Anyone who’s tried to plow a gravel road before it has frozen knows the problem. Snowplows are designed with an aggressive angle of attack to peel packed snow from a road and roll it up and out of the way. If a road surface is soft, the plow doesn’t know where the snow stops and the gravel begins. Consequently, gravel often ends up in the side ditch or on lawns along with the snow. Not only does this mean damage to the road and a cleanup job for the spring, but it can also mean damage to the plowtruck, plow and even the operator.
Although plow shoes are designed to hold a cutting edge off the surface, they often prove inadequate when roads are soft.To provide extra support, some operators weld a cutting edge flat across the bottom of the plow (parallel to the road) to increase its surface area. Other operators simply lift the plow just enough to keep it off the road which works fine until the truck encounters uneven ground or a wheel falls into a pothole. In either case, the prudent operator goes slower than normal to reduce damage if the plow should happen to dig in.
A solution that many road crews have recently discovered is to plow these early storms with the front mounted grading rake that they use on their plowtrucks during the summer to keep the same roads smooth. The grader rake is preferable to a plow in such pre-freeze conditions because it usually clears snow with less damage while leaving the road surface better suited for travel.
By design, grader rakes have spaces between their tines to separate debris while grading roads. Although these spaces can allow light, fluffy snow to filter through, most early storms tend to be wet and heavy which helps the snow stick together during removal. Some snow filtering through the tines may actually be helpful by providing just enough moisture to pack down and freeze the road surface, hardening it for future plowing like in the old days when we left the entire first snowfall unplowed. Also, the scarifying action of the tines mixes gravel with this remaining snow to help improve traction without spreading sand.
If snow is not wet and sticky, rakes having closer tine spacing (1” rather than 11/2″) leave less snow behind. For very light fluffy snow, “snow flaps” added to the rake just ahead of the tines provides the best clearing action. Regular truck mud flaps which are readily available and inexpensive work well for this purpose. [Contact the address at the end of this article for tips on how to attach flaps.] Note that the same flaps attached behind the tines for spring regrading can help prevent splatter from reaching the front of the truck.
The rake’s wheels should be left on to support its weight for clearing extremely wet (slushy) or light snowfalls. However, wheels can often be removed to get them out of the way for clearing deeper snowfalls. The rolling action of the snow following the curve of the tines helps to support the weight of the rake once it is into a “pass.” Caution must be exercised and speed reduced while starting each new pass in case the tines “grab” the road surface.
The rake can also be used midwinter to break up packed snow and soft ice, especially in midday after the sun has warmed the surface or following a sleet storm before the stuff freezes. One trick is to travel with a sander and the rake, breaking up ice with the rake where you can and spreading sand where the sun has not hit or the ice is too stubborn. Sometimes the scarifying action can help bring up sand that has begun to melt through the ice or even roughen the ice before it freezes to provide some “emergency traction.”
Rakes can sometimes work better than a plow even for clearing pavement, especially if the pavement is old and uneven, because the flexibility of the tines can allow the rake to follow contours more effectively than a plow.
If your roads have already frozen to the point where your conventional snowplow is at its best, remember these tips when we get our annual January Thaw, and particularly when late winter snows fall on roads that have already begun to see the ravages of MUD SEASON.
The grader rake we speak of is often called a “rock rake” as a carry-over from the traditional role drag rakes played cleaning up rocks behind a motor grader. Because of the increased dynamics and control gained by mounting the rake in front of the truck on the snowplow hoist, this attachment is used for grading as well as raking.