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Would you want to be a snowmaker?

marzNC

Angel Diva
#1
With a few more months until the slopes open, the question is always "what is opening day?" In the southeast, the answer depends on enough cold weather for snowmaking, not the first snowstorm. Lately, I've been learning about the latest snowmaking technology. Turns out there is even a hashtag in YouTube for snowmaking.

A while back, the Ski Diva did an interview with a snowmaker at Whiteface called "Time to Make the Snow: A Women's Perspective." It's fair to say that most snowmaking crews are all men. Another woman in the business was nominated for Snowmaker of the Year in the 2014 SAM (Ski Area Management) competition. Click here for more about this snowmaker at Sugarloaf.

 
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marzNC

Angel Diva
#2
Snowmaking technology has changed a lot in the last 40 years. The ski areas that have invested in newer approaches in the last 4-5 years are starting to reap the benefits. Probably more obvious at smaller mountains or those that are local hills far away from big mountains that can count more on natural snowfall. I've certainly noticed the difference at Massanutten in recent years.

2012 Crotched, NH, 100 acres, 100% snowmaking coverage

2010 Perfect North, IN, 120 acres, 100% snowmaking coverage
 

Fluffy Kitty

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#3
Cool. I hadn't even thought about that as a career. Had I known twenty-five years ago, I could have saved myself from a lot of career dead ends... and would never have stopped skiing! Now I am forever condemned to fiddle with lawn sprinklers at most.
 

alicie

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#5
Can't say I've ever really thought about. Do you not just stick water and air into the cannon and it magically makes snow? Im thinking now there's more to it than that.

I have however always wanted to drive a piste basher. That looks fun.
 

pinto

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#6
My brother was on the snowmaking crew at Eldora in the late 80s; I lived with him then. It was a lot of very late, very cold nights, as I remember.
 

marzNC

Angel Diva
#7
Can't say I've ever really thought about. Do you not just stick water and air into the cannon and it magically makes snow? Im thinking now there's more to it than that.

I have however always wanted to drive a piste basher. That looks fun.
If a snowgun is in the right place and has the connections in place, then the magic can happen. But getting things set up takes hard work, which is done mostly in the dark. Note that the new technology simplifies the process because only water is fed through pipes and the air comes from a small compressor and fans built into each snowgun. That requires electricity everywhere on the mountain where snow guns are in use.

This video from a series created by Heavenly shows the work that goes into creating a base during early season before any snowstorms in the Tahoe region.

My impression is that in the Rockies, snowmaking happens for 3 months, Nov-Jan, mainly to assure that some slopes will be open by Thanksgiving week and to increase the number of slopes open during the important Christmas and New Years vacation weeks. In the southeast and Mid-Atlantic, snowmaking starts as soon as possible in Nov and continues until mid-Feb. After the Presidents Day long weekend, some places cut back on snowmaking pretty significantly because people in the region are mostly done with snowsports by March no matter what the weather is like in the mountains.
 
#8
I have a huge amount of respect for snowmakers (and have seen the person in video #1 in action). This is intense, often dangerous work - much of it done in the dark and in brutally cold temperatures. There are pipes, hoses, hydrants - and a lot of psi coming from the huge pumps that bring the water uphill.

Because of the huge energy consumption, most resorts here “pre-buy” discounted blocks of kwh electricity, which must be carefully monitored for use. Also carefully monitored is the water source: how much can be used in any given snowmaking session as well as in total is measured.

In other words, there’s a whole lot that goes into it. Then come the critical factors of air to water ratios, which are based on air temperature and relative humidity, which can change from hour to hour, requiring nozzle adjustment.

We have a saying up here: “Thank a snowmaker.”

Anyone who frequents or visits Sunday River, Maine, should make a point of visiting “The Snowflake Factory” for a guided tour of their impressive snowmaking system and how it all works - very informative
 

ski diva

Administrator
Staff member
#9
I agree: a big thumbs up to all the snowmakers out there. We rely on them here in the east, especially for early season. Without them, we wouldn't be skiing in November; that's for sure!

As MaineSkiLady said, however, snowmaking is incredibly energy-intensive, which is not only bad for the environment, but cost the resorts a ton of money, too. Last year Vermont initiated a $5 million rebate program to help ski areas invest in high-efficiency snow guns, and it's been a tremendous success. The guns not only use less energy, but they're less polluting than the guns they replaced. Anyone who's interested can read more about it here (it's actually a very interested article).
 
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#10
The push for the HKD high-efficiency guns has been on here for a few years now (versus the old fan and tower guns). Additionally, the product is better, with less energy loss. HKD shown below, circa 2012:



However, the other Big Kahuna in this equation is - pumps. Pumping that water uphill is a huge component of the energy consumption, per DH-engineer who works with similar types of pumps daily.
 
#11
My impression is that changing to more current technology can reduce energy usage by up to 40%. Automated systems with pole mounted guns certainly make it easier to cover an entire trail quickly.

Most ski areas buy their snowmaking equipment from a company. But apparently Alpine Valley in Ohio has been making their snow guns for a while and it's about to change their approach. One feature that seems relatively unusual is a built-in heater. They do not use Snowmax, an additive often used in snowmaking.

 
#12
Below is a very good article from Butternut (MA) that describes the different types of snow guns, why different types are used - and when - and all of the other massive components (compressors, pumps) that comprise their snowmaking system. I thought it was well-written and informative.
http://www.skibutternut.com/mountain/mountain-info/snowmaking/

"Seven Large Diesel powered air compressors deliver 14,400/cfm (cubic feet per minute) of air at 100 to 150/psi (pounds per square inch), through miles of snowmaking air lines that run up every one of our slopes and trails. Another set of pipes is used to pump 5,200 gpm (gallons per minute) of water up the mountain. Ski Butternut, as noted previously, drastically increased its ability to pump water uphill in the fall of 2007, again in 2011 (more than doubling its previous pumping capacity) and we added 2 new pumps and another 1600GPM in the summer of 2012. The water is drawn from one of two special holding ponds located on Ski Butternut property. The pumps that push the water and the compressors that compress and move the high-pressure air use a lot of electricity. Snowmaking, therefore, is a very - very - very expensive enterprise."
 

Fluffy Kitty

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#13
Now that I've satiated my equipment needs, I've been at a loss as to what to research obsessively. Thanks for all the appetite-whetting! :becky:

I had no idea how dependent East Coast resorts were dependent on snow making. Despite our warm-weather problem the last few years, I guess we are lucky here in the West in this regard.
 
#14
Now that I've satiated my equipment needs, I've been at a loss as to what to research obsessively. Thanks for all the appetite-whetting! :becky:

I had no idea how dependent East Coast resorts were dependent on snow making. Despite our warm-weather problem the last few years, I guess we are lucky here in the West in this regard.
Living in the southeast, I've had a strong sense of how important snowmaking is to the industry. What's been interesting is learning how much snowsports west of Denver depends on snow making from a business standpoint. If a ski area can get open reliably by Thanksgiving and have a good variety of slopes for the Christmas holidays, that makes a huge difference in terms of how many travelers would book early season ski vacations. Even smaller ski areas are investing in more snowmaking equipment.

Mountain High in CA is one of the founding members of the Powder Alliance. I'd never heard of it before the Powder Alliance was created a few years ago. Mountain High has a nice overview of snowmaking on their website. Apparently one airless snow gun can cost about $10,000. Even small ski areas are talking about having a hundred or more snow guns of various types.
 
#15
Roundtop in PA has an easy to understand overview on their website titled "How Snowmaking Works." For those who haven't heard of "wet bulb":

"Just like Mother Nature, we need temperatures of 32 degrees or lower to make snow. But 32 doesn't always equal 32! Snowmakers work from the "Wet Bulb" temperature. The wet bulb takes the amount of humidity in the air and evaporative cooling into account. The wet bulb temperature is usually colder than dry bulb (the kind most people use) so it may appear that we can make snow above 32 degrees at times. The rule of thumb is that as the temperature and humidity go down, the amount of snow we make goes up!"

Notice that's it's possible to make snow at temps slightly over 32 degrees. But ski areas in the southeast don't start making snow in earnest until they are pretty sure of getting several nights with temps in the 20s, preferably with daytime temps around 30 or less. Once there is a base 4-6 inches deep, a few warm days in the 40s usually doesn't mean they have to start from scratch.

snowmaking temp chart.jpg
 
#16
Another SAM nominee for the I AM a Snowmaker contest on SAM is Jeff Clancy of Holiday Valley. He's been making snow at HV for just over 20 years. Clearly loves his job and the team he works with. They are actively working Nov-Mar. Clancy is a full-time employee for the entire year. My guess is that HV's commitment to snowmaking is one reason I've been reading good things about HV by folks who live in Ohio as well as central NY.


This "Behind the Scenes" video make by HV shows how easy it is to start up a set of automated tower guns at 4:15. Snowmakers in the flatlands don't just work after the lifts close. When possible, snow guns are kept off on open slopes but in early season skiing under active guns is a fact of life for avid skiers/boarders. Making snow all night and all day in Dec or even mid-Jan can mean a longer season come late Feb or early March.

 
#17
Found a lot of detail about the costs of snowmaking in a study done by Mad River Glen. MRG has snowmaking on about 15 acres below 2300' to help extend the season by making sure there is coverage to get down to the base in early and late season. Like most smaller places, not only is installation cost and maintenance a factor, finding a water source can be a significant problem.

Wintergreen in VA built a 5 million gallon tank a few years ago in order to have more water for snowmaking. Needless to say, that was expensive. Definitely made a difference in how much terrain is open by Christmas, no matter when it gets cold enough for snowmaking in the southeast.
 
#19
Arapahoe Basin posted about their snowmaking plans today!

https://www.facebook.com/ArapahoeBasinSkiArea
Looks like A-Basin started talking about snowmaking in early Sept. The post about the reservoir is interesting.

Down below the bottom of Pali Lift we have a 5.5 acre snowmaking reservoir. Our stream diversion requirements only allow us to divert a small amount of water at a time. During the snowmaking season, we make that small diversion 24 hours a day. We store the diverted water in the reservoir. When the temperatures get cold enough for snowmaking we pump water uphill out of the reservoir at a much high rate than our diversion rate.

On the Sundance trail, they are using 4 "stick guns" for pre-season snowmaking. Something new that was successful last season. The mounting poles are removed before the trail is open for skiing. I'm guessing it's compromise between a fixed lance-style snow gun and a portable snow gun that is low to the ground. Pretty clear that a snow gun mounted higher off the ground results in more and/or better snow output.
 
#20
For anyone who wants to read the full story about snowmaking in one place, SMI has a pretty nice overview on their website. SMI is one of the top companies in the business, with installations all over the world. SMI is based in Midland, MI and was founded in 1974. It's a family business, as are several other American snowmaking companies.
 

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