Fire up the melter

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2010 - 10:21 PM

A new snow cooker should help Minneapolis deal with an excess of the stuff.

There's shoveling. There's plowing. There's trucking it away.

Now Minneapolis is bringing another strategy to snow removal: melting.

Armed with what they regard as the only municipally owned snow melter in Minnesota, Minneapolis officials are hoping they've found a new way to get rid of snow at a time when some of the long-favored industrial dumping sites have been transformed by condominiums.

"Snow storage is at a premium," said John Scharffbillig, director of the fleet services division of the city's public works department. "It's a way for us to manage snow this deep, and some big piles."

But homeowners shouldn't expect the melter to help them deal with the 17.1 inches of snow that fell last weekend and continues to bedevil urban neighborhoods. The new tool is only big enough to melt snow collected from around parking meters and intersections downtown, and a few other key locations.

Vital statistics

The melter is basically a 9 million BTU biodiesel-fired cauldron. It can melt 30 tons of snow an hour, separating pollutants and trash from roughly 160 gallons of water per minute. Then it sends the water -- "cleaner than the snow we dump into it," Scharffbillig said -- down a storm drain or into a retention pond. It burns 53 gallons of biodiesel fuel an hour.

The recent snow -- the fifth-most to fall at one time on the Twin Cities -- weighs about 8.5 pounds per cubic foot, according to assistant state DNR climatologist Pete Boulay. Thirty tons of it would cover roughly a block and a half of Minneapolis residential sidewalk. That's a lot to shovel, but a small speck compared to all the city's streets, sidewalks and alleys that need clearing.

"It's one tool in our arsenal," said Mike Kennedy, Minneapolis transportation maintenance supervisor. "I actually envision some day having one small site with a major melter or a couple of major large melters permanently in place, like the airport. For now it's just a small piece."

Minneapolis had several mobile melters several decades ago, but it took several people to operate and feed them. They clogged often, spit dirty water down the storm drains, were noisy, and used nearly twice as much diesel as their successor. The city stopped using them when fuel prices soared during the oil embargo in the early 1970s, and scrapped them in '75.

The city bought the new melter with federal money as part of the transit upgrade along 2nd Avenue and Marquette Avenue downtown. It cost $250,000, with the federal government covering $200,000 of that. It arrived in October, but city workers have only recently begun experimenting with it. The plan is to go live with it later this week.

Twin City Outdoor Services, one of the state's largest snow-removal companies, has two melters it hauls to shopping centers, office parks and other snow-be-gone clients. It services several others around the metro area, including two in parking ramps at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. Co-owner Rich Byrne said the company has been busy signing up new clients.

Byrne added that architects and planners frequently overlook snow removal needs in building design and layout. They often install decorative fountains and planters in obstructive places, and tend to not consider increasing distances to dump sites. Recent mild winters may have led builders to become more relaxed about snow-removal, Byrne added.

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has 37 melters similar to the Minneapolis device in use near plane de-icing areas and in parking ramps. Even with that many, most of the airport's snow still gets pushed into open areas.

"Obviously we can't melt 17.1 inches of snow that falls over the entire airport," said Paul Sichko, assistant director of operations at MSP. But the melters help reduce the cost of plowing and trucking snow away, and keep revenue-producing parking spaces open.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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