It used to be that the city of Billings would wait for a few good chinook winds, or warm spring weather, to reduce piles of collected snow to meltwater.
But everything is more complicated these days. Now, the city is using a new piece of equipment that accelerates the process by spraying the snow with very hot water and running the resulting water down the drain.
The reason for buying the unit was simple, according to Bill Kemp, superintendent of the Street-Traffic Division of the Public Works Department.
“We’re running out of areas to dump snow,” he said.
Snow collected off city streets is full of sand, oil and other contaminants, not to mention all sorts of debris, and state and federal environmental regulators are increasingly picky about where the snow can be stacked up.
As it is, the city of Billings is down to just three sites: the parking lot at Stewart Park, just west of Rimrock Mall; the parking lot at the Amend Park soccer complex off King Avenue East; and some city-owned land off Airport Road, just southeast of the airport.
To avoid running out of room, and to make sure there aren’t still huge piles of snow in the parking lots when people start playing soccer at Amend Park and baseball at Stewart Park, the city invested in the Snow Dragon Snowmelter, at a cost of $243,000.
It was reported earlier that the unit would cost $900,000, but Don Sweatt, Street-Traffic Division supervisor, said that was based on the division’s original intention of buying a much larger Snowmelter.
Sweatt and Kemp were both on hand Wednesday afternoon at Stewart Park, where the piece of equipment, which weighs 19,000 pounds empty, was being used to reduce giant heaps of snow and ice in the parking lot.
Sweatt explained that the Snowmelter, once it was running at full steam, could convert three buckets of snow from a front-end loader, or about nine cubic yards of snow, into water every two and a half minutes. There are other advantages to this method, besides speeding up the melting process.
The unit has filters on it that catch debris, so that only snow is being run through the system. Crews, who have been working two eight-hour shifts a day this week, empty the debris basket four times a day, or twice a shift.
The most common debris, besides larger chunks of gravel, consists of bottles, cups, paper products and needles. One day this week, Sweatt said, the filter caught two engine mounts. To prevent oil and other automotive lubricants from going into the storm-water drain, oil socks, which are changed daily, are placed around the drain.
Kemp said the Snowmelter, which went into use last week, seems to be working well, to the point where the city might consider buying another one. If there are problems, though, they might not be used at all.
“We knew we had to do something,” Kemp said. “Maybe this isn’t the something we need to do.”
The Snowmelter runs on a diesel generator and has a diesel-powered burner that heats up the water that is sprayed on the snow after it has been loaded into the unit’s “melting pan,” as it is called.
“As the snow melts,” the manufacturer says on its website, “it travels down the pan, through a screening process into the debris catch area and back into the water hopper to be re-heated. … As water level rises, it travels through a weir system, separating the debris, oil and other non-soluble products, and then discharges under the melter.”
The manufacturer recommends using the machine on hard surfaces with access to a storm-water drain, which means the unit won’t be used to melt the snow being dumped off Airport Road. But Kemp said the piles of snow at Stewart Park should be gone by next week, when the Snowmelter can be hauled over to Amend Park to start work there.