Melting snow and hearts After Phila. passed, Baltimore jumped at the chance to rent a Snow Dragon.

Posted: February 21, 2010

BALTIMORE — Think of a giant, shaking hot tub that looks like a Dumpster.

It's a snow melter, and it can dispose of 10 tons of the white stuff an hour.

Two days after the big Feb. 10 whiteout, a small Canadian company phoned Philadelphia officials, asking whether they wanted a mobile snow melter at a decent price. But the city officials never called back. So Baltimore, another city of neighborhoods and narrow streets buried in more than three feet of snow, jumped at the chance.

The odd snow-melting machine has become a sort of celebrity in Baltimore, with people delightedly gawking at it as it roams around, sloshing away at the mountains of dirty, gray snow clogging streets.

"It's awesome," Baltimore emergency official Pete Collier said. "We love it."

As the Feb. 9-10 snowstorm approached Baltimore, newly sworn-in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake - she took office the day before the Feb. 5-6 storm hit - assembled her top officials at a downtown emergency operations center. Like Philadelphia, the city already had almost two feet of snow on the ground. By plowing and hauling, crews had been able to clear most of the major roads.

"Move it or melt it," Rawlings-Blake told them of the coming snow.

Al Foxx, Baltimore director of transportation, had used snow melters before. He gave his city emergency management deputies, Collier and Scott Brillman, a simple directive: "Find me a snow melter."

Working 18-hour shifts on little sleep, Brillman, 30, originally from Bryn Mawr, and Collier, 39, did what any tech-savvy guys would do.

"We Googled snow melters," Collier said.

Like Philadelphia, Baltimore has serious financial issues. It has a budget deficit of at least $120 million.

"We had to be frugal," Collier said.

The two found snow-melting companies in Ohio and New Jersey, but they wanted big money and long-term guarantees, he said, and weren't willing to send any licensed operators to oversee the melting. The cheapest U.S. one they found charged $850 an hour, still way out of their price range.

"We were desperate," Collier said. "Come hell or high water, we were going to get a snow melter."

Meanwhile, in Guelph, Ontario, Bill Hamilton, owner of Turf Plus, a small landscaping and snow-removal company, was glued to the Weather Channel. Big, bald, and goateed, Hamilton, 39, is a laid-back guy who wears his ball cap low and says "wicked" a lot. Lately, a sick, churning feeling came over him every time he saw his $250,000 top-of-the-line Snow Dragon melter sitting in his shop yard like an unwanted child.

He had bought it last year as an investment - he said it's the only one in Ontario, which got heavy snow last winter, so he made some money and was happy. But this winter Ontario has gotten only about six inches of snow.

"I had no work for it," Hamilton said. "It was killing me."

News of a blizzard hitting the States made him smile. He told his shop manager, Lisa Nickerson, to make some calls.

"What the heck," he told her.

Nickerson contacted municipal officials in Allegheny County, Baltimore, and Washington. She said she also e-mailed and left phone messages with Philadelphia emergency-operations officials but couldn't immediately remember their names.

City Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson said that she didn't receive a call from Nickerson, but that it wouldn't have mattered if she had.

"We've used snow melters in the past," Tolson said. "We didn't think they were the right approach for this storm."

About 1,600 miles of Philadelphia's 2,595 miles of roads are free of snow, Tolson said. The rest will be cleared in a matter of days. Crews are now chipping away at the hard-packed ice plaguing smaller streets.

Tolson said the city's snow-removal approach is to clear it and haul what it can to the Navy Yard.

In Baltimore, Foxx got Nickerson's e-mail around 4:30 p.m. on the Friday after the second storm. The streets were buried under huge piles of snow, and city trucks were dumping snow in the harbor and piling it at Pimlico Race Course.

"He got back to us in 10 minutes," Nickerson said.

Collier, Brillman, and Hamilton entered into negotiations.

Hamilton asked for $850 an hour. Collier told him to think of the marketing possibilities.

"You'll be the knight in shining armor riding in on a snow melter," he told him.

Some work was better than no work, Hamilton figured, and he agreed to $300 an hour. With a two-person crew, he hitched the snow melter to a trailer and headed south before dawn last Sunday morning.

Twelve hours later, after a brief delay at the border - customs officials were worried the snow melter could take American jobs; Brillman faxed a letter assuring them it would not - Hamilton pulled the snow melter into the parking lot of Polytech Institute and Western High School, one of Baltimore's snow-dumping spots.

Collier and Brillman were waiting there, shivering.

"It's warm down here," Hamilton said, getting out of the truck.

The Baltimore officials examined the snow melter.

"She'll melt some snow for you," Hamilton assured them.

"Well, let's feed this beast," Brillman said.

"She's hungry," Hamilton said.

"It's a she?" Brillman asked.

"Anything this bad has to be a woman," Hamilton said.

A backhoe dumped the first load of snow into the humming melter. Jets of hot water began to dissolve the snow as it fell into a 2,000-gallon tank of 120-degree water. A filtration system collected dirt and debris and the melted snow sloshed out into a city drain. The snow was gone in seconds.

Hundreds of trucks have since been piling snow at dumping spots throughout Baltimore.

The melter moves from spot to spot, getting rid of the snow.

So far, almost 1,000 truckloads of snow have been tossed into the melter, Nickerson said.

"It's helped us tackle those mounds of snow blocking up smaller streets," Collier said, "and allowed us to clear up space for parking."

After five days with the snow melter, streets downtown were mostly cleared down to the blacktop by Friday, and the smaller side streets looked better than they do in Philadelphia. Finding parking spots was relatively easy.

By Friday morning, the snow-melting crew had arrived at a lot along Belair Road in the northeast section of the city.

There, contractors had piled two acres of 30-foot-high gray mountains collected from major roads and surrounding streets.

"I've never seen this much snow in my life," Nickerson said, guessing that it could take weeks to melt.

Her husband, Fred, a native of Newfoundland, was manning the backhoe. The snow was more like ice now, he said, but the snow melter was working fine.

With a lit Marlboro dangling from his lips, he scooped another pile of snow and crept toward the melter.

Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 856-779-3237 or mnewall@phillynews.com.

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