In Praise of the Drop Spreader
A Common Problem
This has to be one of the most perplexing equipment conversations I continually have with groundskeepers. It usually goes something like this:
Me: “How are you applying deicing material to your walks?”
Groundskeeper: “The rotary spreader here attached to the back of this fancy utility vehicle.”
Me: “Doesn’t that have a spread pattern much wider than your sidewalk?”
Groundskeeper: “Yeah, a lot wider! That’s why we built these shields here on the sides.” (smiles proudly)
Me: “Doesn’t that leave a lot more material on your walks than you need?”
Groundskeeper: (smile fades) “Well yeah, you’re right. I just drive really fast.”
Me: “Isn’t that dangerous when the sidewalks are icy?”
Groundskeeper: (frowns) “Did I tell you about my fancy utility vehicle?”
The truth is, this is how most of us are treating our walk. If you can relate to the groundskeeper in the conversation above don’t feel bad. You are not alone. In fact, you are the majority. And it’s really not your fault. You’ve simply been using the tools handed to you to solve an important problem. And your phone doesn’t ring when you use a little too much salt, so why change.
Why Drop Spreaders
That poor groundskeeper in the conversation above is trying to do the right thing. They know they shouldn’t be throwing deicer into the lawn. And goodness knows they don’t want to deal with all the dead grass and saline soils in the growing season. The idea is simple: Deliver the material where it needs to be and nowhere else. This is what a drop spreader is designed to do. It simply drops deicer from a hopper down onto the surface below.
The more common rotary spreaders have a much wider spread pattern than most sidewalks, even at their lowest speed. The troubles compound because at lower rotary speeds, many smaller spreaders used in sidewalk applications still release the same amount of material from the hopper. Any conscientious groundskeeper is going to build those shields on the sides to keep the salt out of the grass and on the walk. The final result – too much material applied to too small an area. If you are using bagged material for sidewalk application, do the quick math: divide the number of bags per application in half (yes, I’ve seen usage drop that much) and multiply by the cost per bag and you have your per application savings after your conversion to a drop spreader. Even more conservative numbers will likely tell you that a drop spreader will pay for itself relatively quickly.
My Experience With Drop Spreaders
My first winter as an institutional groundskeeper was at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where they average 75 inches of snow a year. These guys know their snow removal and don’t mess around when it comes to equipment. They had converted two old Toro Workman top-dressers bought used from local golf courses into customized drop spreaders for sidewalks. The modified stainless steel hoppers held sufficient amounts of deicer. Brushes were removed and belt motor speeds adjusted to deliver the needed amount (and no more) of deicer to the walks. In western Michigan, applying more material than needed can mean thousands of dollars of materials per year. They had created a solution to fit their need.
A few years later at another job I inherited an old, pull-behind Epoke drop spreader. The drop width was wider than most of my walks so I modified it slightly. It worked well…until I had to turn a tight corner, or back up, or when snow was piled along the sides of walks or at a turn. I knew I wanted a tailgate mounted machine for the utility vehicles but there just wasn’t one on the market. Epoke, SnowEx, and everyone else I contacted said the same thing, “Well, they sell those in Europe but not here”. Now I know why Calvin made their own.
Somewhere around 2012 I happened to see a SnowEx* tailgate drop spreader advertised in a trade magazine. I was immediately on the phone with my rep, asking him to get me two of them. He sounded confused so I had told him where I had found the advertisement. Ten minutes later he called back and informed me that ad had been a mistake – those units were not available in the states yet. I pleaded with him to communicate to anyone who would listen that there would be a market in the states. I’m sure it wasn’t my pleading or his convincing, but the following year he had two SnowEx Drop Pros in his warehouse. He put my name on them before he even called to give me the good news.
The difference was night and day. One unit could cover the same ground as the Epoke 33% faster. Carrying extra bags in the UTV bed eliminated return trips for refills. Best of all, the operator stayed safe and warm in the cab, not having to get out to salt missed spots or mess with tow rigging, tires, lights, wiring, etc. And no deicing material in the grass.
Make The Switch
A new SnowEx Drop Pro will cost a few thousand dollars. Never spend that kind of money on a whim. Do your research, ask your questions in the comments and let others share their experiences, and please run the numbers. Don’t go to your boss and ask for that money or sign that quote without numbers. Do the simple calculation above to figure maximum material savings and add the time and material you project to spend on treating and reseeding the soil along your walkways. Those numbers should speak for themselves.
Or if you are really handy (this was never an option for me) try making your own out of an old top-dresser. Or come up with something altogether new. If you do, please share it in our Community Snow/Ice Removal group. We’d love to see what you come up with.
Do you know of another resource, have a different solution, idea, or know of other options on the market? Please share in the comments below.
*The Campus Green is not affiliated with SnowEx or any other equipment manufacturer.