We’ve been a snow-only company from the start. What this really means is that we have other jobs as well. My father bought a used Jeep in 1973 that came with a plow, and he began plowing on the side. And the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree. When we’re not plowing, my siblings and I are telecom project managers, school teachers, web designers, students, and stay at home moms.
This seasonal aspect reflected in our use of bagged salt, the usual starting point for most snow removal companies. As a product upsell, it’s fairly profitable, and initial costs are decently low, especially for servicing residential properties. Tailgate-mounted spreaders are reasonably inexpensive and also provide sufficient capacity to service larger lots, though refilling may be required mid-way. Bag counting provides an easy way to calculate and monitor salt usage. Storing and handling is a breeze, requiring only a forklift to load, unload, and move materials around.
Not that there weren’t growing pains. When we started using brine, the mixer took up half of a two-car garage. When we outgrew the other half, bagged salt pallets had to get stacked against the fence line. From the beginning to end of the 2017-2018 season, our property count grew by 50% without much growth in available equipment. Routes got noticeably longer, and trucks soon started coming back mid-shift for a second pallet of salt. And nationwide shortages threatened availability, not to mention long lead times from order to delivery.
Clearly, bagged salt could only scale so much, and would not be able to keep up with demand as we quickly realized. As the business grew into commercial properties and larger lots, bulk salt began to look very appealing. However, realizing this next step required careful thought and consideration, not to mention some steep initial costs. A number of hurdles stood in the way, for example, not being able to store large quantities of salt. We needed a dedicated yard to store and handle bulk, something that was hard to come by (or cost prohibitive) given our urban customer base. We would also need a lot of new equipment.
Bulk salt is a long term investment. While the price of bulk is attractive at only about a third of the cost of bagged, the infrastructure required and other overhead costs are daunting, and may prevent seeing instant returns on investment. Here are some things to consider before making the switch.
Site / Storage
Bagged salt on pallets can be stored just about anywhere as long as a forklift can get to it. Stacking pallets effectively doubles your storage density without sacrificing ground area. Plus, its packaging provides weatherization from the elements, and a tarp and some bungees is all it takes for additional protection.
Bulk, on the other hand, requires a larger yard accessible to dump trucks, and effective containment to shield the product from the elements. For a quick and dirty containment method, a handful of bin blocks will do the trick, but more substantial roofing may be required. And finding a lot with good access, at a reasonable price, and appropriately zoned, may prove to be the biggest challenge.
Adding bulk salt to your operations means heavy equipment as well. While a forklift is sufficient to move pallets of bagged salt around, a bucket loader is a must-have for bulk. Skid steers are good all-around workhorses for the job, but they may take a while loading up larger trucks.
Bulk bags can also substitute for bagged at the pallet level, for instance if you currently use tailgate spreaders. Loading these is a cinch with a filler stand and a skid steer with bucket attachment. However, you’ll want to make sure your bulk bags and forklift are rated for the weight you’re loading, as it’s easy to overfill.
Smaller form factors are also possible, e.g. trash cans, or even 5-gallon buckets or sand bags. However, every stage of material handling requires additional labor, so finding that sweet spot is crucial. Specialized bagging machines are available, but also come with upfront costs. A full transition to bulk may not ever occur, and it may actually make more sense to stick with commercial bagged salt in some cases.
Due to the packaging, bagged salt can usually be had in less than truckload (LTL) quantities. This is great for companies without a large yard, but more frequent resupply will be required.
With bulk salt, minimum delivery requirements (typically around 20 tons) are a factor. Be prepared to handle large quantities at a time, and to keep a clean and well-managed yard. While it’s easy to rearrange pallets of bagged salt after delivery (e.g. from roadside into the yard), bulk should be dumped only once. Also, you may be sitting on a large pile of unused salt when the season ends, so keep a watchful eye on your stock levels.
Bagged salt is optimal for low-volume application using gravity-fed walk-behinds and tailgate spreaders. These types typically have lower capacities and smaller diameters than what bulk generally requires, and tend to clog easily.
Bulk, on the other hand, is better applied using bulk spreaders, which are typically force-fed via augers or by conveyor. Moreover, their larger capacities enable them to be operated for a long period of time before refilling. While bulk spreaders exist for light-duty trucks, a medium-duty truck can carry more salt, with fewer reloadings, resulting in greater efficiency. Cab-over designs (e.g. Isuzu N-series) are optimal since a short wheelbase allows for a tight turning radius.
While bagged is still good for diverse routes with smaller properties and residential customers, bulk lends itself better to large commercial lots and roadways. For many of us without municipal contracts, adding a medium-duty truck to an otherwise light-duty fleet presents additional risks. However, a “salt only” route that supplements or even fully replaces salting tasks on other plow routes may be a viable option.
Not long ago, salting a property was an upsell, an added service. Nowadays, it’s a job requirement, and as we can see, plays an integral part in overall operations. Making the switch from bagged to bulk isn’t an easy – or inexpensive – process, but with some careful planning and execution, can make a huge difference.
This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of Snow Business magazine.