How street departments respond to Mother Nature


Fairfield streets employee Cam Rinaberger refuels the city's wheel loader in between snow storms.
ANDY HALLMAN/GTNS photo Fairfield streets employee Cam Rinaberger refuels the city's wheel loader in between snow storms.

Tuesday’s ice storm was the latest in a salvo of rounds Mother Nature has fired at southeast Iowa this winter.

Local street departments are doing everything they can to ensure a safe passage for motorists and pedestrians alike. Fairfield’s city streets department did something Tuesday it rarely does, and that was to pre-treat roads with salt and sand. It also salted the sidewalks around city parking lots.

A storm threatening to coat the area in half an inch of ice prompted the city to take action. Fairfield Streets Superintendent Darrel Bisgard said the city usually refrains from pre-treating roads with sand before a snowstorm, but it made an exception in this case because the precipitation was not snow but rather freezing rain.

The storm did come, and dropped about a quarter of an inch of sleet, according to the Fairfield Water Department. The city crews went out Tuesday morning and had pre-treated the entire town by the time the sleet arrived around 1 p.m.

One thing Fairfield will not do is use brine, salt dissolved in water, on the roads. Bisgard said using it would require maintaining another piece of equipment, and not only that, the salt solution rusts vehicles and is hard on the road.

However, not all cities have sworn off the substance. Washington’s maintenance and construction superintendent JJ Bell said his city has a sprayer truck that puts down brine and calcium chloride.

“It adds to the effectiveness of getting rid of the snow,” he said.

The Iowa Department of Transportation pre-treats state highways with brine before a storm.

Long hours

This winter has been tough on local streets departments. With at least another month of it still to come, the area has already suffered through days of 11, 8, 6 and 4 inches of snow. The employees have had to work long hours, often giving up their weekends to clear the roads. Bisgard said it snowed so much in January that some of his employees were putting in 60-hour weeks inside plow trucks.

Bisgard said employees are paid overtime whenever they work more than eight hours in a day, or if they work on the weekends. He doesn’t know off-hand how many hours of overtime his crews have worked, but he’s pretty sure it’s been more than a normal winter. Bisgard added that the prospect of paying overtime does not affect his decision to send out the plows.

“If we need to go out, we’ll go out,” he said. “[Our budget] lasts until June 30, so we might have to cut something else out of it later on. Snow removal is not something we crunch numbers on.”

Fairfield has seven plow trucks, two of which are pickups outfitted with a blade, while the other five are dump trucks. It has a wheel loader and a back hoe with a bucket that assists in snow moving. It has three trucks that spread a salt and sand mixture.

The city of Washington has nine employees who drive the city’s six plow trucks, two end loaders and one back hoe which is used for plowing alleys. They are permitted to work overtime as needed but can only work a maximum of 16 hours consecutively before being required to take four hours off.


Bell said his crews hit the streets about two hours before the snow is scheduled to stop.

“Every snow is different, but we try to figure if the snow is going to be done at 8 p.m. or 6 a.m., we try to go out about two hours before it’s over,” he said.

Bisgard doesn’t send his employees to plow at night since the visibility is poor. Instead, they normally start early in the morning between 4-5 a.m.

Bisgard said the city will start plowing even before the snow has stopped falling. It all depends on how difficult it will be to move. Generally, Bisgard said, more than 4 inches of wet snow is hard to push off the road, so the city attacks it early before it has a chance to accumulate.

Priority streets

Some streets are cleared before others because of the amount of traffic they carry. These are the main thoroughfares that connect schools and the health center to the rest of the town.

Bell said his rule of thumb is that, if more than 4 inches of snow falls, his crews hit the priority streets first, then residential, then priority streets again. He added that the crews will plow the roads another time if the wind is creating drifts on them. If the snow is less than 2 inches, drivers plow only the main roads.

Fairfield’s priority streets include Burlington Avenue, Fillmore Avenue (because of Fairfield Middle School), Broadway (Fairfield High School), D Street (Washington Elementary), B Street (connects center of town to Waterworks Park, North Campus Village), Jefferson (because of Fairfield Hy-Vee), Fourth, Sixth and Ninth streets.

Bisgard said all priority streets are done first, and then road crews move on to residential streets. The priority streets have been chosen so that no house in town is more than four blocks from one.

“We really try to hit Burlington first, and we hit it again as the last street we do before we go home,” Bisgard said. “If it continues to snow while we plow, we’ll go back and hit the priority streets again after we’ve done the residentials.”

Bisgard mentioned that Burlington is a difficult street to clear because it receives so much traffic. So many tires packing the snow to the pavement makes it hard to remove.

Changes to routes

Bisgard has been streets superintendent since 2005, and has worked for the city in some capacity since 1984. He said the way the city clears snow and ice has changed in that time. For instance, it uses more salt on the roads than it used to.

About six or seven years ago, Fairfield assigned each of its plow truck drivers to their own route. Before, two plows would do the same street at the same time, with one doing the center and the other following behind to clean the edge. However, Bisgard noticed that wasn’t an efficient way to clear the town.

“We’ve decreased the time it takes us to do our streets,” Bisgard said.

Salt and sand

The Fairfield Streets Department allocated $16,000 for salt and sand for the current fiscal year. That’s enough to purchase 500 tons of sand and 250 tons of salt, which corresponds to the two-parts sand to one-part salt mixture the city spreads on the roads. Bisgard estimated he’s used 200 of the 250 tons of salt, and expects to purchase more.

Bell said his department also budgeted for 250 tons of salt, but has used only 100 tons of it thus far. He said Washington County has its own salt shed and if needed, the city of could purchase more from them.

For treatment, Bell said the city uses different methods depending on the temperature.

“We use salt and we use salt sand, it’s about 50-50 [mix] basically,” he said. “When it’s cold out, salt sand is nice to use because the salt just isn’t going to melt it. The sand helps it from freezing and gives traction.”

Washington’s drivers primarily salt intersections and sections of main roads leading up to stop signs or traffic lights to help prevent possible accidents.

In theory, salt water freezes at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. However, according to the website, road salt is less effective when the temperature drops below 15 degrees because it cannot penetrate the structure of the frozen water.