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Sidewalks are no side issue

  • SIMA
- Posted: October 29, 2018
By Erich Oelschlegel, ASM

Sidewalk operations are an essential component of full-service snow removal. According to this year’s Snow Business State of the Industry survey, respondents cited sidewalk operations as one of the biggest operational challenges, second only to workforce retention.

Historically though, sidewalks have played second fiddle to plowing operations for multiple reasons. At Suburban Snow Plow, sidewalk operations play a critical role in our game plan. Sidewalk operations present challenges, but you can develop a successful sidewalk operations strategy to help mitigate the headaches.

The barriers
Why are sidewalk operations so difficult to do well? What makes this seemingly simple job such a burden to manage? 

The job. Shoveling snow is back-breaking work. It’s repetitive, highly intensive and involves moving around heavy loads. It doesn’t take long for your workers’ energy to drain and pain to settle in. As a result, it’s not a job most people want to do, at least not for long.

The workforce. Finding help is difficult. Kids used to roam the neighborhood when it snowed, knocking on doors looking to make a few bucks. These days, they are generally averse to manual labor. Poor physical fitness further decreases the labor pool, with fewer people equal to the task. These attitudes often continue into young adulthood. Those who are left are comparatively older and wiser to the health risks involved, and labor costs rise as a result. Finding capable workers is hard enough; retaining them is another headache.

The tools. Unlike other industries where heavy loads get moved around, snow moving looks pretty much the same as it always has. Every other industry that involves people lifting heavy loads has innovated, whether adding shoulder carry straps for moving large appliances, or hand trucks to tilt and roll heavy loads from points A to B. 

Snow is a different beast. You can’t pick up snow by the corners, and it doesn’t roll. There’s been little innovation in hand tools, aside from the introduction of bent-handle shovels, low-profile pushers and power brooms. Snow blowers make quick work of deep snow, but they’re difficult to transport and can be dangerous to operate. In the end, no single piece of equipment fits every job; and hauling all that extra machinery introduces logistical challenges that many companies can’t handle, consuming overhead and slowing overall execution.

The costs. Foot for foot, sidewalks are more expensive to service. Until recently, using traditional hand shovels meant nearly all costs involved in clearing sidewalks were personnel related. Compared to the efficiency of a snowplow that can clear 8-foot swaths with ease, sidewalk clearing requires smaller equipment, often handheld. This translates to lower efficiency, not to mention a high dependency on the speed and energy of your workers. After only a few hours of work, labor efficiency plummets, and costs skyrocket.

Customer acceptance of industry norms. When shopping for commercial snow removal services, many businesses initially only consider their parking lots. Consequently, most snow removal companies start with only a truck and a snowplow. None of us want the back-breaking work associated with shoveling snow. As a result, sidewalks have been relegated reluctantly to the realm of “additional services.”

The breakthroughs
New technological developments and shifting attitudes in the customer base have changed the way we operate as an industry.

Liability. Slip and fall claims are rising, with sidewalks playing a major culprit in litigation. Avoiding liability has played an increasing role in how we do business. Not clearing sidewalks with some measure of expediency can expose businesses to massive lawsuits. As a result, our clients have become insistent upon full-service snow removal, including reliable sidewalk clearing. Furthermore, their compliance requirements have forced our industry to adjust how we do business.

Bundled service industry. Customers really want peace of mind. They want solutions, not à la carte services. And dealing with multiple vendors is a hassle. A company that does three things decently is often preferable to three companies that each do one thing well.

New technology. Rising labor costs have driven innovation in use of heavy equipment to reduce man hours. Manufacturers of landscape tractors have begun to craft custom attachments to expand the use of their products for four seasons. The past few years have seen an increase in vendors bringing to market equipment designed purposely for sidewalk operations. Sidewalk snow vehicles operate like mini-skid steers. They’re powerful enough to push large snow piles but compact enough to navigate narrow sidewalks. ATV-mounted plows have found a home on large campuses and commercial properties.

One operator with one of these machines can clear a larger area in the same span of time - without slowing down - than a whole team of shovelers. Robotic solutions are beginning to emerge, which may lead to the removal of personnel costs altogether.

Should you invest in new technology, there is an upside that’s not entirely related to sidewalk operations - higher retention rates. Shoveling snow is a drudgery that few employees relish. But getting to ride and operate heavy equipment is a game changer. Not only do your employees feel valued when you entrust them with a $10,000 piece of equipment, but they have fun using it.

The industry is bringing to market new equipment that allows contractors to work more effectively and efficiently in tight spaces like sidewalks.

Further considerations
New technology doesn’t solve every problem. Every other challenge remains a factor: individual labor is still expensive and snow is still heavy. And while trading bodies for equipment has been shown to reduce overall costs, it introduces new challenges. Initial costs are a major hurdle, and after that, logistics becomes the key battle.
Purchasing. There is considerable risk involved in purchasing expensive equipment. Unless you’re a large company with money to burn, most of us are thinking about buying one or two machines at most. Before you purchase, questions to answer before you buy include:
  • Are sidewalks a significant part of your business?
  • Are your properties close together or spread out?
  • Do you have enough clients to justify the purchase now?
  • Do you have any properties large enough to justify their own equipment?
  • Does your area get enough snowfall to justify the expense? 
Be a savvy buyer
Once you’ve decided to buy, be smart about when you buy, and always look for deals. If you’re just starting out, you might not be able to justify new equipment but there are good options for renting equipment if you do your homework. 
  • The worst time to buy is just before the season begins, so be proactive. Start looking as soon as your season ends.
  • Scour online buy-and-sell groups for bargains.
  • Look for auctions. Large snow and ice firms like to unload tons of used equipment at the end of each season.
  • Widen your search radius. We found a piece of equipment on Craigslist two states away that was being sold due to lack of snow.
Logistics. Large sites can often justify having staged, dedicated equipment. In these cases, the logistics solve themselves. But what if you only have a bunch of small sites? You need to be able to move equipment around just as fast as if you were in a plow truck. For many companies, that means hauling. However, that takes your plow out of the fight unless you can dump the trailer. Coupled with time spent loading and unloading the equipment, that can add up to a lot of moving pieces, and requires careful consideration.

Alternatively, a dedicated sidewalk operations support vehicle like a medium-cab cargo or extended-body van can shuttle crews and equipment. For smaller landscape contractors, a light-duty truck with trailer works just as well.

Investment in new equipment doesn’t have to be pricey. Look for deals at auction or on used equipment sites.

Kick it up a notch
Overcoming the logistics of moving dedicated sidewalk equipment is a victory in any book. But maximizing use of your equipment by improving on-site and site-to-site efficiency will transport you to the next level. Time is money, and any time spent loading and unloading equipment adds up in overhead costs. Travel time is another drain on profitability. Overhead costs will make or break your season, so minimize them to reap the greatest rewards. 

Maintain your equipment. Not all overhead is bad. Equipment maintenance is not something to skimp on. Your efficiency drops to zero if the equipment doesn’t run. Get to know your owner’s manual, perform your checks, and always keep common repair parts on hand. If your shop isn’t close to your job sites, make sure any consumables travel with the equipment, and don’t forget to fuel up.

Train your crews. Familiarize your teams with their new toys. Crew drills are one of the most effective ways to increase efficiency and build team cohesion. Practice loading and unloading, and use the equipment when you walk the site with them during preseason. Let everyone have a turn, even if they won’t be the primary operator - you never know when you may need a backup. 

Put equipment to use. Maximize your time on site. As soon as you arrive, get it up and running so you can pack it back up and get to the next location. Every minute your equipment is not being used is money wasted. A shovel can be put down or a spreader left on the truck, but a sidewalk tractor with no operator is unthinkable. 

Crew management. A sidewalk tractor loaded and waiting for others to finish is just as bad as slow loading. Ideally, your crew members should finish around the same time, but not all job sites are created equal. Every job is a team effort, and cross-training pays off big time.

Optimize your routes
. Efficient routing can have a major impact on reducing overhead. Time spent traveling is equivalent to time spent loading and unloading. Plan your routes with common sense and consider that not using the equipment at certain sites may increase efficiency. For instance, a large site far away might not make as much sense to use a sidewalk tractor as several small sites close together. Identify key locations and plan for the most efficient use of your equipment.

Saturate your home market. We have over 100 sites clustered along a five-mile stretch of a major roadway in northwest Philadelphia. This is not by accident. The idea is to be able to ride your equipment to the next site instead of loading and unloading it constantly. Not only do you increase efficiency, your clients get faster service and are happier as a result.

New and evolving sidewalk equipment technology can help companies increase efficiency in snow clearing operations. 

A wider strategy
At Suburban, we’ve taken this sidewalk optimization strategy and applied it to our whole operation. Our crews are mostly autonomous, because we give them the tools they need to get the job done. We stay in constant communication for situational awareness and to help each other out. This has enabled us, in some cases, to entirely decouple sidewalk crews from the plows that serve a particular route. 

At the end of the day, sidewalk operations use the same core principles that make any snow business successful. Give them the same attention paid to other business areas, and you’ll find it hard not to succeed. 

Erich Oelschlegel, ASM, runs a website design consultancy and serves as technology manager at Suburban Snow Plow in Philadelphia. Email him at
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