This isn’t our first roadeo - Iowa DOT tests snow equipment and plow routes

Atlantic storageEvery year about this time in Iowa Department of Transportation garages around the state, snowplows, brine tanks and salt spreaders are being pulled out of storage in preparation for the winter driving season.

This year, in addition to the traditional preparation, the Iowa DOT conducted its first-ever statewide test of snowplow trucks and the global positioning system/automatic vehicle locations system they use. This GPS/AVL system feeds data to Iowa DOT supervisors, the National Weather Service, and the public through a variety of services.

Craig Bargfrede, the Iowa DOT’s winter operations administrator, said, “Data drives so many of the decisions we make. Since these decisions are only as good as the data we collect, verifying the data is critical to be able to do our jobs well. Back in the 2014-15 winter season, we installed a new GPS/AVL system called Skyhawk on a very limited number of trucks as a pilot project. Last year we outfitted approximately half the fleet with the technology and this year we completed the installation on more than 900 vehicles, connecting them to the system.”

IMG_5690The Skyhawk system collects information on truck location and speed, type of material and the rate that material is being applied to the road, as well as truck data such as fuel use and engine diagnostics. Using a cellular network the data is transmitted to a database where supervisors and others can monitor the information. Also included in the data stream are the images sent to which are available to the public.

The test occurred on Oct. 4. Bargfrede said, “We planned the test to have the least impact on summer maintenance activities, but still allow enough time to react and address any issues that might come up before the winter season hits.”

The test was set up to mimic an actual snowstorm that would move from northwest to southeast Iowa. The trucks started rolling out of Rock Rapids and other northwest Iowa garages at 8 a.m., followed every 15 minutes by trucks from garages across the state until the last trucks were dispatched from Burlington in southeast Iowa. Once all trucks were on the road, they tested data collection, equipment calibration, and snow routes for the upcoming winter.

Bargfrede said, “We monitored the data coming into the system as the trucks began their runs. This served as a load test to see if the system could handle data coming from a majority of our fleet of trucks at one time. We’re very pleased that there wasn’t a noticeable slow-down in the data flow, even with so many trucks deployed.”

Once confidence in the data collection was verified, testing began on equipment calibration. “One of the largest expenses associated with fighting snow and ice each year is the cost of salt,” Bargfrede said. “It’s critical that the equipment used to spread salt and other materials is calibrated precisely. Errors in calibration can waste tens of thousands of dollars if not caught and corrected. Although we didn’t actually spread any salt during the test, we were able to double check the calibration on all the trucks and make adjustments where necessary.”

IMG_5699Monitoring and catching potential defects in the way a truck is operating is also a critical data point for the GPS/AVL system. “Our mechanics are able to monitor the data coming off a truck through the Skyhawk system to see how the engine and other systems are performing. “This data is analyzed in another system called On Command where the mechanic can access detailed step-by-step instructions to repair any errors that were detected,” said Bargfrede. “Detecting and resolving problems early can save a great deal of time and money, whether that’s something simple like a leaking hose or a more serious engine failure. For the more serious defects, the potential to get that equipment repaired and back on the road quickly is critical to keeping the road as safe as possible.”

Since every Iowa DOT garage participated in the test, it was also a time for supervisors to do some refresher training on pre-trip inspections and other winter functions. Due to budget issues, the Iowa DOT had to close shops earlier this year. Snow routes had to be adjusted to make sure routes previously maintained by those closed garages were covered. Operators had the chance to drive the new routes and make any changes to provide the best service to their area when winter weather hits.

“Training is a key component for all our operators,” said Bargfrede. “They are the ones out in the worst conditions possible and they need to know the equipment they are using is safe and that they have the support they need to get the job done.”

That support was evident the day of the test. On that day, there were major flooding concerns happening in and around Cedar Rapids. “Because our folks in that area were engaged in flooding activities, crews from other garages came in and helped get the equipment ready for the test,” said Bargfrede. “That’s nothing new to us, that’s just what our people do. When one garage needs help, there is always someone there to step up and lend a hand. Because they do it so regularly, they may not get the recognition they deserve, but I know it is much appreciated.”

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