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Banking on a wild guess

  • Dale Keep
- Posted: December 4, 2017

This year I have worked with snow and ice control professionals from a variety of locations and agencies, including the private sector, government agencies and airport personnel. With snow professionals from different backgrounds getting to know each other, the relaxed atmosphere and the subject matter always lead to some interesting listening.

Common topics usually include the proactive vs. reactive approach to deicing; the use of sweepers and plows to remove snow to minimize deicer use; how different deicers are being utilized; - whether it’s the private sector increasing or maintaining a profitable bottom line or the public sector meeting an agency budget.

At the heart of the discussions, though, was a central concern: deicers’ role in meeting level of service goals.

These discussions presented me with great insight into the operations, challenges and perspectives of the companies and people represented. It was during one of these discussions that I asked what someone called the million-dollar question.

The calibration conundrum
I simply asked: “With the correct use of deicers being so important to all of you, is it correct for me to believe that if you were asked to accurately apply however many pounds or gallons per acre/lane mile, you and/or your crew would be prepared to do it?”

The responses were somewhat surprising:

  • Only a small percentage said that they calibrate their equipment.
  • Those who hadn’t calibrated led me to believe they never had.
  • If they had to apply a specific amount of deicer, most said they would estimate the settings and equipment speed required to get that application rate based on their experience.

The discussion for those who don’t calibrate often went to how good they were at knowing how much they applied from experience. This was met with polite amazement by those that understand the value of calibration and take the time to do it.

How can you estimate the equipment settings and application speed required to accurately make the desired application rate based on experience, when you don’t even know the accurate application rate?

Cost vs. purchase price

While the debate continued, it struck me - cost versus purchase price. In my column in the September issue, I talked about this very issue with regard to use of liquids. No matter how many contractors are using liquid deicers with great money-making success, who realize that the best buy is based on cost of use or ownership and not the purchase price, and who understand the benefits of knowing how much deicer was actually applied because of calibration, some are not doing it and don’t seem to believe it is necessary or important.

So how did the million-dollar comment come about? Someone stated that if, on average, each applicator nationwide overapplied by $100 a season, the amount of money wasted would easily be over $1 million. Although all involved seemed to agree the estimate was reasonable, being a numbers guy, I had to research the assumption.

In reality, this statement was likely way off. According to the IBISWorld “Snowplowing Services in the US Industry” report published in 2014, there are approximately 110,000 snow and ice contractors/companies in North America. Just using that number (not considering that many of these companies calibrate their equipment), the cost of overapplication would be $11 million.

While this is a wild guess, I believe my result is much closer than the results of those companies who regularly apply deicers using the same wild guess methodology. I simply do not understand their logic or lack thereof when so much is at stake.


Dale Keep owns Ice & Snow Technologies, a training and consulting company based in Walla Walla, WA. Email him at

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