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Consumer Tips - Finding the right winter services provider

This information was developed by the Snow and Ice Management Association in order to educate the general public about the snow and ice management industry. It illustrates the current key issues in the industry, and is designed to bring a higher level of understanding concerning the difficulties private snow and ice management contractors face every winter.

Snow and ice management contractors are the heroes of winter. They clear your sidewalks and driveways. They plow and salt the lots at your local grocery store, your place of work, and the doctor's office. When they do their job well, you don't even notice them. In fact, most people don't even think about them until they need one.

Until recently, snow removal contractors and their work was looked at as a side-business, not an industry in itself. With the work of SIMA and other individuals in the industry, people are starting to realize the validity of the Snow and Ice Management Industry, and the difficulties that it faces every storm.

The weather is too chaotic to predict accurately, and each storm or snow event is different from the last. In a city, one portion may get 3 inches of snow and ice, while another location gets only 1 inch of light snow. Local conditions can change rapidly and without warning. In the United States:

Each year an average of 105 snow-producing storms affect the continental United States. A typical storm will have a snow-producing lifetime of two to five days and will bring snow to portions of several states.

About 70% of winter-storm-related deaths occur in automobiles. The rest are primarily due to heart attacks from over-exertions such as shoveling heavy snow or from hypothermia caused by overexposure to the cold.

Snow continues to challenge weather experts across the country. It is still very difficult to predict and is surprisingly hard to measure once it has fallen.

These are some of the difficulties snow and ice management professionals not only need to handle, but also run a reliable and profitable business around. Historically in the US and Canada, contractors have fought this battle alone.

Following are current issues facing snow removal contractors. This will provide knowledge of the industry that will help you evaluate potential service providers.

Many state and local governments have passed laws concerning snow removal, especially relating to sidewalks in residential areas. Any contractor performing services must schedule their work accordingly.

Snow and Ice managers operate in a business that is plagued with lawsuits concerning slip and fall accidents. Often times, both the property manager and the snow removal contractor are named in such cases. Any case that is argued in favor of the plaintiff can result in court costs, damages, and raised insurance rates.

Insurance costs have skyrocketed since 9/11, and nowhere has the hit been felt more than in the snow and ice removal industry. Not only are insurance rates at least 20% higher than in the past, many contractors have trouble even finding an insurance company that will cover them at all. These added costs and problems must be accounted for in the pricing of snow removal services. Insurance coverage is a must in this business, and companies that are adequately covered will cost more than those that aren't.

In a 2003 survey, snow & ice professionals reported an average increase of approx. 22.8% in insurance costs from 2002-2003.
Increased costs for clients
Monetary safety net for liability claims

Snow professionals spent an average of $28,000 on group health insurance in 2001/2002
$18,000 on vehicle equipment insurance
$13,000 on general commercial liability
$5,000 on umbrella policies

SOURCE: Snow Business Magazine's State of the Industry; Marathon Man's State of the Industry: The Great DivideTM 2002 and 2003.

A written contract, signed by both parties, is the best way to ensure that each party is aware of its obligations. This in turn protects both the contractor and the property manager and helps to define the relationship in clear and concise terms.

All SIMA members have access to template contracts for both residential and commercial services. These contracts can be customized by either the property owner or the snow removal contractor to fit the needs of each relationship. SIMA recommends that any snow removal contractor be involved in the contract process, whether the property manager simply uses a contract from the snow removal service provider, or works with the contractor to develop a suitable contract for the relationship. Remember, most contractors already have contracts that work; it is often times easier to work with those than to write a completely new contract.

In general, a contract:
Helps protect property managers and snow removal companies from potential lawsuits
Creates specific guidelines for each client/contractor relationship
Helps ensure responsibility for both parties

It cannot be stressed enough that the work snow and ice management professionals provide is difficult and dangerous. Always try and remember that the provider will have more than just your property to maintain each time a storm hits. Every single one of those properties wants the same service and speed as you, which is why it is important to communicate clearly with the contractor exactly what you need from their service.

Things to consider in relation to the weather and conditions include:
Every major storm or snow event needs a response
Snow removal operators work long and irregular hours
Before businesses open
Late nights
Dangerous weather conditions/storms

Historically, snow and ice removal has been achieved with over-use of chemicals and the use of shovels, plows, and other equipment. In recent times, granular materials have become a popular and effective method for maintaining safe conditions during and after a storm. Recent innovations in the industry have lead to new findings regarding which products are effective and efficient. A quick review of current terminology provides a simple breakdown of the options that are currently available on the market, as defined by SIMATM Basic Principles for Ice Control training video:

De-Icing: Deicing is the reactive application of ice control products to driving or walking surfaces, to melt existing snow and ice. Deicing is performed after snow removal operations to melt any remaining snow and ice.

Anti-Icing: Anti-icing is the pro-active application of ice and snow melting products to driving or walking surfaces prior to a snow or ice storm. Anti-icing helps prevent snow and ice from bonding to the pavement, allowing snow and ice to be cleared more easily. When used effectively, anti-icing can create some of the safest conditions in the winter, and be a cost-effective alternative to de-icing.

Understanding the difference between anti-icing and de-icing can yield insight into the different approaches utilized by professional snow removal services. Professional services do not always rely on one approach or tool for all storms, but use a variety of tools to maintain the safest conditions possible during the season. A main goal for a professional service provider, which benefits both the property manager and the contractor, is to reach a designated level of service as quickly and efficiently as possible. Any information in this section is very general, only a trained and qualified snow and ice professional should make decisions regarding what material to use on a specific location. Currently the most common products used are:

Sand: Although sand can provide some amount of traction, it technically is not a de-icing material, since sand in no way melts snow or ice. A common misperception is that sand is the best alternative for snow and ice control due to its low cost and common use. However, sand by itself is not the best method to create a safe condition for pedestrians and motorists. Finally, new studies from government agencies are finding that sand is actually one of the most environmentally damaging tools used in snow and ice management, due to drainage into the water system.

Salt: Sodium Chloride, or rock salt, is the most common de-icer in use today. Generally this product is effective, though not at all conditions. Only a knowledgeable snow and ice contractor will know when and how to apply the right amount of material to create a safe environment for your property. In very cold conditions (typically less than 23 degrees F), salt begins to lose its effectiveness an is either not used or is overused in an attempt to make up for reduced performance.

Sand/Salt Mix: Another common practice is to mix sand and salt together for de-icing. This method is effective in maintaining some traction, due to the sand, but it will reduce the amount of salt that can be applied to an area, so less de-icing occurs while environmental concerns and clean-up costs associated with sand rise.

There are many other products in use in today's market, and each of these differ in effectiveness, cost, availability, and environmental impact. Talk to your in-house snow removal specialist or private contractor to determine your needs. These products include:
- Calcium Chloride
- Magnesium Chloride
- Potassium Chloride
- Urea
- Calcium Magnesium Acetate
- Potassium Acetate

Pricing for snow and ice removal services is one of the most difficult aspects of the business. Factors that a contractor must consider are equipment, size of the area, specifics of the job, employee time, and weather conditions. Local markets can also play a role in pricing structures. In general, there are a number of different ways for contractors to price a job:
Per push-Charged a constant rate each time contractor visits the site
Per season
Per inch of snow
Per hour
Mixed model

Ask your potential providers which methods they use to price jobs, and see if they are open to pricing that makes it easier for you to budget appropriately.