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Worth its salt

  • SIMA
- Posted: April 1, 2015

By Cheryl Higley

About Belknap Landscape Co.
Location: Gilford, New Hampshire
Founded: 1988 (snow division added in 1994)
Employees: 80 full-time plus additional winter team members
Clients: 500 (100+ winter, the majority of which are commercial/condo/industrial)
Snow revenue: $1+ million

Team effort: Gerry DuBreuil, CSP, believes in “the right people in the right jobs.” In his position as winter services manager he relies on key managers like Rich DuBreuil, Jay Rotonnelli, Randy Wood, Arnold Runnels, Jennifer Vassillion and a team of 80 to 100 people to provide service to more than 100 customers each winter.

When New Hampshire legislators began formulating plans to reduce the amount of salt in its waterways, Belknap Landscape Co.’s Winter Services Manager Gerry DuBreuil, CSP, balked. The 25-year industry veteran was leery - not because he disagreed with the end goal, but because the initial proposal put most of the onus on private contractors.

“I thought, ‘Not another setback for the snow industry.’ At the time we were trying to fine-tune our operations, align ourselves with best practices learned from SIMA, and deal with low management company budgets,” he says. “The legislation as proposed would have required a lot of time and expense on the contractors’ part with very little to make it worth their while.”

SIMA and snow and ice management professionals in the state played an active role in advocating for changes to the initial proposal, and in 2013, New Hampshire passed legislation that gives state-certified salt applicators - and those that hire them - liability protection from snow and ice claims.

Since 2013, DuBreuil says about 15 Belknap employees have successfully completed the University of New Hampshire’s voluntary Green SnowPro training, and the company has begun to see the benefits.

Improved training
The training requirements have benefited the company as a whole, DuBreuil says, noting that staff members Rich Lemoine and Tracy Lutz incorporated parts of the curriculum into Belknap’s own program, which includes classroom/video training, hands-on equipment reviews and field training.

“The training is excellent for our applicators to get firsthand knowledge and a taste of the science behind salt use,” he says. “We also train on calibration, so applicators understand the process and are aware of what the equipment is supposed to be doing.”

In addition to the Green SnowPro training, some team members are in the process of completing SIMA’s Advanced Snow Management program, and DuBreuil became a certified snow professional in 2010.

“(Owner) Hayden McLaughlin and upper management offers opportunities for self-improvement and growth, which leads to better service for our clients,” he says.

Improved operations
To take advantage of the liability protection offered through the state certification, companies are required to report salt use on each site and for the entire year overall.

That requirement motivated Belknap to review its recordkeeping processes and the company’s approach to salt management, including application rates.

DuBreuil says meeting the certification’s reduction requirements takes a measure of knowledge and strategy. Storm conditions, surface and air temperatures, and site characteristics all play into proper application rates. The strategy comes, he says, when considering variables like subzero temperatures, levels of service expectations, and the salt supply challenges that have wreaked havoc on the industry the past few years. The company’s stockpile dwindled in February when its vendors reduced their available supply.

“We’re now keeping much better records than we did in the past and are trying to fine-tune material usage on each site. I’ve been able to come up with averages and have created applicator checklists for each account that gives them direction on the type of treatment and amount of product to be used,” he says. “If they’re using more or less, right away that’s a red flag. It all comes down to training and proper equipment use.”

Another change DuBreuil implemented over the past two to three years to help the company meet its reduction goals and keep sites cleaner was to begin using primarily treated salt instead of the market’s preferred sand-salt mix or straight salt. Doing so has allowed the company to minimalize the need for pretreats and increase pavement residuals.

DuBreuil estimates that between in-house training, moving to treated salt, and improving calibrations, Belknap has been able to cut its application rate from 0.25 to 0.28 tons per acre to 0.18 tons per acre.

“It requires less material and works quicker. The clients are very happy with the results. They like seeing bare pavement as quick[ly] as they can,” he says.

Salt switch: The Belknap team orchestrated a switch to treated salt to help lower usage and application rates, improve client satisfaction and reduce postseason site cleanups.

More to do
DuBreuil commends the state for its salt reduction efforts and the fact that it continues to engage private snow contractors and SIMA in the process. The state held its first salt symposium last fall and DuBreuil hopes for a follow-up event that brings suppliers into the conversation to help address the recurring issue of supply shortages. He also encourages more contractors to look into the benefits of certification.

“Honestly, if it weren’t for the salt reduction act we probably wouldn’t be as successful as we are now. We’ve made big improvements on our salt usage. I can’t say it’s been a bad thing for us.” 

Salt management insights
Gerry DuBreuil’s thoughts on salt supply and management challenges:

  • Supplier relationships: “When my client needs me and the service we promise, we need to deliver. It would be nice if suppliers worked along with us. We’re in this together.”
  • Salt training: “We train our employees to know the equipment and know the truck. There are differences in operations, spread patterns, speed, etc. It’s not just a matter of setting the dials and being done.”
  • Liquid use: “We are always watching the use of liquids in our region. This could be an effective addition in time, when we can dedicate the resources to be productive and efficient to provide the service professionally.”
  • Stockpile efficiency: “To try to be more productive, we have several locations where we hold our inventory. We service a 15- to 20-mile stretch. Within those areas we have six spreaders and stockpiles of salt readily available.”

Winter barrage drives roof work, hauling demand
Without a properly balanced contract portfolio, heavy winters like those that have pummeled the Northeast the past few years can take a toll on a snow services provider.
Winter Services Manager Gerry DuBreuil, CSP, says Belknap Landscape Co. strives for a mix of per-push and seasonal contracts with enough flexibility that its customers’ snow budgets aren’t crushed under the weight of an unrelenting winter.

Where the company sees a big opportunity to bolster its revenues are in complementary services that are not included in those contracts - notably hauling and roof work.

“With a winter like we had this past winter, that work we were able to bill out was our saving grace,” he says.

Hauling takes center stage: About 99% of Belknap’s loader work is billed separately. This past season, the company had nine loaders running mostly six to seven days a week for four to five weeks straight. Keeping up with the demand meant hauling to approved sites after almost every storm.

Roof work
Raking and shoveling services were in high demand to protect against roof collapses. While it’s not a service Belknap actively markets, DuBreuil says the company has become a go-to source for the service.

“Our clients expect us to be able to provide whatever service is necessary to make their sites safe,” he says, noting that Belknap teams spent three weeks straight between storms shoveling snow off the tops of schools, homes, and a shopping center.
DuBreuil, managers and key staff took a methodical approach to implementing training and safety protocols.

“We invested in the proper equipment, established a training program, set up protocols, and brought in OSHA for safety recommendations,” he says, adding that he kept his insurance company in the loop. “Having done all of that, we were able to go to our clients and let them know we were prepared if they needed us.”

A typical crew includes a site supervisor (full site supervision), roof supervisor and a roof team of as many as five people. Each crew is equipped with OSHA-approved barriers, harnesses, ropes, cones, and the necessary tools; and each job begins with a toolbox talk. Anyone not adhering to protocols would be escorted off-site immediately, DuBreuil says.

Safe rooftop snow removal has become an important complementary service for Belknap Landscape Co.'s key clients.

Ice monitoring
One area that is new as an add-on service is site monitoring. DuBreuil says the service formerly was included in the contract price, but as the company grew it was unable to cost effectively sustain that level of service.

“It got to the point that we couldn’t promise it for everyone,” he says. “Adding that service to a seasonal contract can be quite a hit on the budget and we needed to get a hold of it.”

DuBreuil notes that winter services have been easier to manage due to the dedication of the Belknap team.

“We’ve had a challenging season battling several storms a week for a lengthy period of time, and keeping up with additional requests. Our employees withstood harsh conditions but made every effort to be sure all operations were done with absolute safety. I’m quite proud of our staff.”

New Hampshire certification offers liability protection
Due to rising concentrations of chloride in New Hampshire waters, the University of New Hampshire’s Technology Transfer Center began offering the Green SnowPro training program in 2010 to help reduce the amount of salt applied to roads and parking lots.

The half-day training course combines classroom instruction and fieldwork that focuses on efficient and environmentally friendly winter maintenance practices. Topics include calibration, anti-icing, brine making, pre-wetting, application rates, effective plowing techniques, recordkeeping, environmental impacts, and emerging technologies.

Taking it a step further, the New Hampshire legislature passed legislation in 2013 that would provide incentive for snow professionals to complete the SnowPro training and become certified under the Department of Environmental Services (DES). Beginning in November 2013, commercial salt applicators certified by DES - and property owners or managers who hire them - are granted liability protection against damages arising from snow and ice conditions under RSA 508:22.

  • To qualify for the liability protection, contractors must:
  • Successfully pass the SnowPro exam.
  • Apply annually for certification (no cost).
  •  Complete a two-hour refresher course every two years. SIMA’s Advanced  Snow Management courses (Core Principles, Plowing Operations, Sidewalk Operations, and Ice Management) have been designated as approved refresher training courses.
  • Report annual salt use to the state. Companies must also track per-storm data, including site visits, target application rates, weather conditions, and use of recommended best practices. The state offers a free salt accounting system website for recordkeeping.

Patrick Woodbrey, salt reduction coordinator for the DES, says more than 600 contractors have taken the training and currently more than 350 have been certified. He notes that it’s too soon to quantify the certification program’s success since DES only has one season’s data available.

The Green SnowPro training website offers more details on the programs as well as various free resources, including application rate and calibration worksheets, best management practices, and winter maintenance manuals. Learn more here.
Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine. Contact her at Photos by Bud Perry/Memories Studios.

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