Anoka County's snowplow blades: In the underbelly of the storm

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 11, 2014 - 12:31 PM

In this longest of winters, Anoka County’s plows have an extra edge.

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Jim Christenson, above, explained that with an extra blade under the plow, Anoka County’s streets are scraped clean like few other Minnesota counties.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA , Star Tribune

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The underbelly of a snowplow can be a beautiful thing, especially if you live in Anoka County.

In this, the harshest winter in decades, the story of the county’s snowplows is the saga of blades of glory. Other counties attack the dense snow that turns roads into skating rinks with traditional plows — and to mixed results. But Anoka County plows cut through the compacted snow with an additional blade beneath the vehicle — one that uses the plow’s weight to help cut through nature’s unwanted frozen crust.

Jim Christenson, Anoka County’s road maintenance superintendent, refers to such road conditions as “hard packed.” He refers to the plows with the added blades as “underbodies.” Put the two together and you have winter roads that are actually possible to navigate.

“Compaction is always the worst, and this winter has been as bad as we’ve had,” said Christenson, who has worked 31 years for the county. “You get that wet, heavy snow, and then those dropping temperatures . … But we’ve got the underbodies to handle it.”

Christenson was a second-year supervisor when the Halloween blizzard of 1991 pummeled Minnesota. At that point, Anoka County had eight underbodies, he said. Now, all 27 of the county’s plows have underbody blades, he said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation doesn’t use them on all of its snowplows. Nor do most other counties. The extra blades aren’t cheap: Each one costs $7,000 and then there’s an added installation cost.

But these aren’t ordinary blades grinding against the 1,200 lane miles (1,600, if you include shoulders) that the Anoka County Highway Department covers.

The blades are actually one-foot-long steel carbide sections mounted in rubber that will conform to the road, Christenson said.

“They’re clean,” he said. “They won’t scrape the paint markings off the roads.

“The blades stay on the ground. If you have a rutted road with a solid steel blade, it will only hit the high points. These conform a bit more.”

Other than a calendar that teases that winter may someday end, the county also has been aided by a treated salt mixture that combines calcium chloride and sugar­beet additives with regular white road salt. The calcium chloride helps the salt melt at temperatures as low as 20 below zero, Christenson said.

The sugar-beet additives?

“It helps it stick to the road,” he said.

Spread the salt too much in cold temperatures and it won’t work. So the plows’ salt spinners are shut off, depending on the conditions, Christenson said.

The added ingredients come with an added cost — about $13.50 for every ton of salt. It doesn’t sound like much, but Christenson estimates that the county has treated 10,000 tons of salt this winter.

“This is the worst winter ever for salt usage and for overtime,” Christenson said, referring to the extra hours that crews have worked. The night crew has included as many as 20 staff plow drivers, plus temporary workers.

“Everything you do makes a difference,” Christenson said.

“If it works, it’s worth it.”

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