Out with the plows: snow doesn’t just go away

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With Brett Langsdorf at the wheel, this county highway truck clears ice and snow from Bluff Road by Sandalwood Drive. Simultaneously, Langsdorf is laying down a calculated amount of fly ash-salt material to help finish the job. (Alan Dooley photo)

After a bitterly cold weekend, a light dusting of snow blew into Monroe County around midnight Sunday, increasing early Monday morning.

At about the same time as crews from the Illinois Department of Transportation joined city workers and county road districts, the Monroe County Highway Department also headed out onto its respective areas of responsibility to help ensure the reduced number of motorists on Presidents Day were able to get to work safely.

The Republic-Times rode along with one of the county’s heavy snow removal trucks to learn what they do and how.

With 13-year county highway veteran Brett Langsdorf of Valmeyer behind the wheel, we headed out from the county garage south of Waterloo.

A full-time county employee, Langsdorf previously “snowbirded” – a slang term for an on-call, part-time plow driver for IDOT – for several years.

His assignment, starting at midnight this time around, was a 12-hour shift of plowing and treating county roads in the bottoms and northward toward Columbia.

Heading north on Route 3, he pointed out how traffic can help or hinder snow removal.

“Traffic headed to work in St. Louis is wearing snow off the road in that direction,” he noted, pointing to the southbound lane that was still snow covered. “But traffic can be a hindrance, too.”

Sometimes, drivers don’t realize how heavy and large this truck is, with eight tons of material in back, and they create unsafe situations by getting too close, he said. If he could send a single message to drivers, it would be to give plows enough room to work.

As Langsdorf drove down Hanover Road, he discussed the computer material distribution system in his assigned truck. His regular truck is in the shop for repairs, and he noted that the system in this truck allows him to monitor and precisely control the rate of spreading material – measured in pounds per mile. The material he was spreading was a mixture of fly ash (a byproduct of burning coal) from the power plant in Baldwin and salt. The fly ash is a grit that supplements traction, while the salt melts and breaks up ice and snow.

“Last night as it started to snow,” he said, “I was putting down 50 pounds of material per mile to treat the road as it started to get covered.”

By mid-morning, Langsdorf was placing some 400 pounds per mile to speed the thawing of packed snow and ice to break it up and be removed by the plow.

With the computer’s control, Langsdorf explained, he uses less material to accomplish the same task. That saves money for salt, which has been very expensive this year. It also is environmentally sensitive, placing less salt in the environment.

And with lesser usage, there are fewer trips back to the garage to reload – a fuel savings.

“And if I know I won’t need as much, I can load the truck lighter, which uses even less fuel,” he added.

Langsdorf did note that the lighter load results in a bumpier ride.

“But that helps keep you awake and alert at night,” he said with a laugh.

Asked about the utility of adding such a system to all county plows, Monroe County Highway Engineer Aaron Metzger said they’d certainly be considered for new replacement trucks.

Working along the county roads, Langsdorf had to stop several times to clear ice build-up on the truck’s windshield.

“This morning, the temperature is just right for this to happen,” he said.

He had the truck’s defrosters blowing at full force, driving the temperature up to the point where windows had to be half opened to keep the cab cool enough. But it wasn’t enough to keep the windshield clear.

Clearing even relatively narrow two-lane roads requires a minimum of four passes, Langsdorf showed. The first in each direction plows snow to the right edge of the road. The second pass pushes it to the edge of the shoulder and exposes the white line to help motorists properly locate themselves, especially in the dark.

Approaching the end of his 12-hour shift, Langsdorf readied the truck for his relief to return to the county roads, first by calling for a reload of salt-fly ash, and then by refueling the truck.

Glancing at his paperwork, Langsdorf noted he had driven 299.7 miles since rolling out in the dark at midnight.

“I need lunch, and then I’ll probably stop and see my mom in Valmeyer,” he said wearily, adding, “I might fall asleep on her couch.”

But if the roads still needed added work at the end of the day’s shift, he’d be back behind the wheel at midnight.

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