Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why does a Saab Dealer need a Honda, a Chevrolet and a Caterpillar?

Because Saab doesn’t make snow-throwers, snow plow trucks or bucket loaders. Life in New England means dealing with snow, and over time we have amassed a perfect combination of machines for dealing with keeping our lot cleared. Per square foot, I bet there is no more challenging pavement to plow, and good equipment is vital.

The challenge is less in the snow removal than in the preparation and clean up. Shopping malls? They wait for everyone to go home and push the snow to big piles. Streets? Cars can be a hassle, but otherwise, you just keep pushing with a tipped blade. Our lot? First, we have to remove every car we can. We load the shop to the rafters…literally. Then our roof deck gets filled. And right now, with lots of inventory, our rear lot has dozens of cars which get huddled together. All of this preparation takes place over the course of a few hours with all hands on deck. Then the snow falls, and all that empty asphalt gets plowed clean. Of course, you can only push snow so far, so we end up with large piles in a few locations, and once the plowing is done, the loader comes out and relocates the piles to the main pile in the rear lot. Along the way, we also go out and clear the sidewalks on our block, including our neighbors’. Then the cars come back outside, the cars left outdoors are cleaned and relocated so their lot can be plowed. There is much to do with each storm! To do all this well, we rely on really good machines.

When I took over as Service Manager in 2001, I also assumed the responsibility for snow removal. In those days, the equipment was miserable. We had the same loader, but the plow vehicle was a bent Jeep Cherokee (really bad idea for plowing) and a small John Deere tractor with a snow thrower attachment, which worked only marginally and was never right, no matter how much money we threw at it.

After muddling through with these and other patchwork solutions, we got a real plow vehicle in 2007, a new Chevy Silverado 2500 with a Fisher Minute-Mount plow. This joined the Honda 928 snow blower which we purchased the year before, and of course, we’ve had the 1963 Caterpillar 922B loader ever since we moved to this location in 1987.

While the Chevy and Honda were purchased new, the Caterpillar was inherited. This location, before it was a Saab dealership, was a heavy equipment dealer. I’m not exactly sure how this factored the bargain, but I know that after the blizzard of 1978, many businesses wanted to be sure they could deal with the most dire snow emergency, so I’m sure the owner wanted a big machine for his new, big parking area. Here’s what I know about the loader. Sometime before my tenure, the engine failed and was replaced with a Continental I6 gasoline engine. In the early years of my snow removal career, we did little more than change the oil and add air to the tires. In recent years, we’ve done much more. First, we gave it a paint job with Eastwood rust remediator in silver. The bosses here always complained about how ugly this machine was, and silver really does make it disappear, no mean feat! Then we had the leaking tire replaced. We paid more for that tire than I’ve paid for some of my cars. Then we set about getting it running right. In the last year it has had new plugs, wires, condenser, points, air filter (this stuff was all new-old-stock AC Delco), the heater box rebuilt, plumbing to the heater added with assist from a 9-5 electric coolant pump, the manifolds repaired and gaskets replaced, rebuilt the carburetor, the giant twin 6 volt batteries replaced (took six weeks to get these!), the generator rebuilt…..The extra special amenity we added last year was a 9-5 power seat, complete with power adjustment.

The 922B now runs great. Thanks, Mike Clancy, for all your hard work! There are still issues, like the brakes which have never worked. I am not concerned—the lot is flat and toggling between forward and reverse is quick, and dropping the bucket means a quick stop. I fixed the water that used to pour in on me with lots of RTV, plus an old Born from Jets banner glued to the roof. The Caterpillar is a transport tool for snow. After snow is plowed into piles, the loader comes along and, one bucket full at a time, takes the snow from the smaller piles and puts it in one massive pile in our rear parking lot. There, we stack it as high as possible. The 922B is perfect for this task. I try to be gentle with the old beast, appreciating that it is already living on borrowed time. I let it warm well before setting it to work; I try to limit the abruptness of my maneuvers, and to have a gentle hand on the hydraulics.

There are five levers, three pedals and a steering wheel. The steering is very light, with a large, thin rimmed three spoke wheel, reminiscent of what a bus might have. On the left side of the steering column is the forward-neutral-reverse lever. Next to the seat on the left are two levers, one for 2wd/4wd, and the other for high and low range. On the right side are the levers for the bucket. The pedals? I only use the accelerator since the brakes are inoperative. While I am sure that modern machines with their joysticks are far easier to control for the professional, I like having these large, separated, heavily weighted mechanical controls. It requires that every move I make with this machine is deliberate. If I make a goof with a snow plow, it could cause damage or injury. In the loader, that becomes demolition or death. I’ve only frightened myself once. In my early days of running the 922B, I tried to get my snow pile higher by driving up into the pile itself a bit, then lifting my bucket as high as it would go before dumping. One time, with the bucket fully extended, the snow under the right front wheel gave way, and I thought for sure we were going over, especially with all that weight lifted high and now swinging right! We didn’t go over, and in all likelihood an experienced operator would have thought this was all normal and routine, but it scared me. Now, all four wheels stay on the ground, and the pile is a little lower.

The loader has seen some alternative uses over the years. I have used it to straighten some mighty fence posts and to rescue a beached snow plow. Aside from that, it sleeps all summer and only sees use in winter. For every foot (30 cm) of snow we get, it requires four hours of loader time to transport the snow. So you see, even in years where we get lots of snow, the loader gets very dear use indeed.

The Honda 928 (9 horsepower, 28” swath) has given us good service. We purchased it looking for a machine that would take hard use, clearing sidewalks which are always deep in snow/slush plowed onto the walk from the road. It has hydrostatic drive, and a very robust mechanism to rotate the chute. The engine is a joy, always starts on the second pull, thus obviating the electric start. I have two complaints about the Honda. First, it is tiring to use, requiring lots of effort and body English to wrestle it along walkway. Second complaint is the price. I wanted something here that was reliable and a good performer, so I didn’t mind that this machine was so much more expensive than other machines in its size class. But after living with it several years, I’m not sure if the cost difference, which was nearly 100%, was worth it, mostly because it just works me too hard.

The Silverado is an unqualified success for us at Charles River Saab. A full sized pick-up with an 8’ (2.4 m) plow blade, it is much better suited to wholesale plowing we need as compared to the Cherokee and Jeep Wrangler which preceded it. It is a basic work truck—5.3 liter, automatic, manual windows, rubber floor mats….but the cloth seats are comfortable, the HVAC works perfectly, and radio sounds fine and is manageable while wearing gloves. We’ve had no mechanical faults with the truck or the plow. I noted today that there are 4000 miles on the odometer. This must mean that in reverse, the odometer does not remove miles. If it did, we’d be much closer to zero. Other than the occasional run for building materials or welding supplies, the truck stays parked here except for snow duty. The 4-wheel drive system provides excellent power delivery, and we’ve only gotten it stuck a couple of times.

In all, we are lucky to have these machines. True, if I had to by a snow thrower again, I’d likely consider something else as the premium price for the Honda may not have elicited the value I expected. Then again, if we’re still using the 928 in ten years, I may rethink that point of view. As much as I am not a fan of the General, based on our experience, I would re-up for another Silverado if need be. And the Cat? She’s priceless. Consider this. We just had half of our 25,000 cubic foot (700,000 liter) snow pile removed for $2500. Most years we don’t cart it off at all, we just let melting occur and then reshape the pile until the next storm. Without the loader, every storm would mean having equipment come in. Cost to replace our aged Cat? About $7500. That loader is invaluable, and once you get beyond the fatigue from the exhaust gases and the noise, even with hearing protection, it’s sort of fun to operate….like playing in a big sandbox!

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