'Ultimate' machines for blowing the snow Plows: For those who worry year-round about moving snow, symposium offers state-of-the-art equipment.

September 05, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- It's got two plow blades, one in front of the truck and another under its belly. It's got Global Position Sensors and brine lines, salt spreaders and chemical sprayers. It even has a Norwegian-made pavement friction reader.

The $180,000, computer-loaded snowplow -- the pride and joy of the Iowa Department of Transportation -- arrived in Hagerstown yesterday and stole the show.

"This," said Virginia highway worker Clifton Balderson, standing before the bright orange beast, "is the ultimate snow machine."

Balderson was one of nearly 1,300 plowers, sales representatives and bureaucrats who gathered yesterday for the second Eastern Winter Road Maintenance Symposium and Equipment Expo at Hagerstown's Ramada Inn Convention Center.

You might not have given snow much thought yesterday -- a sunny wonder only 72 hours this side of Labor Day.

But these are folks who carry winter worries all year around. They have trucks to buy, trucks to fix, workers to line up, budgets to balance and almanac forecasts to fret over. The expo nearly doubled in attendance from last year, and federal and state organizers expect it to keep growing.

Yesterday, the snowmen came from as far away as Utah, arriving with different levels of snowfall on their minds. In the case of a three-man crew from Kingsport, Tenn., that wasn't much.

And so the 7-foot-high V-plow, inspected by Danny Calton, Bryan Martin and Steve Morris, was little more than entertainment.

"If we took something like that down the road," Martin said, "they'd think a UFO was coming."

The crew typically plows two storms a year, each in the 5-inch range. "All of this just amazes us," Morris said.

For points north and west, snow plowing is big, big business. Take the 23-inch Blizzard of 1996 in Maryland. The state's counties said they spent $65 million cleaning roads.

State snow crews needed an additional $50 million for the entire winter. They used about 40,000 gallons of liquid magnesium chloride, 16,000 tons of calcium chloride and 400,000 tons of salt. That's about 50,000 truckloads of salt, a caravan that would stretch from Baltimore to Albany, N.Y.

What about this winter in Maryland? The National Weather Service offers no long-range snowfall forecast, saying it's too difficult to predict this year.

Less academic sources offer mixed opinions. The Old Farmer's Almanac predicts slightly below average snowfall. The Hagers-town Town and Country Almanack, a Maryland institution for 201 years, is calling for slightly above average amounts.

More than 80 sales representatives at the expo are banking on the Hagers-town prediction.

They lined up on the convention floor, pitching everything from salt storage domes to calcium chloride, the latter touted as "The Ice Eliminator."

Steve Bytnar of Marshall, Minn., was prepared to drink his product to illustrate its environmental sensitivity. Bytnar was pushing something called Ice Ban, a mix of fermentation residues of molasses, corn, barley, other crops and milk. It is used to de-ice roads.

"The dilution curve on that product is phenomenal," he told one potential client. "What we have is a product that will not freeze until 40 below."

Ice Ban goes for about $1 a gallon.

The $180,000 Iowa plow wasn't so much of a commercial venture. Its engineers said they received state funding to build the prototype, state-of-the-art machine.

Inside the cab, the operator is faced with nine levers, four small computer screens and these instructions: "Insert data card with program files located in root directories."

The Norwegian device automatically checks roads for ice, adjusting blade height accordingly. Three infrared sensors behind the truck will make the truck stop if they detect a car, mailbox or small child.

The truck drew many admirers. Men looked it over, nodding their heads and scratching their chins.

"It seems to me you could use a stinger blade on it," allowed one plow operator, referring to a blade that cuts grooves in ice.

Others were less impressed, saying the machine was too fancy for the reality of zero-degree whiteouts.

"Too many moving parts," summed up one.

Another large truck -- a $104,000 dual blade with a silver aluminum salt bed -- caught the attention of Virginia road worker Richard Main.

"You'd love to go out and operate that, just once," said Main, part of a plower fraternity that is bound across state lines by the difficulty of their jobs and the high expectations of the public.

During blizzards, the crews can go five or six days without seeing their families. They stay up day and night when they should be sleeping, swapping stories while lying on cots in the darkness of maintenance sheds.

Get enough plowers together, and they'll start swapping stories of irate citizens. Like the time David Repass pushed snow into the driveway of a Montgomery County man, who waited for Repass when he turned his plow around to clean the other side of the street.

"He came out of the house and said he was going to shoot me," said Repass, sporting a Ford Tractor hat on his head, a wad of Levi Garrett tobacco in his mouth and the name "David" stamped on the back of his belt.

Not every snowbound citizen is so mean.

"One woman came out with about a half a dozen warm muffins," recalled Main. "She said, 'I appreciate what you've done. You've been out here for six days. If you want some coffee, just come by, and we'll put on a pot.' "

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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