ST. MARYS — Bing Crosby may dream of a white Christmas, but Auglaize County Engineer Doug Reinhart dreams of a safe Christmas, slightly purple and smelling of sugar beet juice.
That’s because Reinhart and a team of about 20 inclement weather workers know the dangers of driving through the snow— the team plows and applies salt and grit to the 350 miles of road their department is responsible for keeping safe about an hour before most workers are scraping their windshields and school buses hit the roads to make their stops.
Reinhart predicted a safe year thanks largely in part to a humble sand, salt and beet juice mixture that is making road treatment safer and cheaper by using about 25 percent less salt mixture. The technology to treat roads with beet juice was available last year, but with an extremely mild winter, the county didn’t have enough data to get numbers on the savings and safety dividend of the new mix.
As for whether this will be a white Christmas or even a beet juice one, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has Auglaize County with little or no accumulation despite a possibility of snow Thursday night.
Whether there is snow on Thursday or not, county road crews have been in preparation for months.
In early fall, the salt is bid out and purchased. Last year’s bid came in at a cost of $75,198, then in the weeks leading up to winter, road crews mount their trucks with salt spreaders, beet juice formula, and plows to have them ready for any road issues.
In rainy days through the season, most equipment is mounted and ready to go, despite road crews often continuing repair work into December.
In an inclement weather event, the process starts at approximately 3 a.m., when the road supervisor or one of the four people rotating Saturday duties, will come in to call three mechanics and 15 drivers in to work.
The mechanics arrive first, checking the 15 vehicles for any issues that might make them vulnerable on the roads.
Drivers arrive, with five drivers on standby for illness; in the case of a large event, these drivers are deployed to operate graders and front end loaders.
Despite preparation, Reinhart said the first snow is always an adjustment phase, with at least one truck in a ditch.
“We’ve all done it — I’ve done it,” he said.
Crews have to adjust their thinking about speed and stopping that first snow because they’ve spent a summer driving differently.
“By February, everyone’s doing fine,” Reinhart said. “We have to be extremely careful those first few events. It’s a learning event for everybody.”
Technology, from cell phones to beet juice application, has made winter safer for everyone, he said, leaps ahead of what it was at the beginning of his career.
He still remembers the blizzard of 1978, when he was on snow watch, and woke up at 12:30 a.m. to an amazing morning snow, and it took him two hours to drive his four-wheel drive vehicle four miles to the office.
He spent three full days in the office during the blizzard. The trucks weren’t reliable; a wet distributor cap would paralyze them on the roads while microphones were dying, meaning he lost contact with his drivers.
Compared to the past, even a terrible winter a few years ago didn’t seem as hard thanks to cell phones and good equipment. He doesn’t think winter will be as difficult or unsafe this year because beet juice takes the freezing point down to zero or even five below zero, and fewer applications are needed keep snow melted down to the pavement.
The winters don’t really seem milder to him — Reinhart prepares for the worst regardless of past winters. The winter of 2008, for example, required 4,385 tons of salt, compared to the 1,101 tons used last winter. Much of the salt Reinhart bought for last year is in storage, reducing costs for this year, although the department will refill their salt and sand storage units as many as three times over the course of the year.
Reinhart said records show crews using as many as four applications of salt and sand mix during severe weather events, an effect that made roads look as though they’d been gravelled.
“Nobody even dreamed of mentioning global warming,” he said. “People have a short memory.”