U Landcare helps dig out the U from 60 inches of snow

Heavy snowfall has left shovelers buried in work.

University workers clear snow during a winter storm December 11 on Northrop Plaza.

Image by Simon Guerra, Daily File Photo

University workers clear snow during a winter storm December 11 on Northrop Plaza.

by Kathryn Elliott

During the winter, Patrick Power works outside âÄî mainly shoveling snow âÄî about 22 hours a week.
Power, a student worker for the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Landcare service, said âÄúitâÄôs fun,âÄù then paused. âÄúThe wake-up calls are a little early.âÄù
Landcare has cleared 60 inches of snow this school year, already surpassing the normal end-of-year average of 50 to 56 inches. Although the University doesnâÄôt have a hard budget for snow removal, the city of Minneapolis was already $3 million over its snowplowing budget by December.
ItâÄôs up to Landcare to clear sidewalks, parking lots and streets âÄî everything beyond a 10-foot apron around buildings âÄî so students, faculty and employees can get to the University.
Landcare director Les Potts considers snow removal a âÄúutilityâÄù cost similar to providing heat.
âÄúWe donâÄôt have an option to not do it,âÄù he said.
Behind the scenes
If a snow storm hits the metro area, the Landcare crew members report to their equipment depots as early as 5 a.m. Normally they start work at 7:30 a.m., when even most early risers are groping for a cup of coffee.
Out in the cold, keeping warm isnâÄôt easy, Power said. That means wearing wool socks, long underwear and Carhartt outerwear.
Landcare workers âÄî about 50 students and 22 full-time staff âÄî take care of roughly 95 percent of snow removal on Twin Cities campuses and in the Como area, Potts said.
With this yearâÄôs heavy snowfall, âÄúItâÄôs getting old,âÄù Potts said.
In a given week, one of the three Landcare supervisors is on duty, another is on call, and the third is resting.
A supervisor on call during a snowstorm will get up several times in the night to monitor weather websites and campus webcams to stay updated.
But in the end, âÄúyou stick a ruler in the ground âÄî itâÄôs pretty low tech,âÄù Potts said.
If thereâÄôs freezing rain, or if snow reaches the âÄútrigger depthâÄù of two inches, they start making calls.
Once the crew deploys, the order of operations is understood. Get to the hospitals. Plow main streets so people can drive to work. Clear the lots so they can park. Work on the pedestrian walkways so they can make it inside. Then, start hauling snow.
It all happens concurrently, Potts said, but those are the priorities.
A hazy budget forecast
The snowplowing billing system is organized into work orders for different clients like Mariucci Arena or University housing, but few of these customers keep a line-item for snow removal on their budget.
Since Landcare provides other services as well, customers donâÄôt necessarily keep track of which Landcare hours were spent doing snow removal.
Two exceptions are the contractors Landcare hires, Mega Farms and Frattalone Companies, to bring in equipment and perform large-scale snow removal.
For the 2010 contract period, Landcare used $300,000 of its $2.9 million budget to pay Mega Farms for work in Minneapolis.
The figures for this year will not be available until July.
Tools of the trade
Pushers, shovels, chippers and the Ultimate Scraper are all part of the âÄútoolboxâÄù in the depot where Landcare staff meets to start the day.
Street crews mainly shovel areas bigger machines canâÄôt get at: around trash cans, emergency phones, fire hydrants and signs.
The snow removal involves many sizes and types of trucks. Kubota tractors are useful for sidewalks, while skid steers âÄìâÄì âÄúthe ones that turn on a dime,âÄù Potts said âÄìâÄì and front-end loaders âÄìâÄì âÄúa Caterpillar with a big scoop on the frontâÄù âÄìâÄì work well in the street.
Another frequent strategy is using a straightedge to push snow out of the way, instead of scooping and piling it right away. Some streets, like the Washington Avenue Bridge, are coated with a wear layer to protect the concrete from the rubber blades.
Once workers have gone back and widened the paths, they can use sidewalk sanders or put down rock salt.
Another ice-melting tool is Apex, a magnesium chloride brine for extreme temperatures âÄî like rock salt on steroids. Apex can be used to pre-treat as well, preventing snow from bonding to the walk.
Full-time Landcare staff also make their own salt brine in large tanks with hoppers, dumping salt in the vats until it reaches the right mixture.
Final destination
Once Landcare finishes with it, the UniversityâÄôs snow ends up in a lot by the State Fairgrounds.
Landcare had leased an empty lot near TCF Bank Stadium to bring its snow. It soon filled.
Staging for the snow haul begins around 8 p.m. Removal has to be at night because trucks are liable to back into milling pedestrians. The setup for snow removal on Church Street involved clearing the curb line then sending in skid steers to create piles ahead of time.
On the night of a haul, the supervisor targets an area or a space and trucks make trips back and forth until theyâÄôve completed the task.
âÄúYou put it wherever you can for the time being,âÄù Potts said.
Then when it snows again, they start all over.