A weekly blog for all things conservation
By: Tim Robson, Dirt and Gravel Road Specialist, BCCD
This week’s article on maintenance will be the 1st of a four-part quarterly series on the seasonal maintenance that you see going on outside the windows of your homes and offices.
When is the “Winter Season”: As a rule, crews are prepared for Winter Weather and/or on call from October 15th through April 15th, although that is no guarantee they won’t see it outside of those dates. Most of us can remember unusually early and late snow falls. Halloween and Easter can occasionally be snow covered.
The most obvious and immediate issue in the wintertime is snow plowing and/or removal. Depending on the length and severity of the storm, plowing can be a very time-consuming task. In addition to the plowing, the crews will spend additional time spreading anti-skid or salt on the roads to help improve traction. In the cold months of the year there is more to worry about than just plowing the snow off the roads. As the temperature drops and at times stays down the crews will begin to see black ice (clear ice that forms over road making it almost impossible to detect until you are sliding). Ice buildup on roads can occur in areas where there are spring seeps. In the summer months you may notice this as just wet spots on the road surface, but in the winter, they can produce a lot of ice which the road crews will need to go out and scrape off the road with the grader. These ice buildups are usually too hard to just plow off or hope that salt will melt them.
Sometimes ice buildup can be the result of a frozen sluice pipe under the road. This occurs when there is either a spring sending water to a pipe in freezing weather or the result of many freeze and thaw cycles in which the ice continues to build one layer at a time until the pipe is plugged, and ice begins to creep out onto the road surface. There is no quick remedy for frozen pipes under the road. Crews will start by taking an axe or digging bar and breaking the ice off from the ends of the pipe. One of the few ways to thaw a frozen sluice pipe is an old-fashioned technique that hardly anyone does any more. The only term I’ve heard it referred to is a pipe thawer. This is an old contraption that heats hot water using propane to make steam and then send the steam through an assortment of pipes and hoses with a special nozzle on the end. The nozzle is then pushed slowly through the pipe making a hole for the water to flow. I can verify that it works, as I have taken part in it myself. However, due to safety concerns, there are not many municipalities who still have one of the old pipe thawers sitting around. In super cold regions such as Canada and Alaska, some have tried electric current to thaw pipes, but again this is not widely used as there can be significant safety issues associated with it. Sometimes the only solution is time and a little sunshine.
Those of you who live in cold areas, may recognize another winter issue, known as frost heaving. You will feel this in the road surface as you drive over what feels like waves. While it is usually harmless and goes away on its own in the spring, it can be quite un-nerving if you were not expecting it. You may also notice at times that some cross pipes seem to sink in the winter. They are not actually sinking, the ground around them is swelling up. You may notice road crews (on dirt roads) placing cinders/sand or some other fine materials over the sinking pipe. This allows for smooth travel and as the ground goes back to normal, the material will just disappear with traffic. If you use crushed gravel, you will likely end up with a speed bump in the spring.
In addition to these freezing issues, you may see thawing issues in the spring. Sometimes, when there is a deep freeze over the winter the road base will freeze deeper than neighboring snow-covered ground. This is because snow cover works as an insulator to keep heat in the ground and also to keep the cold air from penetrating. When the road is frozen and we get a quick warm up in the spring, you may see soft spots show up. This is because the top few inches or feet have thawed, and the ground underneath is frozen. This creates a kind of soup bowl effect. The easiest way to fix this is by adding a clean stone material into the thawed “soup” until it stiffens up”. Sometimes with light car traffic it can be ignored, but with heavy traffic you will often see deep ruts. You may notice man made incidents of this where road salt runs off the paved state road and onto a dirt road.
In addition to dealing with all these issues, winter is also a time for road crews to do maintenance on their equipment, both planned an unplanned. Some crews also like to take time during a slow winter to cut back the brush along the roads that is hitting their plow trucks or causing hazards to traffic. Please remember as we finish up this winter maintenance piece, that these crews are often small and possibly shorthanded while working very long hours. So be patient with them as they may be dealing with multiple winter issues.
Thank you for reading and I look forward to sharing with you again in the spring. Until then, stay safe out there!
The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely. You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.
Various staff at the Bradford County Conservation District