It's all so natural. Rain in cold weather turns to snow. Quiet, energy efficient, cost free.
The only drawback is it's unpredictable. It may or may not come according to the upper air flow and the established high over the Intermountain West.For commuters and golfers that's all right. For ski area owners, IRS audits are easier to take than the uncertainty of snowstorms.
Some areas won't fool with nature, some would like to, some plan to and some are. Park City is one of those areas that is tampering with the elements. It is, in fact, among the country's leading snowmakers.
It has, so far this year, turned over 50 million gallons of water into frozen, white granules that skiers are now skiing on. It has, to the tune of many millions of dollars, taken the waiting out of skiing. The results were evident this year when Park City became the first Utah ski area to open for the 1990-91 season.
The actual art of snowmaking came about by accident. Sprinklers left running in an orchard on a particularly cold night left piles of man-made snow around them in the morning.
Park City had a prototype of that exact system the first year the resort was a ski area back in 1963-64.
The problem was, reported Phil Jones, ski area president, "They used the old compressors from the mine, the old pumps and got the water from the old water tank up on the mountain. Everything was too undependable. They had the concept, but not the equipment."
Today, the ski area has a system as close to natural as is available.
It can make snow, and in some cases, the snow is better than nature's. One reason is a recently added cooling tower, an idea, as Mark Menlove, communications director pointed out, "That is so simple you have to say to yourself, `Now why didn't I think of that.' "
The concept is this: Before you make snow you get the water as close to freezing as you can.
The ski area gets its water from the abandoned Silver King Mine on the outskirts of the resort boundaries. The water comes out of the mine shafts at 51 to 52 degrees and flows into ponds on the Park City Golf Course.
"What they say," explained Jones, "is that for every degree above freezing the water is, you lose 2 percent efficiency. We figured that because of our water temperature we were losing 32 percent efficiency in our snowmaking."
When cooling water, Jones said, most areas opt to cool the entire supply at once. Because of wildlife and aesthetics of the fluid ponds, Park City chose to cool a little at a time.
"We cool the water as we need it . . . up to 3,000 gallons a minute," he said.
It works like this: Water - between 51 and 52 degrees - is pumped out of the ponds and up to a manifold on top of the two-story cooling tower. There it is sprayed out by upside-down sprinkler into a honeycomb mesh that breaks the water into drops. It then falls over a series of splash bars that break the water into finer droplets. Large fans, with three-foot blades, then blow outside air around the droplets, which cools them before they fall into storage sumps. To get the water near freezing, the outside temperature must be 22 degrees.
Desired temperature isn't, of course, simply a thermometer reading. It is, said Jones, "the `wet bulb' temperatures. You get this by taking the `dry bulb' temperature, or outside temperature, and factoring in humidity. For example, 32 degrees and 100 percent humidity is 32 degrees. But, 32 degrees at 50 percent humidity is a `wet bulb' temperature of about 25 degrees."
Utah's cold temperatures and dry humidity translates into perfect snowmaking conditions. It allows areas to make more and better snow than in Eastern ski areas where temperatures are bitterly cold, but the humidity is terribly high.
"What we discovered, also, and no one told us about this, is that the system is designed to cool 3,000 gallons a minute. If we are using only 1,000 gallons a minute, the system continues to work at peak output. What happens is the water is cooled two and three times so we don't need it to get that cold (22 degrees) outside," said Jones.
From the cooling tower, the water goes to the main pump station where it is pushed uphill, with the help of two booster stations at mid-mountain, to the very top of the resort.
Jones also explained that in the main pumping station the water is mixed with a product called "Snowmax."
"What it is is the skins of inert bacteria. The theory being that dirty, or muddy water, freezes faster. With dirty water there's a nucleus for the water to freeze around," he added.
From the main pump house the water is moved through a 12-inch pipe to a network of buried pipes that, put end-to-end, would extend for 60 miles. Along these pipes are 2,000 hydrants and 300 snowguns. Currently the resort has a crew of 75 on snowmaking duty.
Jones also explained that several years ago, Park City got involved in helping to sponsor an aerospace company in research for a new snowgun.
And this year, he said, they have one.
"We were the first area to get the new guns. They're better because we can make snow under less pressure . . . 35 to 45 pounds pressure instead of the 70 to 90 it takes now. This is our biggest expense and if we can make snow at the lower pressure, we can save between 45 and 50 percent of our costs."
Essentially, what the cooling tower has meant to the area is that it can now make snow with 32 percent less labor, in 32 percent less time, with 32 percent less energy, or to make 32 percent more snow.
On the best night this year the snowmaking team pushed 3.5 million gallons of "cooled" water up the hill and out on the ski slopes.
"We laugh about the magic of snowmaking," noted Jones, "but more and more areas are making snow, and more and more we need to make snow more efficiently. The results of this are the tower and `Snowmax.' I think in the future you'll see more."