Drivers lament lack of winter white -- and green

Snowplow blues

Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2000

With snow staying away from the central Kenai Peninsula in droves, snow removal services are losing money in snowdrift-size piles so far this winter.

One estimated he has lost up to $5,000 in business.

"It's rather discouraging and disappointing," said Steve Acton, owner of Sunshine Plowing Service in Soldotna.

In the summer, Acton works in Southeast Alaska in logging camps. Business and residential snowplowing is Acton's main trade in the winter months.

The one real snowfall the central peninsula experienced this year kept Acton busy around the clock, servicing his 40 clients, he said.

But one snowfall does not a business make.

"I'm sure (the snow) will come, but it's hard to sit around and make payments without money coming in," he said.

Steve Attleson agrees. Owner of Hot Shot Services on Kalifornsky Beach Road, he has been in the snow removal business for about 15 years, he said, and this winter is far from average.

"In a typical year we'd have in excess of a dozen snow pushes by this time," he said. "As a snowplower, it's obviously bad on business."

He said a good year has 25 to 35 days requiring snow removal. A fair one has 20 to 25, and a poor one under 15.

He said he usually has between three and six pieces of equipment running for 12 hours during a snowfall.

"But when there's 10 (snowfalls) a year, nobody works much.

Attleson said he's been cutting back on the snow removal business in recent years and concentrating on welding through his business Atec, so the lack of snow is not affecting him as much as it otherwise would. And his crews are staying busy sanding down the ice that seems to be covering every surface.

"It hurts everyone when there is no snow. You have some fixed expenses and they happen if there is one snowfall or 100," Attleson said. "It's tough to compete and make a living with back-to-back years like we've had."

Attleson also decried the increasing cut-rate competition that is making everyone's piece of the pie smaller.

"In the big picture, it's a fair amount of money. The pie is a pretty good pie," he said. "But there are a lot of people out there. It's a pretty cut-throat business. Everyone with a snowplow on the front of their truck is the competition, and if they don't carry insurance, they can underbid you."

If the snow ever does fly again, Attleson said, homeowners should ensure the person they hire to plow their driveway is insured.

"Snow piles are not covered by general liability," he said. "If snow is piled up against a house, it could flood the basement when spring comes. A lot of homeowners don't think about that."

Acton said he watches the satellite weather maps every day, hoping the storms bring snow instead of rain.

"I keep hoping those big white clouds are not warm, like they have been," he said.

Generally, Acton said, his clients like him to come out only after 3 to 6 inches have fallen.

While snow removal companies are losing money this winter, some are in the other boat.

"We are saving money on it," said Becky Cronkhite, manager of the Kenai Municipal Airport. "But we often get heavy snow in the spring, so at this point I don't know what the overall outcome will be."

Because of temperature fluctuations creating more ice, she said, her crews have been sanding and deicing the runway more than usual.

"We have to be just as aggressive with ice as we are with snowfall," she said. "We are using a lot more sand this year."

A heavy equipment operator before she entered the airport business, Cronkhite is qualified to run the snow removal equipment at the airport, but she is just as happy to leave that to the city's crew.

"The person who really benefits is me, because I haven't had to get into a piece of equipment this year," she said.

Besides savings in overtime for her crew, there is one other upside to the lack of snow for Cronkhite.

"We were able to get more Christmas decorations up in the terminal since we weren't busy plowing snow this year," she said. "It looks great."

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