Western Pennsylvania traditionally has two seasons per year—bad weather and construction season.
The transitions usually take place early in November and April. So far at least, 2011’s weather has been kind to Cranberry.
Temperatures have been mild, snowfall has been miniscule and black ice is rare. Construction season continues to linger on, notably throughout the Wexford flats area on Route 19.
At least for the record, that’s fine. No public official wants to be quoted saying he or she would love to see winter’s fury arrive with its blizzards, drifts, ice storms and bone-chilling cold.
In any other year, that sentiment would go double for Bob Howland, Cranberry’s road crew director, and the employees who work alongside him on the frontlines for as long as a storm requires it.
Then again, Cranberry just got a new winter toy. Howland is eager to put it to use, so he can be forgiven for having mixed feelings about the arrival of bad weather.
The new weapon is a brine-making machine. If it works as planned, it could make life easier on snow-plow operators, save the township money and make it safer for everyone to use the roads. Here’s why:
At about $65 per ton, rock salt is fairly expensive. That amount adds up, especially if you use it in large quantities. Last winter, Cranberry's road crews used 6,166 tons of salt to keep more than 120 lane miles of township roads passable.
As recently as eight years ago, Cranberry instructed its crews—and calibrated the spreaders on its trucks—to use 500 pounds of rock salt per lane mile. Many communities still use that as their standard, but technology has advanced a lot over the years.
Electronic controls now regulate the flow of salt according to the speed of the truck. When the truck speeds up, so does the spreader. When the truck stops, so does the flow of salt.
“Improved technology over the last eight or 10 years has brought that 500 pounds per lane mile down to 250,” Howland said. “But I’d really like to take it down to 225 this year—a 10-percent decrease—and work my way down to 30 percent less by next year.”
That’s where the new toy comes in.
By using brine—water with a certain amount of salt already dissolved in it—to pre-wet the rock salt just as it leaves the truck’s spinner, road-salt scatter can be reduced. The salt’s melting action also can accelerate and the temperature at which the salt remains effective can be lowered.
With just the right application, salt wetted with brine can keep road ice from forming down to below-zero temperatures.
There’s a catch: not just any salt water will do. It has to be very precise—a 23.3 percent saline solution. If it’s just a few percentage points off, it can be worthless —even dangerous. Precision equipment is required, and that’s what is being installed at the Public Works Operations Center.
Its use will be phased in across the township’s fleet of 14 trucks over the next two years. Once the trucks are outfitted for the system, they can apply salt brine directly to the road before a storm even arrives. If roads are pre-treated with brine several days ahead of a storm and left to dry, the salt will keep the road from icing when the snow finally does start to come down.
There’s also the business aspect of it. Most communities don’t have the ability to buy its own brine-making equipment. Cranberry is in discussions with surrounding communities to sell them brine solution. Even PennDOT could become a customer of Cranberry’s brine products.
So winter weather? Bring it on.