PHotos: Jerry Mann

When a snowstorm hits, there’s no time to waste getting yourself and your crews out on the job. In-cab controls can make all the difference, especially for companies that are servicing smaller properties with lots of twists and turns, and lots of stops on their routes.

Jim Stewart’s five-man crew at Stewart Landscaping operates in suburban Maine. So while his crews service a lot of residential accounts and small strip malls, they need to be able to move around quickly and efficiently so that they can get back on the road to their next service stop.

Getting around

Stewart uses UTVs with plows for smaller sidewalk areas and says his guys prefer to use the joystick controls rather than the power grip option, which he tried out at the dealership when he was shopping around.

“When you’re wearing big, heavy gloves, the controls on the power grip work better,” he says. “I tried it with my usual gloves on and it does take some getting used to, but it’s easier for me and my guys.”

For the same reason, he uses the joystick controls on his straight plows as well. He uses those on larger areas, like gated community streets and parking lots, as well as tailgate spreaders. He can adjust the application rate right inside the cab without having to brave the cold.

“It seems like something small, but it’s not just an issue of staying warm,” he says. “It really saves us a lot of time in the long run.”

Stewart says he asks his snow removal employees at Stewart Landscaping, three of whom also work on his landscaping crews, to weigh in on what works best for them. He also plows during the winter, so he knows first-hand what to look for.

“The simpler the better,” he says. “The more ins and outs you need to learn, the harder it is to get people on board. We want the smallest margin for error possible while still having what we need to do the job right.”

Quick and easy adjustments

And working in residential areas, he says he needs quick reactions from his controls to deal with the ins and outs of driveways and smaller parking lots. But since he’s working in a pickup truck, he doesn’t want anything that will impede his ability to drive safely.

“I’m not a small guy and I need to make sure I’m not hitting controls I don’t want to when I’m getting in or out,” he says.

He says he looks for equipment with the fewest parts since he doesn’t have an in-house mechanic. “We have a great guy that we trust, but we aren’t his only customer,” Stewart says. “There are times where we’ll have to wait a day or two to get service and that kind of downtime makes it really difficult to stay on track.”

Plus, he likes being able to install and remove the spreaders quickly. He says he also likes having LED lights and digital diagnostics to help him reduce waste. Plus, he doesn’t have to get out of the truck to check and see if he’s putting down the right amount of salt.

And if he needs to haul material around, he can swing the spreader around to give him access to his truck bed. This comes in handy when he’s delivering firewood or hauling fallen tree branches.

The simple chain drive makes it easy for him to apply salt where it’s needed and control the amount he’s broadcasting. “The way we sell, some people want no snow at all, and others, like the residential customers, aren’t as picky,” he says.

Stewart says he used to buy used equipment when he found a good deal, but three years ago, he bought a used truck that caused him nothing but problems from the start.

“It was constantly down and out in the shop,” he says. “It seemed like a great deal at the time, but now I know better. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Now he says he’ll stick to all new equipment and vehicles, which gives him better peace of mind.

He’s planning to expand in the next few years and says he’s looking for some larger properties so that he can spend less time travelling back and forth between properties. He’s looking to sign on larger housing developments and commercial properties.

PHotos: Jerry Mann

Talking training

Stewart does all of his training in house when he hires new snow removal employees, which is about two a season.

If all goes well, he can have his new hires shadow a more seasoned veteran, but sometimes people have to “learn on the fly,” he says.

“Ideally, we can have someone go out in a truck or in a UTV before the snow hits and take their time learning the ropes,” he says. “But sometimes we have them shadow someone on the job and then take the reins during the real deal.”

That happened to him last year when one of his workers was out with a spinal injury. To get someone on board fast, he hired a referral from the injured worker and hoped for the best.

Since the new employee had experience with vehicles of different sizes, he caught on quickly and learned how to operate efficiently with the help of the veteran.

“We didn’t have a ton of stuff he needed to learn. It was mostly getting used to the crazy hours,” Stewart says. That employee is signed on again for the 2017-18 winter.

“Turnover is just part of the way things work,” Stewart says, adding that while he used to get upset by it, he’s learned that it’s “just part of the business.”