Taking the shovel out of snow removal

Posted Dec. 05, 2008, at 5:27 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:46 a.m.

Aside from northern Maine and all the ski areas, we so far have lucked out of any real snow this year. Of course, that is subject to change, real soon.

We then get to practice nature’s aerobics — shoveling snow, or if you are lucky, plowing or blowing snow.

There is an alternative that slowly has been making inroads all across this great land of ours — snowmelt systems. A snowmelt system is a lot like a radiant floor heating system for your driveway. Plastic tubing is buried in or under the driveway, usually on top of some insulation, and is hooked up to a heating system. You can either flip a switch or let an automatic snow sensor turn the system on.

Then the magic takes place: You burn a lot of oil or gas and melt the snow. It seems a little like a Gilded Age anachronism to burn fuel to melt snow. That is especially true when you consider that annually you will use about a half-gallon of oil per square foot to keep the snow melted. That can add up when you consider the pre-recession oil prices we were looking at a couple months ago.

Ah, but technological innovation is alive and well all over the world. There has been research into using solar and ground-source heat to melt snow. I always wondered whether it was possible to sync a solar heating system with the heating needs of a snowmelt system and get reasonable results. The answer is yes. Researchers in many parts of the world have had excellent results with this concept. The only hitch is that the sun does not shine when it is snowing out, so there are some limitations. If you can wait for the sun that usually shows up after a storm, you are in pretty good shape.

The other innovation is even better, though. Another loop of plastic tubing is buried adjacent to the snowmelt system, deeper in the ground. It acts as a heat source to feed heat from unfrozen ground into the snowmelt system. The catch here is that the system must be big in relation to the snowmelt system and fairly deep, but it does work.

So why bother with this, other than sloth? We have areas that are treacherous in the winter — those places where a lot of salt is spread and effort made to keep them passable. These are the places where snowmelt systems make a ton of sense.

There are several examples in Bangor. One is in front of Bangor Savings Bank on Main Street. Another is across from the courthouse on Hammond Street, in front of the old Bangor Furniture complex. There is a new one in front of Merrill Bank on Main Street.

I once visited a friend who worked in a lawyer’s office in Bangor during the winter. There were only two steps to ascend to get to the front door. There was more salt on those steps than I would use in an entire winter. I stopped and thought for a moment and realized where I was — a lawyer’s office. Think about it next time you slip and slide on the ice.

One last thought. Here is a million-dollar idea for some worthy entrepreneur: an electric snowmelt system for porch steps. Maybe it has been done, but if it hasn’t (and I have not seen one yet) it could keep things safe for people coming and going to your front door, such as delivery people. And the personal injury lawyers and salt vendors would not be as busy.

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