Workers ensure nothing can keep plows off roads
CAPITAL REGION A 10-wheel International dump truck is on break inside the garage at the Schenectady Department of Public Works on Foster Avenue.
Winter weather damaged the rig during the early morning hours of Jan. 6. The truck slid down an ice-covered Hillside Avenue, struck a power pole and overturned.
“That was unfortunate; we almost never have that happen here,” said Thomas Compoli, the public works department’s fleet supervisor. “It was very icy that night, I was here to help upright the truck. The ice was about half an inch thick.”
Compoli and other supervisors in the public works fraternity must worry about the snow, ice and wind that come with winter storms. They also have to fret about keeping their trucks on the roads and making repairs when nature provides a respite.
“It’s the hardest part of the whole thing, keeping the fleet going,” said Thomas Coppola, commissioner of public works and highway superintendent for the town of Glenville. “It’s time consuming, and it’s also expensive.”
Nature was reasonably cooperative last week. Cold temperatures have been around for days and nights, but there have been no snow emergencies since the New Year’s week event of Jan. 2. Temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s are expected for the next few days, and forecasters are not warning about any storms.
Coppola’s guys are using days without big snow for small jobs. They’re making sure storm drains haven’t been covered with ice. They’ve been picking up Christmas trees discarded on snowbanks all over town.
When the snow returns and Glenville’s 10 snow removal vehicles are back in the field, Coppola hopes breakdowns don’t come his way. Mechanics work as “wing men,” operating plows while other men drive the trucks.
“When something breaks down, we have to yank him out,” Coppola said.
The trucks must be fixed; there are no spares for emergency assistance.
“If we lose a truck, we lose a route,” he said.
Compoli also has things to worry about. So far, winter has been cold, and cold is hard on metal.
“When you have low temperatures, the steel tends to break a lot easier,” he said. “We do a lot of cutting edges for plows; we change them out on the front of the blades.”
The garage’s four mechanics have replaced about 40 cutting edges so far this winter. Compoli said there’s been wear and tear on other components — conveyer chains that help deliver salt to spinners in the back of dump trucks have broken, hydraulic hoses have gone bad. And while salt is an ally during battles against ice, the crystalline corrosive is also an enemy.
“After every storm, every truck gets washed down,” Compoli said. “What happens is, the salt gets really hard, and it cakes in there. Then you have three times the problems: It gets in your brake drums and your brake shoes, it gets everywhere. They’re dropping and driving over it all night long. ... Salt really rots the truck.”
There are no problems with routine maintenance. Oil changes and new filters for the 50 trucks used to move snow — spreaders, front-end loaders and pickups — happened in late autumn.
“All that is done prior to the season,” Compoli said. “We have a schedule; we do all of our preventative maintenance in November and December. We get them ready for the winter months so we don’t have to take them out of service to do that preventative maintenance on them.”
In Niskayuna, Highway Superintendent Frank Gavin has been grateful for recent mild winters that didn’t require extensive snow removal. This year, the first major storm — on Dec. 14 — took place a week before winter officially began.
“It definitely was early,” Gavin said. “We normally do a lot of parks maintenance work or rehabbing a pavilion. We weren’t able to do that, and now, with frost on the ground, there’s limited work we can do.”
When some rigs were out for the first time during the December storms, Gavin said, hydraulic hoses had dried and eventually failed. Repairs had to follow.
And while maintenance is important for public works fleets, Gavin said strategy must also be considered.
“We only have one main crew for plowing, so we kind of have to bridge the storm,” he said. “This last one, we held off coming in because it was a 21⁄2-day storm. We’ve had times where we’ve come in at 7:30 in the morning and stayed until 3 o’clock the next day. Not this year, but it’s hard on the towns that only have enough employees to cover the trucks for one shift — which is most towns.”
Gavin would rather be out plowing late in the evening, after rush hour has ended and streets are relatively free of heavy traffic.
“You don’t have to worry about kids coming out of the snowbanks, the mailmen aren’t parked all over,” he said.
For Compoli, winter runs from December through April. People who remember recent balmy March weather and wonder why plow blades are still in place should also remember March can generate massive snowstorms.
“You can get hit in March and April,” Compoli said. “I remember the blizzard of ’93, it was in March, March 12. We had 30-some-odd inches of snow.”
Maintenance on trucks is one part of the winter job. Another part is maintaining fuel and salt supplies.
“We’ve got 3,500 tons of salt,” Compoli said. “And through a storm, I’ll use 1,000 gallons of diesel like nothing.”
Winter is the toughest part of the year, on both man and machine.
“The rest of the year, we’re cleaning streets, we’re paving streets, and all this equipment is used in those areas,” Compoli said. “We convert it back in the springtime to dump trucks to follow sweepers, to haul blacktop, pull our equipment around.”
Mechanic Bob Defini was working Thursday on a conveyer motor problem in the back of one of the salt spreaders.
“The salt just eats them up,” Defini said of the conveyer chains.
“Eats them plus us,” he added, showing off bandaged fingers. “That’s why you see Band-aids.”
Jim Gage, the city’s assistant fleet supervisor, said two inches of snow can cause more trouble for trucks than a larger snowfall.
“It just shakes the whole truck apart,” Gage said. “You get more wear and tear.”
Gage said simple repairs can turn into more serious projects. He walked by an International dump truck with part of its engine removed.
“We thought it was the head gasket, but it’s a cracked head on the motor,” Gage said. “There’s the head they just took off. We had the gaskets here and thought we were going to throw it right back together. Unfortunately, the head is shot.”
Parts are being shipped from Oregon. The wait will keep the truck in a service bay for another week.
The windshield from the truck that tipped on Hillside was lying on the garage floor Thursday morning. While the top of the cab and hood were damaged, major cosmetic work will have to wait for spring.
Gage was glad the whole situation wasn’t more serious for the driver, who was not identified.
“See where that roof is?” he asked, pointing out damage on top of the truck. “The pole snapped in like three spots. If that came down like a foot lower and went through the windshield, that pole probably would have killed him.”