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How to Improve Snowplow Operations with Fleet Management Solutions Brian Dziuk | Jan 28, 2019 11:04:00 AM

The winter season creates extremely hazardous road conditions for motorists. According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), almost 70% of the U.S. population lives in snowy regions. Each year, 24% of weather-related accidents occur due to icy, snowy, or slushy road conditions that result in more than 1,300 deaths and 116,800 accident-related injuries.

This is why most municipalities use snowplow operations during the winter to perform regular street cleaning — ensuring all roads remain safe and clear of snow and ice hazards. Some of the biggest challenges municipalities face during the winter season include:

  • Managing ice countermeasures;
  • Handling equipment maintenance;
  • Optimizing snowplowing routes; and
  • Minimizing unsafe driving behaviors.

Every state, county, and city government has to deal with these challenges on a limited operating budget. Going over-budget for snowplow operations can mean money gets taken away from other projects. This could negatively impact other municipal operations throughout the year. On the other hand, being under-budget can mean more money is available for other needs and emergencies.

How can municipalities optimize their snowplow operations to overcome these challenges and improve safety for their constituents? What tools can municipalities use to achieve their operational goals?

Tips for Productive Snowplow Operations

Improving the operational efficiency of snowplow vehicles and equipment is a great way to get more done with snowplow vehicles on a tight budget. With this in mind, here are some tips for improving snowplow efficiency.

1: Buy Ice Countermeasures During Warm Months

Rock salt is a perennial favorite countermeasure for preventing the formation of ice on municipal roads. As a common and often inexpensive commodity, rock salt makes for a great, low-cost countermeasure to ice and snow buildup.

However, to minimize costs, it’s important to stock up on rock salt well before you actually need it. This is because shortages of road salt—which often hit when municipalities across the nation all try to stock up for the winter season at once—can dramatically increase the cost of road salt.

As noted in an NPR.org article from after the 2014 winter storm season, “This winter’s relentless snowstorms have depleted stockpiles and pushed the salt industry to its limit… Earlier in the year, a ton of rock salt would cost $50. Now, it can cost $250 or more.”

A few years later, another salt shortage struck the country—leading to another dramatic increase in the cost of this vital snow and ice countermeasure. As noted by Turfscape in one of their blog articles, “Some of the biggest suppliers are already claiming salt shortage and prices have escalated 100% over the 2017-2018 season.”

Waiting until winter is already here is a surefire way to end up having to pay premiums for road salt—assuming that it can be acquired in the first place. Securing road salt in the summer months can help reduce costs significantly.

Additionally, municipalities could attempt to source rock salt from a supplier in the lower hemisphere during winter, as these sources would be experiencing their summers at this time, lowering local demand—the cost savings on the raw product may be able to offset the cost of shipping over long distances.

2: Avoid Over-Plowing Roads

Although it is important to keep roadways clear of ice and snow in the winter to ensure the safety of commuters, over-servicing roads by having plows cover the same areas repeatedly is a waste of time, fuel, and other limited resources. Worse, it leaves other roads under-serviced—blocking in vital side streets that could help keep traffic flowing.

Finding ways to ensure that plows are only clearing roads that actually need service and optimizing snowplow routes is critical for avoiding waste of fuel and ice countermeasures. Additionally, by avoiding repeat plowing of the same roads, snowplow fleets can cover more ground.

3: Keep Snowplows Well-Maintained

Extensive vehicle repair is incredibly costly. The longer vehicle maintenance is put off, the costlier it will be in most cases—especially if the plow breaks down on the road.

By focusing on preventative maintenance that keeps your plows in top shape, municipalities can actually reduce the total amount they spend on maintenance.

To optimize maintenance to focus on prevention, snowplow fleet managers need detailed data about each vehicle in the fleet, including:

  • Total vehicle mileage;
  • Engine performance data;
  • How far the vehicle has traveled since its last maintenance check; and
  • Onboard diagnostics data of key vehicle systems.

Having this information makes it much easier to target the specific maintenance issues that are most likely to become a problem in the future.

4: Monitor Driver Behaviors

Keeping an eye on every driver in a municipal maintenance fleet is easier said than done, but it’s an important part of ensuring efficiency and increasing productivity.

Knowing where drivers have been (and when they were there) is key for tracking how effectively they’re using their time behind the wheel. Bad driving behaviors such as excessive idling, going off-route, accelerating too hard, and sharp breaking can all impact safety, efficiency, and productivity in one way or another.

However, most municipalities don’t have the resources to put a supervisor in the passenger seat of every vehicle on every trip. Thankfully, they don’t have to.

Using GPS fleet vehicle tracking for snowplows allows municipal vehicle fleet managers to passively collect key data on how each and every vehicle in the fleet is being used. Even better, many GPS units can tie into a vehicle’s onboard diagnostics system, allowing for the remote collection of key engine performance data—including diagnostic codes that serve as an early warning for when maintenance is needed.

Simplifying Snowplow Operations and Tracking with Rastrac

Several of the tips listed above lean heavily on GPS tracking capabilities to be practical. Telematics solutions with vehicle-mounted GPS devices help municipal fleet managers collect the data that they need to enact safety policies, optimize snowplow routes, and optimize maintenance schedules.

When an advanced GPS tracking system incorporated into a municipal snowplow fleet, it’s a rare snowstorm that can’t be handled in a safe and systematic manner. Even with heavy snowfall, snowplow routes can be set to keep important roads clear efficiently—helping to minimize the impact of snow storms while increasing road safety and minimizing costs.

Rastrac’s snowplow GPS tracking solutions are all optimized to help municipalities increase the effectiveness of their snowplow operations so they can focus on more important matters. Here are a few of the ways that Rastrac GPS tracking systems can help:

Weather Alerts

Today, there is no reason that a driver should be unaware of hazardous road conditions, threatening storm developments, or road closures. The National Weather Service is just one of the organizations that provide weather and climate forecasts, and announces warnings to the public, and private sectors. Systems are available specifically for truckers that display maps demonstrating, in real time, existing weather conditions.

A “Current Forecast Conditions Map,” for example, displays information across the nation specifically indicating “Heavy Snow Possible,” “Severe T-Storm Possible,” or “Flash Flood Possible” weather alerts. A “Current Precipitation Map” displays precipitation across the entire U.S. Truckers don’t have to drive into it anymore to discover that road conditions are dangerous or impassable.

GPS Tracking and Route Optimization

Roads may need to be plowed repeatedly during a lengthy storm. Fleet tracking systems for snowplows have route optimization tools that allow managers to remotely track the specific times that a road was cleared, the amount of time that has elapsed since the plowing, and plan a designated time to re-plow the road according to the snow and ice conditions.

A route optimization program, such as StreetComplete by RASTRAC, features a street map overlay with colors identifying a timeline. The user assigns a specific color to mark a street that has just been plowed. Another color replaces that color after a predetermined period, such as 30 minutes or one hour. Another color will be shown when the street has not been plowed for an extended length of time.

Snowplow progress and street clearing can be remotely monitored, at a glance, by fleet managers in their offices or on the go with their smartphones. This at-a-glance view of snow clearing operations minimizes the risk of snowplows redoing areas that have been recently completed.

Each vehicle is kept on track to the next destination, and the streets are cleared methodically, with each being kept clear throughout the storm’s progress.

Map Overlays

GPS solutions with map overlays help fleet managers make the most efficient and effective use of their snowplow operations by detailing roads that help them plan their strategy according to priority levels. Priority levels identify the most important accessibility roads during snow emergencies. These levels typically include:

  • Priority Level One. The highest priority routes are those needed for emergency responders traveling to and from hospitals, fire stations, and police stations. Bridges and steep hills that are likely to freeze are also often designated priority one.
  • Priority Level Two. Priority level two routes are completed after level one has been completed. Level two routes are roads that have high levels of traffic and are used to access subdivisions, schools, city recreational resources, and nursing homes.
  • Priority Level Three. Level three routes include residential subdivisions and all other remaining roadways. These streets are cleared only after completion of one and two.

On-Board Diagnostic Code Collection

Onboard diagnostics are a huge asset for fleet managers. GPS systems combined with onboard diagnostics provide real-time updates about the engine performance, fuel expenditure, and emissions. Managers receive notifications about engine issues and other problems before the vehicle breaks down.

Separate Sensors on Plows

Many plows are now equipped with additional sensors, placed on the plows, which detect air and road temperature, friction, and identify slippery driving conditions. This not only helps to inform the public of dangerous road conditions, it helps fleet managers determine which deicing material will be the most effective, such as:

  • Salt:this deicing material costs less than many others, but is most effective after the snow has just fallen and the temperature is approximately 15° Fahrenheit.
  • Liquid:chemical deicers typically need to be used before the snow has fallen. They cost more, but less is used, so it can actually be more cost effective depending on dispersion rate, the base chemical used, and how much of it gets washed away by melting snow.

Benefits of Using GPS Tracking Devices for Snowplow Operations

Why should a municipality use GPS tracking to improve snowplow operations? There are many reasons, including:

Increasing Snowplow Efficiency

Managing plowing operations takes a careful balance. Plow and salt roads too frequently, and you’ll just waste fuel, time, and materials. Taking too long between plow operations can let snow and ice pile dangerously high, causing accidents and blocking road access for commuters.

Being able to track exactly which roads have been plowed and when is a powerful tool for maximizing efficiency and making sure that no road goes too long without being cleared of ice and snow. This is something that GPS tracking for snowplows can help with.

For example, the StreetComplete solution makes optimizing snowplow deployments on the fly very easy, allowing municipalities to avoid re-plowing the same streets over and over to focus resources where they’re most needed.

Increasing Safety

Mishaps happen. A snowplow’s engine might seize up from prolonged exposure to the cold, the driver might hit an obstacle that was hidden by snow, or a tire might burst. Whatever the reason, it’s all too easy for a plow, and its driver, to get stranded out in the field.

With GPS tracking for snowplows, municipal fleet managers can easily locate a stranded driver’s last location and send help right away. By sending help right to the last known GPS coordinates, help arrives sooner rather than later, reducing risk of illness or injury from the cold.

Preventing Waste

It would be great if every driver made the best use of their time behind the wheel. Unfortunately, efficiency isn’t guaranteed. Between unofficial side trips and wasteful driving habits, there’s a surprising amount of time, fuel, and rock salt that can go to waste during snowplow operations.

GPS fleet tracking can help municipalities reduce waste in snowplow operations by tracking driver activities. With logs of where each vehicle has traveled, engine idle time, acceleration and braking habits, and other key data, fleet managers can quickly spot wasteful drivers and correct the behaviors that lead to wasted time and resources.

Faster Emergency Snow Clearing Response

Winter weather makes emergency response services more complicated and dangerous. In some situations, there might not be a clear road to an emergency call location. With GPS location data for each of your snowplows in the field, you can quickly identify which plows are closest to the path that emergency responders need cleared.

This can save precious minutes on the process of having snowplow drivers call out their locations over the radio to confirm who is the closest. In an emergency response situation, this could save lives.

These are just a few of the ways that using GPS fleet tracking for snowplow operations can help your municipality this winter. Get started on making your municipality safer and more efficient for winter now!

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