December 7, 2011

VIDEO: Elgin Snow Command ready for winter

By Ted Schnell • BocaJump | Dec. 7, 2011

When snow hits, whether it’s a light dusting that’s enough to make the roads slick or a monster storm like February’s blizzard, which left 18 inches or more of snow in its wake, people expect to be able to drive to work, go to the doctor’s office or head to the grocery store.

Elgin’s snow removal operations were hailed during the blizzard as an example of what cities can do well, just as other Chicago area communities were panned for not doing enough.

Many will see a snowplow pass by and acknowledge with little more than a passing thought that it is doing what needs to be done. But the work behind the scenes, supported by some impressive technology, often is key to a successful plowing operation. That, coupled with the efforts of a dedicated crew of more than 46 drivers, the 23 plows and the four mechanics who keep the fleet running earned the Elgin Public Works Department high praise for its handling of the February 2011 blizzard.

Snow Command

The nerve center of Elgin’s snow-removal efforts, Snow Command, is headquartered in the Elgin Public Works Department facilities at 1900 Holmes Road. The expansive building and adjacent lots are home to two of the city’s four salt storage areas, the fleet of plows and salt/deicing trucks, the shop where the mechanics work to keep the fleet running, and the nerve center itself.

Snow Command is a nondescript corner computer desk near the break room. To one side is a large Dry Erase board supervisors use to track vehicle repairs and other issues that arise during a snow event. On the desk itself is a keyboard, and on the wall above are four large computer monitors that feed the department information city crews need to understand developing weather conditions and to plan and monitor snow-removal efforts.

Elgin Public Works Superintendent Colby Basham on Tuesday pointed out that the three larger computer monitors are the focus of Snow Command. One, is an automatic vehicle location display called Interfleet that shows a map of Elgin and the location of each of the city’s snowplows at any given moment, thanks to global positioning system technology. The Snow Command crew can monitor plow crews’ progress. Further, he said, if someone calls in to report a road that has not been plowed yet, or perhaps is icy, the Public Works Department knows how quickly it can get a plow to the trouble spot to address the issue.

Eyes on the weather

Two of the large monitors are dedicated to weather, using Telvent DTN, a comprehensive weather service that helps the city prepare for snow or ice events.

“Their claim to fame is that they’re 40 percent more accurate than the National Weather Service,” Basham said.

Knowing in advance what kinds of conditions to expect, he explained, can allow the city to get deicing trucks out on the roads during business hours before a storm, for example, instead of paying crews overtime rates at night.

The city uses a mixture of beet juice, brine and calcium chloride as a deicer for roads — at 20 cents a gallon, it is cheaper than rock salt and has greater staying power: Depending on weather conditions, one application of the fluid can keep ice from forming on the pavement for as long as five days, Basham said. So it works not only to get rid of ice when it forms, but when applied prior to precipitation, it can act as an anti-icing agent that heads off potential problems.

Data to manage plows, costs

Telvent DTN provides the city with layers upon layers of information using Smart Grid technology. The Smart Grid provides information such as pavement temperatures on roadways and on bridges. Bridges typically are the first areas where ice forms on roads. In addition, Telvent DTN provides basic weather data — relatively humidity, chance of snow/precipitation in the next six hours, and an array of other information.

Basham said that the data could be so specific that it lets city officials know, for example, to prepare for significantly heavier snowfall on one side town than the other. Elgin is large enough today, he added, that the difference in snowfall on one side of town could be inches less than the other.

“They (Telvent DTN) provide us a great deal of information that we’re able to use to make a forecast, if you will, about whether or not we’re going to call out the snow trucks or not,” Basham said. The information is detailed and accurate enough, he added, that the department sometimes can rule out putting plow drivers on standby on a night when snow is expected because accumulations won’t begin until morning. That helps the department keep down its costs, Basham said.

Snow removal is expensive, but it highly valued by residents — the Elgin City Council made clear to the city administration in its budget deliberations this fall that the quality of the city’s snow removal efforts was to remain unchanged as it sought to plug a $13 million budget gap.

So cost management is key to a system like Telvent DTN, Basham said. The data the system provides assists managers in making decisions that keep costs down through efficiency.

Internet and satellite feeds

The Telvent DTN information comes in two formats — one screen reflects Internet-based data featuring a broad array of in-depth weather information. To the right of that monitor, however, is another displaying Telvent DTN’s satellite feed of weather conditions. Should the Internet connection go down, Basham said, the city still has direct access to the satellite feed.

On its website, Telvent DTN states it gleans much of its data from a Smart Grid system, which Telvent DTN then interprets for its clients. Basham described elements of that Smart Grid as road weather information system units, called RWIS for short. The system includes an array of sensor-laden 30-foot towers owned by various state and country transportation divisions. The sensors gather much of the information Telvent DTN uses in its forecasts.

For example, Basham said the RWIS sites west of Elgin let the city know in advance what weather is coming before it actually hits, “and we can see what’s heading in our direction and it allows us to predict what our call-out’s going to be” to get snowplow crews mobilized, he said.

Snow Command officials like Basham get three or four days of weather training at the University of Wisconsin in Madison as part of their preparation for using the Telvent DTN system.

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