On the Grounds in the winter

February 6, 2012

Every winter, the University of Chicago community begrudgingly pulls out their puffy coats and heavy winter boots to suit up against the elements. We make our way to campus each day and find, despite heavy snowfalls or ice slicked pavements, traversable sidewalks and walkways. Who are the magical beings who keep campus pedestrian and bike friendly even in the most intense weather? For that gargantuan task, we have the Grounds Crew to thank. This crew clears campus walkways of snow and ice, helping the campus community to keep walking and rolling instead of driving from point A to B.

The elite squad known as the Grounds Crew, a part of Facilities Services, is constantly on duty, ready to respond at a moment's notice to an epic blizzard or any other severe weather that might come Chicago's way. Each winter, the Grounds Crew spreads salt, clears sidewalks, prunes trees and shrubs, and plans for whatever Mother Nature might have in store for the season. They work very long hours, sometimes staying until 12:30am or arriving at 2:00am to ensure that campus is ready for pedestrians by 7:00am.

In order to predict the occurrence and severity of weather events, the Grounds Crew begins analyzing the weather 10 days in advance. They use the forecasts from four different weather services and measure the temperature of the sidewalks with an infrared thermometer. Since last year, they have been using a liquid, beet-based material to anti-ice surfaces. This process helps prevent snow and ice from sticking to the pavement by melting the first layer of snow, thus lowering the total amount of salt needed to keep paths clear, which also decreases the damage to plants and corrosion of other surfaces.

On this campus, the crew must manage snow and ice removal from different kinds of pavement—asphalt, concrete, and pavers. The Grounds Crew must also consider landscaping as well as obstacles on campus that might be buried by snow. They avoid harming the landscaping as much as possible so that less needs to be replanted in the spring. The Grounds Crew will be testing out Anti-Salt, a product that may help some parts of the landscaping recover from winter salt damage. In areas without curbs, plants are particularly susceptible to this. The landscaping team takes this into consideration and prefers placing salt-tolerant plants at these vulnerable locations when possible.

In a given winter, about 70 tons of Eco-Salt is spread around campus. The University purchases this salt, a mixture of beet juice, salt, and calcium chloride, from a nearby Indianapolis-based company. Eco-Salt is more effective than traditional forms of salt, as it reduces the total amount of de-icing products used, performs better at lower temperatures, and allows snow to melt for a prolonged period in its residual form.

In addition to this plethora of work on campus, members of the Grounds Crew also attend conferences and training sessions to better prepare themselves and our campus for imminent weather issues. According to Steve Frank, Landscape Services Supervisor, " can't brag enough about our crew. Their experience, training, and dedication to this University help them carefully navigate around obstacles, safely maneuver amidst the campus community, and effectively deal with Mother Nature's wrath."

The Grounds Crew, however, can only go so far when making campus safe and pedestrian friendly. This task also requires efforts from students, faculty, and staff. While you're navigating campus this winter, Frank recommends wearing winter boots. He also suggests removing ear buds and looking both ways when crossing the streets in order to avoid collisions with cars or bicyclists. The ice on the roads and sidewalks make the streets particularly dangerous for cars and pedestrians alike.

Despite these dangers and frigid temperatures, Brandon Rux, Assistant Supervisor of the Grounds Crew, admires the campus during the cold months. "In the winter, with the snow cover, [campus] looks very beautiful," Rux reports, "and the North Midway garden, with the lights and plants that suspend snow, is particularly stunning."