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Snow pros clearing the way

When weather outside is frightful, somebody's got to clean up

Published: Saturday, Dec. 27 2008 12:58 a.m. MST

Plow operators Doyle Waters and Brian Bunderson pile snow they've cleared at the plaza near The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Office Building. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Plow operators Doyle Waters and Brian Bunderson pile snow they've cleared at the plaza near The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Office Building. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)
Allen Dorantes empathizes with Utahns forced to spend part of their morning awkwardly hunched over their freezing vehicles to scour stubborn ice from their windows — but he doesn't feel too sorry.
That's because, after wiping the sleep from his own eyes and the snow from his own freezing car, the 21-year-old Sandy resident hustles to downtown Salt Lake to dig out and clean 170 more.
"It only takes about three or four hours," an upbeat Dorantes said Friday afternoon while working away in shin-deep snow at Ken Garff Mitsubishi Hyundai. "It's cold. And it can be tricky."
The trick is not necessarily scraping snow off cars but removing what's fallen between them.
Those who maneuver bulky, rusty-bladed snowplows mounted on one-ton trucks — on ice — through slim rows of new Jaguars must scoff at the ancient bull-in-a-china-shop simile.
And yet the potentially devastating procedure is needed every time a couple of inches of snow blanket the pavement. A typical car lot may spend $400 to $500 in combined resources after a large storm, said John Maher, service manager for Ken Garff Volvo Jaguar.
"Business slows, too. We usually have 40 cars to service a day. Today we have 16."
That's the last thing a recession-battered automotive company needs when U.S. automotive sales are already at a 26-year low.
But, as one salesman put it, if someone's going to stop in on a wintry day, "They're serious. They ain't just kickin' tires."
Cory Johnson, on the other hand, doesn't kick very many tires, but since the last couple of storms, the 51-year-old said he's been installing more of them. "We've sold out of quite a few different sizes of snow tires, and every time it snows like this our business will at least double or triple."
Kyle Wrigley, 19, at Discount Tires in Murray, said snow tires are a "very popular choice in Utah" and after a big storm they are backed up for six hours instead of the average 30 to 40 minutes.
"Regular tires don't work as well in temperatures below 45 degrees," Wrigley said.
It's not just tire chains that do well when the snow falls snorkel-deep. Taxi cab drivers who are willing to brave slushy roads for those who aren't as courageous behind the wheel do well, too.
"We have seven phone lines and every single light was lit up for three hours during our last storm," said Treena McElhinny, receptionist for West Valley Taxi Cab Co. "I was going crazy here and people were waiting for three hours to be picked up."
And because her independent drivers are paid by time, McElhinny said, it can be "very costly" to ride a cab through slow-moving traffic during such storms.
For every "decent-sized storm" that rolls through Utah, the state spends about $1 million dollars in combined resources to clean it up, said Adan Carrillo, Utah Department of Transportation spokesman. "We've calculated and budgeted for 24 of those (storms) this year."
Utah businesses may not spend $24 million a winter scooping up Utah's snow, but between hourly employee wages and contracted snow removal services the cost can be considerable, especially for smaller businesses.
Small, fast-food-size parking lots typically cost around $50 to snowplow every time it accumulates 2 inches or more. For an average of about 24 large storms a year, along with several smaller storms, businesses are paying about $2,000 a winter.
That's good news for Don Miller, 50, who owns Miller Landscaping. Like so many landscapers who convert their lifestyle when the flakes fly, he runs a four-person plow team in the winter.
During a large storm in 1992, Miller was so busy he ran a three-day shift plowing snow. He finally decided to go home after he hallucinated from exhaustion: "I came home and told my wife that I saw a reindeer with a Christmas bow around its neck in the middle of the road. She just told me to go to bed."
He hasn't had to pull any dayslong shifts this year "so far," he said. But he's got about 35 tons of expensive salt in his warehouse and about $200,000 worth of removal equipment on a gamble that more work will fall his way.
"I enjoy helping people reduce such a huge liability," he said. "I think it's a good service."

Clouds and cold, cold, cold ahead
Old Man Winter is quite grumpy these days.
Cloudy skies and dramatically colder temperatures will roll through Utah Saturday and Sunday, but the storms that brought heavy snow on both Christmas and Boxing Day have moved out, according to the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.
A weak mass of high pressure blowing in from the Northwest is expected to hang around through the weekend, said meteorologist Christine Kruse. Temperatures in the mid-20s are expected to cause sheets of black ice on roads throughout the Wasatch Front.
Sunday is expected to be about 10 degrees warmer but could bring evening snow showers. Temperatures bottoming out at about 25 degrees are expected throughout the next few days.


E-mail: jhancock@desnews.com

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