role in researching and implementing the Elbers Landscape Service’s liquids program.
2. Look before you leap
Hornung admits making a key mistake in the process. He jumped into liquids before he had a good handle on how much salt the company was using. He realized square one should have focused on salt tracking, inventory management, measuring, and calibration.
As an example, he says, assume it takes one ton of salt to fill a hopper but you don’t check and you really load 2,200 pounds. Plus, you don’t have calibrated equipment or established application rates. In Buffalo, where Elbers makes 50 to 80 salt runs a year, if each of the six salt trucks is off by 200 pounds, even 50 times, that’s serious salt - and money - being thrown away. Overloading can also result in material loss, wear and tear, and compromised safety.
“You need to know these things, and candidly, we didn’t. For as big as we were, it was inexcusable that we didn’t know. It wasn’t even hard to get that information; you just had to have the knowledge and willingness to do the work to get it.”
3. When you leap, go all in
Once you decide to build brine and liquid use into your operations, be prepared to forge ahead with a full commitment. While you can build in liquids incrementally to stagger what will be costly capital expenditures for equipment, trucks, and materials, you must be dedicated to seeing the program through.
“You have to be all in on the property you say you’re going to treat. You have to be relentless and unwavering and spray brine at every opportunity when the application makes sense,” Hornung says. “If you’re going to get buy-in from your clients, you have to have proof that it works so you can educate them. The education learning curve is immense.”
Looking back he would have done things differently but says networking with peers and using suppliers as an educational resource helped them get their brine program on track.
“We worked hard to become experts to protect our investment. In the three years that I’ve been doing brine, I have talked to no fewer than 15 people about brine. Our suppliers are the best, and their willingness to share information astounds me. It’s that network that has helped me, Kevin and Brendan get the program to where it is today.”