Assignment #3


My area of research for Assignment 3 is snow and ice removal. This involves any part of the snow/ice removal process. The tools involved, the physical labor, the time it takes, the reasons for doing it, the aftermath, etc. Since winter is a bit late this year, I could not observe anybody performing snow/ice removal activities in person, but I had some great interviews from people with a wide range of experiences.


My first interview was with Mike and Marcie O'Connor, a couple who live here the twin cities, but have a farm out in rural Wisconsin. They run a blog about their farm life. Their farm is over a mile and a half long and nearly 3/4 of a mile wide, and with their house sitting directly in the middle of their property, their road is half a mile long. Being in Wisconsin, they get just as harsh winters as we do. Sometimes even harsher. Their farm house is located in the middle of a valley, which makes matters even worse in the winter as the snow tends to pile up in large drifts upwards of 3 feet deep in the winter. Their SUV can handle snow of 1 foot deep at most, so they need a good means of clearing out the snow.

I spoke with Mike over the phone for an hour as he told very long and very interesting stories of snow clearing from winters past. Mike and Marcie don't mess around when it comes to snow removal. They have not one, but two tractors which are almost completely dedicated to snow. Their largest tractor is a massive beast with an enclosed cab and a twin-bladed snow-blower that can turn any drift they come across into fine powder with ease.

Mike's snow-blowing tractor as captured from one of his farm's many remote cameras. Source: There is also a video of the tractor in action.

As impressive as it may be, the snow-blower has one fatal flaw: its blade rests a full foot off the ground, meaning that any snow shallower than a foot will not be cleared. In his interview, Mike laments the fact that he can only really use his favorite toy once or twice a year. For the shallower snow, they stick to their smaller tractor, equipped with a simple snowplow.

Mike's wife, Marcie, sitting in the open-air cab of their small plow tractor.

Between these two snow clearing beasts, Mike says they have all the snow gear they could ever need, provided they are at the farm when the snow starts to fall. As previously mentioned, their SUV can conquer snow up to a foot deep, but Mike recalls several times when they have driven to the farm to find the whole place buried under feet of snow. In situations like this, they have to snowshoe through half a mile of blowing drifts to get to their tractors, then spend several hours plowing the driveway before they can finally relax in the farm house.

In the spring, melting snow can have terrible consequences for Mike and Marcie's all-gravel driveway. Rivers of melt-water wash the gravel down the road and can leave terrible ruts. Fortunately, his large tractor serves more than one purpose. By swapping the snow-blower attachment out for a low-hanging wide blade, he turns his tractor into a grader, with which he lovingly restores his driveway to pristine condition every spring. The only problem is, swapping the blower for the blade is a lot of work, and can often consume an entire day. It's up to Mike to time the weather right for the perfect opportunity to make the switch. Should he get it wrong, he may be stuck bolting the heavy blower attachment back on in freezing weather. Mike recounts last spring, when it snowed heavily in mid-may. Melting snow had already badly damaged his road, so he came up with a clever solution to solve the problem without having to swap out his tractor accessories again. He drove in zig-zagging patterns up and down the driveway, creating channels in the snow. These channels slowed and directed the flow of water, greatly reducing the amount of erosion. All and all, Mike describes his winter chores as "Kinda fun, sometimes annoying, but just sorta part of the deal."


Sunday evening I got the chance to host a group interview, thanks to a very well timed dinner party my family happened to be throwing. Mark and Juxy Cox, and Valerie and Jim Green had a great time reminiscing about past experiences with snow and ice.

Interviewees from left to right: Mark, Valerie, Jim, Judy. I am on the far right.

A common theme that was discussed multiple times was the fact that if you are unlucky enough to have an plowed driveway at the end of a plowed street, the compacted snow from the plow hardens and becomes "like steel" as one person put it. It can take hours for even the toughest snow-blowers to churn through it.

One of the more interesting solutions I heard was from Jim Green, who described the courtyard at his apartment complex. "The architect must have been from California, he didn't account for the snow!" he says. However, they were able to implement a last-minute solution which is really quite clever. Heated pipes running just below the surface of the courtyard pump hot liquid through the entire area whenever a combination temperature and moisture sensor is triggered. This melts the snow very quickly and efficiently, and the runoff water drains into the heated parking garage below, and into the sewer system. "There can be a horrible blizzard, and the very next day the courtyard is dry as a bone!" says Jim. The downside? He points out the cost of operation, between $300 and $500 for a single winter, which is shared between the residents. He says it is well worth it, however.

Later on, the discussion shifted towards an almost boastful comparison of Minnesota to some of the southern states. Mark recalls a business trip to Atlanta, which was cancelled after a "blizzard" deposited a meager half inch of snow on the poor, unsuspecting inhabitants. The snow melted later that day. Another recalls calmly bicycling through the streets of London while the city's natives scrambled for their cars as a few flakes of snow began to fall. If the Twin Cities' snow equipment leaves us able to laugh at storms that leave other regions utterly disabled, surely there must be equipment out there that can cut through even our most damaging snow emergencies?

One interesting bit of old technology which Mark recalled from his youth was a hand snowplow, basically a shovel with a curved conical blade which he recalls nostalgically as being able to clear an entire sidewalk in a single run. He says he has looked over and over for anything similar with no luck, and In my ethnography research I hit similar barriers. There are plenty of angled snow shovels, but nothing with the distinctive conical shape which he describes. A quick sketch of the device is included in my notes below.



For my final interview, I spoke with Alex and Kara, an very do-it-yourself Alaskan couple who take a more low-tech approach to snow removal. Alex cites his tools of the trade for clearing their 4+ feet of snow as being simply: "BIG ASS SHOVELS", to which Kara added "Anything big and flat". They recounted many instances in which they have become hopelessly stuck in deep snow in their cars, and they have found some very clever solutions that they absolutely swear by. "Instead of sand", suggests Kara, "Throw kitty litter under your wheels. Every car in Alaska has a box of kitty litter in the trunk." Alex had more suggestions, such as using floor mats or roof shingles placed under the wheels for increased traction. However, they both agreed on what is truly the best winter snow removal tool at their disposal: "The very best thing that I've found is neighbors". They went on to describe many instances when they have been stuck in horrible snow drifts when complete strangers who just happen to have powerful winches on their trucks (this must be a very common issue up there) stop to tow them free, or hand shovel them out. It seems that snow really has a way of bringing people closer together.

One thing seemed to stick out at me during these interviews, and that is that many common snow tools have very specific purposes and cannot be used for much else. Mike's tractors only get used a few times a year, and he has to have two of them because they are so highly specialized. Jim's heated courtyard works wonders, when it works. If the power is out, there is absolutely no way to remove the snow. Snow-blowers work great, but only on level terrain, and only within a set range of snow depths and densities. Shovels seem to be the most all-purpose tool, but one could easily break back and blade trying to dig out of a snow drift for which all other tools have failed. Alex and Kara seem to be fighting this over-specialization with their clever life-hacks, but even they get buried over their heads sometimes.

The problem statement which seemed to emerge from these interviews was that people need an easy way to clear all types of snow without needing a dozen different tools in their garage and gambling that they predicted the weather correctly.


I liked how diverse all your interviews were, I think that definitely helped generate some interesting and unique responses. It might have been cool to interview someone that lives somewhere that doesn't get much snow, because I know that when it does snow even a little in those places, those people can barely cope. But your interviews seemed really well-formatted, seeing as they lasted such a long time and you got some interesting problems and even some solutions! It would have been nice to see some more pictures though, like of what snowy streets usually look like in Alaska, or of Jim's heated courtyard. Also, did you do any observing or experiencing? I think a general survey would have helped you get some answers about snow removal from a broader demographic. And it would have been cool to have heard about how you deal with snow removal, or if you had even done a rating of different snow removal tools/techniques (snow blowers, shovels, ice scrapers, etc.)

Content: This sounds like something simple, but I really liked your introductory paragraph. It gave me a feel for exactly what you were and weren't going to discuss in your blog, and why...putting me at ease as a reader. Your interviews were phenomenal; it seems you interviewed many different types of people with different problems. You used a lot of detail and I like how you had links for someone who might want to learn even more! It seems like you have a lot to work with. But, all you have are the interviews. Since you couldn't observe or experience, maybe you could've done a lot of research or conducted a survey. Also, you are missing a second problem statement. Your first one has a lot to it; you could split it into two statements...or just add another.

Blog: Overall good layout. It's very organized and I like that you bolded the most important parts. The images look nice too! The 3rd one is a little dark and blurry, though. Also, it's hard for me to read the writing when it's on graph paper. (But once I clicked on the photo and zoomed in I didn't have this problem anymore.) This is really nit-picky, but something that would instantly add to the visual appeal is to put a space between the text lines and the photos. There's a space after, but not before, and this bothers my eyes.

Overall great job!!

Snow and ice removal is a topical issue. How did you recruit your interviewees? I was impressed with the farmers from interview 1, and then I got the the Alaskan couple!

The blog had a strong variety in the three interview groups. Minnesota farmers, urban residents, and Alaskan residents would seem to have a wide variety of needs.

It is interesting that the snow-blowing tractor on the farm only depresses to a foot off the ground. It seems like that might have been an add-on to tractor designed for another purpose and they have not rigged up a carriage to lower the plow to the proper height. It is resourceful, but too bad they can't mount it on the smaller tractor.

The apartment with heated pipes raises an interesting question about the shared costs of urban living. I would be interested in knowing the cost of the $300—-500 split when it is assigned to each individual apartment unit. You mentioned the possibility of being plowed-in--another hazard that has caught me in a townhouse. What other challenges did living in the city present?

The hand plow is something that I was considering during a brainstorming session today. IT seems like a natural product, and a worthwhile investigation. I will often do a pass through the snow initially to break up the harder patches and scoop it towards the street or side. Then there are small rows of snow to either side of the trail. The plow idea seems similar, but with a better-shaped tool.

The limited use of specialized tools is a keen insight. I have often thought about buying a powered snowblower but could never justify the cost per use to myself.

I would also be interested in knowing what tools the farmers and the Alaskan couple carry with them. It sounded like the farmers might carry snowshoes in their SUV.

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This page contains a single entry by grang074 published on November 10, 2013 11:41 PM.

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