By Wendy Holdren
West Virginia has felt Old Man Winter’s bitter grip the past few weeks, but the West Virginia Department of Transportation has been preparing for his arrival since September.
WVDOT Communications Director Brent Walker said preparation is the most important part of the process.
“We call it ‘Snow Removal and Ice Control’ or SRIC season,” Walker said.
Starting in September, equipment is taken for “dry runs” to ensure the plows still function and the vehicles still run properly.
“Our professional drivers are familiarizing, or re-familiarizing, themselves with the routes, as many of the drivers have the same routes year after year.”
He said these dry runs help the drivers locate new signage in their service areas, as well as new gas lines or any other changes that may have been made along their route.
More than 800 vehicles across the state are used for snow and ice control, Walker said, and at any time, they can have a percentage of those off the road for maintenance.
Although September may sound soon to begin preparing for winter, he noted the historic “snowpocalypse” that happened in October a few winters ago.
“We’ve been called out in late October and we need to be prepared, especially in higher elevations.”
Walker said any time meteorologists predict accumulation, WVDOT will be out salting the roads.
And when the snow starts pouring in, he said, “We keep our eye on the weather report and maintenance supervisors schedule the teams.”
These teams then load up with salt, ready their plows and begin treating the highways.
The priority system is as follows: interstate, federal highways, secondary roads and tertiary roads.
“We cover the most heavily traveled first.”
But when temperatures dip into the single digits and below, he said salt loses its effectiveness at melting snow and ice.
According to usroads.com, de-icing chemicals work by lowering the freezing point of water. Before a de-icing chemical can react, it must dissolve into a brine solution. That necessary moisture can come from snow on the road’s surface or from water vapor in the air.
Walker said WVDOT, in addition to salt, uses calcium chloride, which comes from natural brines, to help attract moisture from the air.
Changing ice or snow into water requires heat from the air, the sun, the pavement or traffic friction, usroads.com said.
Even when the pavement is below freezing, it holds some heat and can help melt ice and snow.
But after those temperatures reach a certain point, Walker said salt and even calcium chloride can’t get the job done.
The magic number, he said, is 18 degrees. With temperatures at or below 18 degrees, salt just doesn’t work.
“If it’s too cold to melt ice, we’re just wasting product by dispersing it. It gets moved by other vehicles.”
Many West Virginia travelers expect to see dry pavement, Walker said.
“That’s tough. During major winter events, you can’t expect dry pavement.”
He said snow plow drivers typically cover 25 to 28 miles in their routes and travel at approximately 40 miles per hour, effectively taking an hour and a half before they complete their loop.
“With a significant winter event, things can really come down in 10 minutes, and if there is an accident, everything stops, including the plows.”
The “frigid vortex” of temperatures this winter has been a particular challenge, Walker said, but the agency is well-prepared for the remainder of the season.
At any given time, the WVDOT has 150,000 tons of salt. During last Tuesday’s snowstorm, 15,000 tons of salt was dispensed statewide.
No salt shortages are in sight on the East Coast, though, so Walker said the DOT’s treatment of the roads will continue as planned.
Walker offers the following tips to winter travelers:
1. Slow down — “I can’t stress this enough. When conditions are less than perfect, slow down.” He said 90 percent of accidents are caused by excessive speed and distracted driving.
2. Respect the snow plows — “If you see a snow plow, back off and give them room to do their job.”
3. Check your vehicle — “Airplane pilots do a walk around every time before they take off.” He recommends doing the same for your car. Check tire tread and air pressure. “It’s really important to make sure your vehicle is in good working condition.”
4. Prepare an emergency kit — Walker recommends having a blanket, a flashlight, water and snacks in your car in case you do become stranded.
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