Two ways to avoid reinventing the wheel in winter maintenance issues

Wilfrid Nixon
Professor of Engineering
Iowa University

There are few things more frustrating in any job than having to reinvent the wheel. All too often, in winter maintenance as in many other fields of public works, we find ourselves faced with a problem that we know others have faced and overcome before. If only we could ask them how they overcame the problem, and use that knowledge in our own predicament.

In theory, reports get written and disseminated widely when a new technique or solution is found to a longstanding problem, but reality is rarely that neat. Oftentimes, people will try a possible solution and not write up a report-the solution is too informal for that. If only there were a way to tap into this huge reservoir of knowledge and experience and share the hard-won, real-world solutions that can make a job so much easier.

In the community of winter maintenance, two ways of tapping into this reservoir have been developed. The first was developed at a technical meeting four years ago in Nevada (the 4th TRB Symposium on Snow Removal and Ice Control Technology held in 1996 in Sparks, Nevada). At that meeting, many people were talking about just this problem (of sharing ideas and experience more effectively). From those discussions, the snow and ice list-serve was born. This is an e-mail-based service. Users subscribe to the list, and once they are members they can send e-mail to everyone on the list (this happens automatically) and then sit back and wait for wisdom to come back to them!

Currently there are more than 400 people subscribed to the snow and ice list-serve, representing ten different countries. By reviewing the e-mail addresses of the subscribers, we can get a rough idea of who uses the list. There are more than 200 people involved in state, county and city snow removal operations signed onto the list, which is important because it means the list is emphatically not just for academic discussion. Recent topics have included living snow fences, the best materials for snow poles, possible alternatives to conveyor systems for loading salt into storage areas, and a fairly heated (if you’ll pardon the pun) discussion on truck-mounted pavement temperature sensors. List members also share information about upcoming conferences, useful web sites, and other sources of information. In my own experience, I’ve found that I can ask a question and get several helpful answers within one or at most two working days. The list may not be the fount of all wisdom, but it contains a lot of wisdom about removing snow and ice from the roads, and can make a slippery task a great deal less taxing.

To join the list-serve, you need to send an e-mail to

In the body of the message, on a line by itself with nothing else on that line, type the word subscribe. This will start the process of joining the list. Each application is reviewed by the list manager and, once approved, you will receive an e-mail with some additional information.

However, a list-serve won’t answer all your questions. Sometimes we may feel a need for meatier stuff. Perhaps we want to know why and how salt melts snow from the road, rather than just knowing that it does. Maybe we need to be able to justify a higher level of winter maintenance activity on an improved road in the city, but we’re not quite sure how to go about it. Perhaps we’ve heard about some of the new techniques and ideas in winter maintenance, like RWIS (Road Weather Information Systems) and anti-icing, and want to learn a bit more. In the ideal, a local college would offer a course in winter maintenance that addresses all these issues, but reality suggests this is unlikely to happen.

However, as an alternative to a local college, you can now take such a course (for up to three semester hours of graduate level college credit) over the Internet. The University of Iowa is offering through its Center for Credit Programs and the College of Engineering a course entitled “Winter Highway Maintenance.” The course is termed a hybrid course offering, in that it uses a combination of a CD-ROM and a web site to deliver the course content. The class is delivered as seven modules, and each module is delivered in parts, between three and nine parts or lectures per module. Each lecture lasts between 15 and 30 minutes (and is thus fairly easily digested). The lectures themselves are a series of web pages that are accessed by running sound files that call up the web pages from the Internet. The sound files are the Professor (Wilfrid Nixon) lecturing on the material. Setting the class material up in this way means that the bandwidth required for the web connections is small, and thus there is little delay waiting for downloads, even on slow modem connections.

In addition to the combination of CD-ROM and Internet pages, the class uses a controlled access web site where readings are available for download, and where students are required to discuss (in a forum area) specific topics each week. There is no set time for these discussions, but each week students must access the forum and have their say.

The class is termed semi-asynchronous, in that there is no set time at which students must access the lecture material, but to answer the weekly homework sets they will need to have covered the specified lectures for that week. This allows the students freedom to listen to the lectures whenever they want to (or can make time to) while ensuring that hearing the lectures doesn’t get placed too low on the list of “things to do”!

In addition to homework problem sets, the class has a mid-term exam and requires a detailed final project, which examines applying a new winter maintenance technology to a location in the student’s home area (often these projects are work related, thus killing two birds with one stone).

The class comprises seven modules that cover the following topics: The Physical Properties of Snow and Ice; Safety and Economics for Winter Maintenance; Chemical Usage, Phase Diagrams, and Anti-Icing; Friction, Abrasives, and Snow Removal Equipment; Blowing Snow and Winter Visibility; RWIS, Thermal Mapping and Storm Forecasting; and Novel Technologies in Winter Maintenance. The material in the lecture notes and in papers on the access-controlled web site is further supplemented by a video and some texts that students receive at the start of the class.

You can find further information out about the class at a special web site (, at which you can also view and hear a demo lecture from the class.

The web-based class in winter maintenance and the e-mail-based list-serve provide two ways for all of us involved in winter maintenance to avoid reinventing the wheel or the snowplow. We are all encouraged to learn from our own mistakes, but it’s a lot easier if we can learn from the mistakes of others too!

Wilfrid Nixon may be reached at