Insurance and Utilities

Snowstorm meant long hours, extra bucks for some: Plowing works as a side gig, but no one's getting rich

February 26, 2007

When the snow started flying during central Indiana's impressive winter storm this month, some residents bought bread and eggs and hunkered down to wait out the white stuff.

Others tuned up their trucks and revved their snow blowers in hopes of seeing a lot of green.

Many area city and town officials had private contractors on their speed dial-reinforcements who would help clear the foot of snow that fell in the Indianapolis area Feb. 13-14. The workers ranged from a one-man operation in a fourwheel-drive outfitted with a snowblade to an excavating company that used its heavy equipment, including graders and backhoes, to move snow.

But while the rates of $65 to $150 an hour might sound like easy money, cashing in on the "snow pushing" business, as insiders call it, is anything but automatic.

Mother Nature is unpredictable at best, so it's hard to plan on snow-removal revenue to pay the bills. But when she does strike, she can hit hard, leaving drivers burning the midnight oil-not to mention diesel-to help communities dig out.

Then there's the expense of additional insurance and vehicle maintenance. And the possibility that residents might not like the results of their plow job-especially if the snow ends up covering their parked cars. Veteran plowers tell stories of homeowners hurling trash can lids at and even pulling a gun on drivers.

Indianapolis officials had 17 contractors with a fleet of 100 vehicles on call to supplement the 82 city snow plows and 25 garbage trucks that were converted for snow duty.

"The firms are under contract and when we need to utilize their services, the city becomes their top priority," said Department of Public Works spokeswoman Margie Smith-Simmons.

The city pays contractors $95 an hour for a four-wheel-drive truck with a blade and $120 an hour for a one-ton pickup, mostly to clear residential streets. That may sound like a lot, but it saves the city from buying and insuring more equipment-and contractors get paid only when they work.

And if a contractor can't deliver the number of trucks it has promised, the company must pay Indianapolis an hourly rate as a penalty.

Toll mounts

Early estimates are that the city will shell out $400,000 to cover bills from the private contractors used this month, Smith-Simmons said. All the paperwork isn't in yet, but that compares with the roughly $560,000 cost of the city's own snow-removal efforts over two days of the storm. Time sheets for clearing the snow that fell later in the week aren't in yet.

Doug Goode of Greenfield-based Goode Enterprises LLC has been pushing snow for Indianapolis for three years. He drives a truck himself, but he also coordinates 30 other city subcontractors, carrying the extra insurance for them, making sure the drivers show up, and doing the city paperwork for a cut of their hours billed.

In the non-winter months, Goode coordinates landscaping and dump-truck subcontractors. He said most of the drivers he works with have seasonal jobs and are laid off in the winter. When a snowstorm rolls through, they're more than happy to come out of hibernation.

"I worked three days straight [during the latest storm]," Goode said.

He and his subcontractors also line up smaller contracts, clearing snow for businesses and a few subdivisions. He said businesses often want their lots cleared when as little as 2 inches of snow falls, while the city won't tap contractors until 4 inches have fallen.

When the city calls, taking care of the other clients becomes a juggling act.

"It's just staying organized and using the buddy system," Goode said. "There's enough work out there for everyone. It's like a pie-throw everybody a slice and we all get to eat."

He expects to bill the city about $100,000 for the snowfall that started Feb. 13. But overall, this has been a very warm winter, and he hasn't been very busy.

"It's a risky business," he said. "In warm years, you don't make any money at all."

A good-quality snow blade can easily cost $6,000. Add to that truck repairs, fuel costs and commercial insurance, and it's work best done just for supplemental income, he said.

Small potatoes

The town of Fishers called on nine contractors with 48 pieces of equipment to help clear out the white stuff, tapping some large excavating firms that already were in the area doing projects.

Fishers pays contractors $85 to $150 an hour, depending on their equipment. Among those clearing the roads in Fishers was Noblesville-based Infrastructure Contractors Inc., a 50-employee firm that digs trenches and lays tubing for underground utilities.

General Manager Jim Johnson said the company has cleared snow every year. He said the revenue "doesn't play into our overall income picture whatsoever," but helps keep the company from idling workers.

Though ground work generally can be done through the winter, "it comes to a screeching halt" with a heavy snowfall, Johnson said. With snow-removal duties, employees kick into high gear, earning overtime for working 12-hour shifts around the clock.

A similar desire to keep workers active meant Greenfield-based Central Engineering & Construction Associates Inc. workers were clearing Fishers streets, too. Owner Karen Horth Powers said after paying workers, her goal is to pretty much break even with the snow-plowing work.

She said moving snow can be harder on equipment than moving dirt, in part because the blades are running against asphalt.

While many central Indiana cities and towns used contractors to help, Greenwood and Southport handled their mess entirely with city workers.

Free-lance fun

While lining up municipal contracts can be lucrative, it also can mean more of a commitment than some free-lancers want. Some, like Fishers chiropractor Jason Bell, stumble into the business and hope to do it after hours or when the weather gives them a day off from their real jobs.

Bell bought a used 4-by-4 truck for $15,000 about two weeks before the storm hit, and the previous owner threw in a snow blade for free. Bell mentioned the new toy to his patients, especially those who came in to see him with back pain after shoveling the first snow of the season. One patient even mentioned he'd recently bought a heavy-duty snow blower.

Then the heavy snow hit and a few patients called Bell at home to see if he could dig out their driveways. He picked up his snow-blowing patient-turned-partner, and the fun began.

"I said we might as well go out and see if we can make some money," Bell said. They charged $30 to clear a short driveway and walkway or $65 an hour for bigger jobs. They pulled out stuck cars, cleared a residential cul-de-sac and even picked up a few local business clients.

After putting in 15 hours over two days, the pair was $800 richer and had dubbed their new business "Back Saver Snow Removal."

"It was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work," Bell said.

He now has fliers for the snow-clearing service at his other business, Chiro-Spa of Fishers. His business partner will clear snow during the day and Bell will chip in after hours or when the weather's bad enough to close the office.

"I tell people: 'Don't shovel snow. You're just going to hurt your back and pay for it in the long run,'" Bell said.

Similarly, Scott Sutton, owner of Fishers-based Sutton Lawn Care, decided to get in the business this year and his timing couldn't have been better. A few of his warm-weather clients had asked him to clear their snow in the winter, so this year he took the plunge and bought a 10-year-old truck with a plow for $5,500.

"I didn't want to sink a lot of money into it and worry about making payments," he said. "But I just hit it right this year."

He charges $30 to $40 to clear a driveway and $75 an hour for bigger projects. He estimates the recent storms brought in an extra $7,000 over about a week-equal to what he usually makes in a month.

But for those interested in dabbling in snow removal, Sutton advises they start small and buy a cheap truck.

"Indiana weather is hit or miss," he said. "I don't want to be sitting at home worried because it doesn't snow."
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