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Niche markets: stacking the deck

  • SIMA
- Posted: September 22, 2016
By Cheryl Higley

Are snow and ice management professionals who service parking garage facilities gluttons for punishment? At first glance, this niche is fraught with challenges, not the least of which is that they are complex structures that don’t lend themselves to efficient winter management; but companies that approach these concrete beasts with a comprehensive, educated approach have the opportunity to set themselves apart.

Site complexity
Christopher Brennan, PE, who is director of operations / principal for Walker Parking Consultants in Boston, says snow and ice management companies come out of the gate at a disadvantage because parking structures are not always constructed with winter services in mind.

“The people we talk to during design aren’t always the people who are charged with taking care of them once they’re built,” he says. “They may not appreciate the operational challenges that go into the decisions they make. The focus of parking design is efficiency in how it’s laid out and constructed. The drive lanes are tight, and the turning radius is small. The geometry makes it very difficult to service.”

In addition to the tight space, Brennan says a lot of facilities - especially retail and high-end residential - are constructed with details and finishes that are more susceptible to winter-related damage and require more delicate service than can be achieved with a plow.

Justin Boren, vice president of development for Grass Groomers in Columbus, OH, services more than 20 parking garages throughout central Ohio. Because each structure is different and has unique properties, the importance of the preseason walkthrough cannot be underestimated.

“We will meet with the client on-site and discuss load limits, design flaws, existing damage, etc., and document everything,” he says. “We then design our snow response plan in accordance with that information.”

Brennan agrees, noting that you can’t properly price a contract if you don’t know what you’re up against.

“You have to tour the facility before you can provide the scope of work and a price. You have to understand not only what you’re going to do but also the conditions you’re going to be working under. Can you use skid steers or only shovels? You have to understand the site’s limitations and realize what can happen if you haven’t asked those questions.”

A key limitation in parking facilities is the inability to stack much, if any, snow on the top deck. Snow piles can present thaw-refreeze issues; but more importantly, piles can cause a collapse if the snow pack exceeds the load limits.

Contractors, then, must consider the costs not only to clear the snow but also how to remove it from the roof, whether through melting, blowing, or dropping it down a temporary snow chute; plus where to store it at another location on-site or whether it must be hauled away.

“As these decks get hemmed in by other buildings, pedestrian bridges, or landscaping plazas, owners don’t want snow being dumped off the top of the decks,” Brennan says.

Dave Wescott, CEO of Transblue, says the potential for damage should be a deterrent to dumping: “It can potentially damage the existing landscape, structures, vehicles, and people below. If you are dumping snow off a building, you must ensure the area is fenced and locked to prevent access.”

SnowLoads (300x218)
Stacking snow against the parking structure can damage detailing and capstones that aren’t up to withstanding harsh winters.

Equipment restrictions
Load limits play a vital role in how to approach service, and they also restrict the types of equipment that can be used. During his presentation at the Snow & Ice Symposium in June, Brennan noted that structure loads for parking garages are designed for 7,500-lb. vehicles. Consider that a typical skid steer loader weighs approximately 6,600 pounds and a pickup truck with a plow and a fully loaded spreader weighs upward of 13,300 pounds. Not only is load weight an issue, so too is height.

“Because most parking structures have height and weight requirements, we need the proper piece of equipment to be versatile,” says Mark Aquilino, president of Outdoor Pride Landscape & Snow Management. “We tend to use skid steers with attachments. They have not only proven to be the most effective in dealing with tight locations but also the most versatile in the ability to push, stack, and remove snow all with one piece of equipment.”

Also of importance is to use the proper cutting edges or shoes to prevent the steel plow edges from making direct contact with the concrete. In addition to the concrete itself, parking structures are built with several components that can be costly to replace if damaged, such as expansion joints, traffic stopping/slowing systems, and epoxy coatings. Brennan says as part of the bid process it’s important to clarify what warranties, waterproofing agreements, etc., are in effect to ensure your site response plan won’t result in voiding those agreements.

“Use precautions because the last thing you want is to do something that would void the warranty,” he says. “If you damage an expansion joint, you could easily spend $10,000 to $20,000 on repairs, which would directly impact the value of the contract. However, winter may result in some natural wear and tear; but unless you assume that liability under the contract, that cost should belong to the facility owner so long as reasonable caution was taken during service.”

ServiceDamage (300x272) ExpansionJoint2 (300x290)
These two photos show damage to a bollard and expansion joint due to improper snow clearing operations.

Cycle times
Limited equipment staging, maneuverability and equipment restrictions, the complexities of the site, and the client’s level of service demands directly impact the snow contractor’s cycle times - the time it takes to completely service a site or set of sites once. It is essential that the contractor consider these factors (including extenuating circumstances that could further slow cycle time) during the bidding process.

“We have some garages where the crews stay at one location and do not leave the site, no matter what,” Boren says. “We have other routes where one truck is clearing and deicing three to four garages all by themselves. This all varies by customer and type of facility.”

Start and completion times, often dictated by the type of facility and/or client, also factor into cycle time. Medical facilities may require 24/7 access, whereas a retail facility may only need to ensure the garage is open in time for business. Wescott says detailing the “clear by time” and the strategic service plan in writing - and sharing that with the client - will help keep the lines of communication open.

“It is our job to ensure we can properly adhere to their level of service needs,” Aquilino explains. “To have a clear understanding of what this process entails, we ask our clients to extensively review our site-specific operational playbook. This allows our snow managers to clearly understand the time of operation and when to have things cleared.”

Marketing strategies

Boren and Wescott note that when it comes to selling in this niche, experience and referrals are golden.

“Word travels fast to clients that you do a good job on their garage. Having a good stable of clients that return year after year reduces overhead and allows you to grow your business,” Wescott says.

Brennan says opportunities are ripe for those companies who have done their homework. He notes that parking garages are designed to last 40 years, but key components have a more limited lifespan. Caring for these components as well as upselling preventive and/or routine maintenance such as sweeping and power washing can deliver additional revenue for the contractor. As important is the value you deliver to the property manager, who is tasked with keeping the facility in safe and operable condition; maintaining parking supply and revenue; and controlling costs.

“Contractors who truly understand parking structures can add value by solving problems beyond the snow storm,” he says. “Most sophisticated owners will appreciate the service you offer and be willing to pay for it.”

Collapse (300x256)
This photo is the result of too much snow being piled on the top deck of a parking facility. It resulted in a catastrophic structure failure. Contractors who work in this niche market must understand the impact of load limits and equipment weight on operations. 

Building a better price for service
When it comes to parking facilities, the intricacies of each facility, the level of service and resultant scope of work come into play when creating an appropriate price for service. As you build your proposal, consider the following:

Labor: In addition to equipment operators and personnel to clear sidewalks and any stairs, spotters and safety personnel are needed if you are clearing during operating hours when pedestrians or patrons are on-site and when snow is being blown, dumped or otherwise removed from the top decks to a staging area. 

Start/completion times: These will depend on the type of facility being serviced and the customer’s requirements. Facilities that need to be open 24/7 may require a different approach than, for example, a retail facility that needs to be open for business by 8 a.m. It is important to consider the impact storm timing can have on those plans (e.g., a daytime storm that would require an office parking deck to be serviced before workers leave for the day).

Equipment: Load limits, height limitations and tight turning radii in parking garages will limit the equipment that can be used to service parking garages. Skid steers with plows or blowers and plow trucks are most common. 

Cycle times: The total estimated time it takes to service these sites is greatly impacted by the equipment restrictions and the scope of work (i.e., hauling, dumping, removal, ice management, etc.). Tight spaces will also make maneuverability difficult, which can slow cycle time and may require the contractor to add resources.

Site size & complexity: The geometric reality of parking garages must be considered in the bidding process. This not only includes the size of the structure, but also the construction materials; existing condition; intricate pieces (e.g., expansion joints, waterproofing, structural and architectural elements, exposed utility components, etc.) that will be expensive to replace or repair if damaged. 

Services needed: Snow clearing is the minimum level of service for these facilities. With parking spots at a premium and load limits preventing much stacking, snow hauling, removal, relocation and/or melting may be required. Ice management services may be necessary, as well as servicing or treating exterior sidewalks, curbs, and ingress/egress stairways exposed to the elements.

Marketing strategy: Evaluate the site and determine if there are upsell opportunities that would deliver more value to your client such as preventive maintenance and upkeep (e.g., power washing, sweeping, signage/line repainting, etc.). Before crafting a bid, request copies of the property manager’s overall facility plan to make sure the level of service matches what’s included and goes beyond it if it is necessary to limit your liability. This should include copies of any warranties on the facility’s expansion joints, weatherproofing, etc. Improper service that could void a warranty could cost you much more than the contract is worth.
Cheryl Higley is editor in chief of Snow Business magazine. Contact her at
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