Don’t let the rain and the warmer temperatures from earlier this week fool you – winter is coming. The five-day forecast predicts temperatures will hover around the freezing mark, with flurries expected early next week. Now would be a good time to get those winter tires on your car if you haven’t already done so.
Fortunately, the Region of Waterloo and the Township of Woolwich are always planning ahead for the winter season, in particular for winter road maintenance.
“We strive to have everything all done by Nov. 15, and we were ahead of schedule this year,” said Ed Switenky, the region’s manager of transportation operations. “We’re just waiting for the snow now.”
A considerable amount of work goes into preparing for the winter season, he said. It’s much more involved than simply firing up the snowplows when the first blizzard hits the area. The region has hired 15 additional drivers this year to cover two plowing shifts during the day, bringing the total number of drivers up to 51.
The shifts run in the morning from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and in the afternoon from 3 to 11 p.m.
“Once we hire those people, we then have to train them,” Switenky continued. “They’re trained in the importance of minimizing the amount of salt used and make sure the roads are maintained safely. They are trained in all the equipment, and go through an extensive two-week training program.”
In each of the past 12 years, the region has erected about 13.5 kilometres of snow fencing along regional roads to prevent snow from drifting across the driving lanes. To keep the surfaces clear, crews use about 50,000 tons of salt each year.
Switenky notes the region has made a concerted effort to reduce the amount of salt that goes on the road to lessen the impact on the environment.
“One of the problems with salt is when you drop it on the roadway it bounces,” Switenky explained. “So a lot of it bounces off the roadway and it doesn’t help you at all.”
To counteract that, the region pre-soaks the salt in a water/ brine mixture to activate the salt beforehand to help it stick to the road better, using less salt as a result. The region does not, however, typically use sand on the roadways, which Switenky said is due to the higher volume on the regional roads that would render sand ineffective.
On bridges, which freeze quicker than the roads because of the presence of cold air under and over the road, the region uses a combination of a water/ brine mixture and beet juice. The juice helps to lower the temperature at which the salt can melt the ice, while remaining environmentally friendly.
The region is also experimenting with natural snow fencing such as bushes, trees, or even farmers’ corn to limit the amount of snow fencing they have to use each year – it is a very labour-intensive job that takes up a lot of time.
“We just really started last year, we haven’t got the program up yet but we’re investigating a couple ideas,” Switenky said.
Meanwhile, Woolwich does its winter maintenance a little bit differently. The township does not have the luxury of hiring extra help for the winters. Instead, they reassign existing workers to help with winter maintenance.
“We all wear many hats here,” said Barry Baldasaro, the superintendant of Woolwich public works.
The township has seven plows, as well as one backup truck and two graders that are fitted with ice-breaking blades for use on gravel roads. Much like at the region, township drivers need to prepare for each season by inspecting the trucks and by driving their routes to look for any obstacles that they may hit with the plow once they are covered in snow.
Baldasaro said they aim to be ready for winter by the middle of November as well, and that the township and the region work together to ensure commuters have a safe drive.
“In the cities of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, the regional roads are maintained by the city staff, but in the townships the region looks after the regional roads. For example Arthur Street is a regional road that the region plows, and the township plows all the other streets in town.”
The normal operating hours at the township are from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., but Baldasaro says those hours get pushed to the limits during the winter because of the townships inability to hire extra staff.
“In most cases where we have to deal with snow, our trucks would typically be on the road between 4:30 or 5 a.m., and they’ll go until conditions warrant stopping,” he explained. “(But) it comes to a point where we have to stop. I can only work people for so long. Our goal is to have the roads in a condition where the public can get home safely.”
Baldasaro said the township also uses a special mixture of sand and salt, called “pickled salt,” which is 20 per cent salt and 80 per cent sand. This allows for greater traction on the roadways because once the salt has melted and disappeared, a truck needs to come out and reapply that salt to prevent the road from freezing again. With the pickled sand, however, the mixture allows for greater traction even after the salt has done its duty and disappeared.
Despite all the preparation that goes into the season, Baldasaro said it is still tough to plan ahead for what the season might bring.
“We have all sorts of weather forecasts and predictions that we use to help prepare, but to find two that agree with each other is pretty difficult,” he said, laughing. “I think we’ve done a good job here, and the staff takes their winter roles very seriously.”