Technology helps snowplows battle winter

Technological advances and better information have improved the techniques used by Nevada Department of Transportation crews charged with taking the slip off the streets.

"In the past five or six years, I've really seen a lot of changes," said Philip Cammarata, a Fallon-area NDOT manager.

No longer are NDOT road crews scrambled out of bed by a phone call in the middle of a stormy night and called to work. Gone are the dangerous days when workers would stay awake for days on end plowing snow and scraping streets.

Today's NDOT crews don't wait for snow to fall just so it can be plowed up or salted down.

Supervisors and workers "from top down" pay close attention to local weather forecasts and start planning before snow hits town, said NDOT supervisor Ed Ely. Road crews at a state equipment yard in Fallon receive daily or even hourly reports from three satellite weather services, along with Internet and television forecasts.

"We put them all together and make the best judgement we can," Ely said.

If temperatures are expected to drop or snow is expected to fall, NDOT managers rearrange schedules ahead of time to avoid the pitfalls of extending shifts for days on end - a common practice in the past.

"It used to be all coffee and Mountain Dew, whatever it took to keep awake," Cammarata said.

Federal law now mandates a maximum driving cap of 12 hours for road workers. Implementation of that law, however, coincided with new technology and the pre-emptive approach to winter road maintenance it made possible.

Crews now have tools to treat roads before snow falls or frost accumulates.

Rearview mirrors are fitted with infrared pavement sensors that monitor temperatures and let NDOT officials know if snow will or won't stick on any given stretch.

Trucks carry a liquid salt-brine they spray on roads before they become hazardous. The solution lowers the freezing point on the road from 32 degrees to about 20 degrees and makes it harder for ice to bond with pavement.

The gooey, salty solution also sticks to the road whereas the previously used rock salt would get blown around and pushed aside by traffic and wind. The effectiveness of the new solution has dropped the amount of salt spread on roads from 700 pounds per mile to between 200 and 400.

After the threat of snow and ice has waned, NDOT trucks lumber down roads, vacuuming up salt and sand to minimize its build up in the environment and its corroding effect on cars' undercarriages.

Three NDOT crews of six or seven people cover about 240 miles each from Dixie Valley to Silver Springs and beyond, plus side roads along the way. During winter, crews are split in half. Three people cover their sector at night and three or four workdays. The 12-hour shifts change at 4 a.m., when crews start spraying roads to preempt slippery morning frost.

During stretches of harsh weather, the trucks often spray the stuff around the clock, getting shut off only to gas up.

"One guy crawls out and another crawls in," said Mike Dalluge, another NDOT supervisor.

But when Mother Nature has a big load of snow to dump, even the oatmeal-looking salt-brine solution cannot keep roads clear.

"It's not a cure-all. It's just another tool to help us be proactive," Ely said.

When enough snow falls to pile up on roadways, drivers start relying on their trucks' scrapers rather than sprayers. But too often people think a scraped or sanded road is a safe road, say the snow crews.

The biggest improvement that could be made? For people to slow down in poor driving conditions.

"We can't be everywhere at once," Dalluge said.


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