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From earth moving to snow clearing

November 7, 2023
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When the snow flies, fleets of heavy equipment fitted for plowing and removing snow spring into action to clear our roads, parking lots, and airport runways. While snow removal contracts are an excellent way for contractors to utilize their resources during what would otherwise be idle months, this is not an easy business. In this edition of Experts Corner, Serge Bergeron, Regional Sales Manager, and Michel Anctil, Regional Service Manager, explain the challenges and how contractors cope.

What makes snow removal an attractive business opportunity?

Serge: The main attraction is the utilization of existing resources. Most of our snow removal customers are contractors who do excavation and infrastructure work during the regular season. Typically, fairly large companies with fleets of trucks, loaders, excavators, and snow removal equipment allow them to utilize those fleets, and in some cases their crews, during months when they’d otherwise be idle.

What adjustments have to be made to get equipment ready for snow removal?

Serge: The major expense is for attachments such as buckets, plows, and snow blowers. The size and geometry of these have to match the machine they are being used on, which has to be approved by Komatsu to preserve the warranty. So, for each model, we give Komatsu the attachment size, the weight type, and the application, and they will assess it. Safety is one of the big concerns - an attachment that’s too large for a loader, for example, will make it unsafe to operate.

Michel: If it’s a loader, you have to ensure you have the right buckets, tires, and hydraulic hookups for the attachments they’re running. One thing we often check out is the heating system for the cab. We also make sure that they have all the accessories to meet the legal requirements. Some jurisdictions require a blue beacon light. And for work in residential neighbourhoods, they might need to install a special backup alarm that won’t wake people up at night.

What are the biggest challenges?

Serge: Human resources is the main challenge for contractors, and that’s especially true in the winter. Snow removal is not an easy job because these people usually work fifteen to twenty hours in a row. And, of course, they’re never sure how many work hours they will get or when they’ll be needed, so it’s hard for them to stay committed.

Michel: There’s enormous time pressure on these contractors. There are penalties for not getting the job done within a certain amount of time. And for municipal contracts, they will get called back immediately if any trace of snow is not within standards. If they’re doing a shopping mall and haven’t cleared the snow when the mall opens, cars start coming into the lot and getting stuck, making it much harder to clear the snow out.

Planning for the season is difficult, too. Sometimes contractors get snow removal contracts for a few years in advance, but often, they bid on them in October for the upcoming season. So, it’s hard for them to plan for the equipment they will need. What they often do is rent or lease equipment to fill that gap.

What's new for snow removal contractors?

What's new for snow removal contractors?

Michel: We’re seeing a lot more restrictions based on environmental impact. Most of these contracts are from federal, provincial, or municipal governments, so the regulations vary. At the Montreal Airport, for example, they ask snow removal contractors to use biodegradable oil in their equipment. The idea is that if there is a spill, there will be less environmental impact. Now, you won’t see that somewhere where there’s minimal risk to any rivers and lakes. But here, it goes into the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Biodegradable oil is relatively new, and some types could affect the performance of the equipment. Today, we are working closely with Komatsu to test some of the biodegradable oil brands, and we should have some brands certified by Komatsu reasonably soon.

How do contractors ensure they have the equipment they need to fulfill a contract?

Michel: Many contracts are tendered for one year at a time, so contractors don’t know in advance how much equipment they’ll need for the season. To help fill that gap, we rent out equipment to our customers. We provide all the preparation and the attachments, and the rates we charge are very affordable because snow removal doesn’t put a lot of hours on the equipment. So, we can give them an attractive rate based on a particular allocation of hours per month.

The Bottom Line:

Snow removal is a good business for keeping equipment utilized and, in some cases, staff employed, but it’s challenging work that requires properly prepared and reliable equipment. SMS Equipment provides snow-removal preparation services for our customers and an affordable snow rental program that helps customers fill the gap in their fleets when winter arrives.

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