Most McHenry County residents probably aren’t ready to see winter weather again. But luckily for area commuters, the McHenry County Department of Transportation is, and the agency is fighting snowfall more digitally and environmentally friendly than ever before.
McHenry County DOT Maintenance Superintendent Mark DeVries’ desk is more of a command center than an office. His wide windows allow him to oversee the entire snow-removal operation, from monitoring trucks in and out of the facility to tracking deliveries into the salt dome. Monitors inside the room run constant live shots of the radar, and he’s in frequent communication with National Weather Service officials.
When winter weather approaches, trucks will pull up to mixing stations containing salt brine, calcium chloride and organic materials. Depending on the weather and the temperature of the road, the mixture will be adjusted to best battle the conditions. The truck driver will digitally enter his truck number and the amount of mixture he needs into a computer. The correct percentage of each ingredient – which DeVries can mix together with an app on his phone – will be funneled into the truck.
“It’s all digital,” DeVries said. “Now we can give [our drivers] a different mix at midnight than what they got at noon based on what the conditions are. It’s mixed on demand.”
DeVries, who is known across the world for pioneering ice prevention mixes, said being able to control the precise amount of material not only better combats hazardous winter weather but it also saves time, money and resources. And it keeps unnecessary amounts of salt from entering the county’s water supply.
“It’s all about implementing the very best practices out there,” he said. “If the road is wet and they spread it with salt, was it needed? Those are the things we get [our drivers] to think about because it winds up in our water systems.”
DeVries substitutes organic materials such as sugar beets, sugar cane and corn syrup into the mixes, which when combined with salt creates a much more effective and longer lasting solution.
“If you’ve ever had a Coke, a glass of water freezes at 32 [degrees] but a Coke freezes at 24 [degrees]. Well what’s the difference? It’s the sugar. Pure sugars freeze at a lower temperatures.
“When you spill that Coke and step in it three days later, it’s still sticky. [Sugar] keeps our salts on the roads longer. So now we’ve got something that freezes at a lower temperature and lasts longer on the road.”
DeVries said he gets contacted “once a week” by other cities, states and even countries who are interested in how McHenry County fights snowstorms. DeVries has been to Argentina, China and Europe to educate organizations on better ways to treat wintry roads. He also teaches a class in McHenry County for area municipalities to learn about his method of snow preparation.
“Back in 2000, people wanted to use sugar beets instead of salt, and it wasn’t working,” he said. “But we found a way of incorporating it into our liquid combinations. And we’ve kind of been the pioneer in that area.”
New technologies and innovative ideas are allowing the county to better fight winter weather, DeVries said. But the DOT’s improvements don’t stop at road treatments.
This year the county bought two snow-removal trucks that have a mid-mount expandable wing, which is designed to extend outward and shovel multiple lanes at one time. The trucks, which are meant to plow wide lanes such as Randall Road, can do the job that would take an ordinary plow truck two or three trips, according to Conrad Schultz, maintenance worker with the McHenry County DOT.
“They have a lot better handling and allow you to change the angle of how you plow,” said Schultz, who is one of more than 30 McHenry County DOT employees, all of whom work Nov. 15 to April 15 with zero vacation days. “We can cover twice the ground.”
The mid-mount wing also has a camera – much like a rear backup camera – that the driver can monitor to make sure the entire road is getting plowed.
Cameras are also used on the trucks to take still photographs that are sent back to DeVries at DOT headquarters to get a real-time look at the road conditions.
Part of the job for McHenry County DOT workers is forecasting what the winter will look like, and DeVries’ early predictions are than the county will see 40 inches of snow this year, up slightly from the yearly average of 37.5. And if snow started falling – much to the dismay of some residents – DeVries’ team would be ready to hit the streets.
“We would be pretty ready to go if anything happened today,” he said. “Country trucks would be out as soon as it started.”