Frostbite. Whiteout. Blizzard. Freezing rain. Ice storms. Below zero. Lake-effect snow, measured in feet. Slush. Snow blowers. Snow shovels. Wind chill.
Each term is part of the vocabulary for those who live where winter takes no prisoners. But in these climates, despite the way winter wreaks havoc on an annual basis, businesses — including tree care companies — must find a way to survive.
Not only must they properly prepare for the freeze, but they also must be able to successfully navigate their operations through the freeze, where warmer months and busier days await.
Weathering in Wisconsin
“Winter is not a season, it is an occupation.”
Those words were spoken by Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis, and, although he wasn’t a tree care professional, he was from Minnesota, where natives are all too familiar with dealing with blistering winter conditions. And though he’s in a neighboring state, count Will Torgeson, president of Capital City Tree Experts in Morona, Wisconsin, as part of that crowd.
“We have a cold-weather policy that we put in place,” Torgeson says of surviving brutal Wisconsin winters. “It was voted on by everyone in the company. We call it the ’10/10/4′ rule — it has to be 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) by 10 a.m. and that temperature must be sustained for four hours in order for us to work that day. We all use the same weather app on our phones so we can all plan ahead accordingly.”
Capital City Tree Experts serves the metro Madison area of Wisconsin. Madison is among the coldest cities in the U.S. (according to national weather data as of 2010), but that doesn’t stop Torgeson and his crews from working year-round. In preparation of the winter months, Torgeson says, he and his staff complete many tasks, including cleaning areas to make room for piling snow, getting rid of mulch and wood piles that accumulate over the summer and converting their spray rig to a truck that pulls the company’s large, enclosed trailer for winter work.
“The truck is a four-wheel drive, Ford F550,” Torgeson says. “We work all winter, and the four-wheel drive really helps pulling that trailer on snowy roads. This process also includes removing the spray rig from the flatbed and winterizing it by draining it and running antifreeze through it. We then place the spray rig inside in a location where it can’t get damaged.”
Torgeson also makes sure ample room is cleared to park equipment in the shop during winter months, and all extension cords and timers for engine block heaters are tested, as almost all of the company’s trucks get plugged in.
“This is a big reason why I try and only buy gas engine trucks and equipment,” Torgeson says. “If a breaker trips in the middle of the night, this really causes big problems for us the next morning when the crew arrives to the shop and equipment won’t start. So we get all the cords laid out and discuss at our safety meeting where everything will get parked for the winter.”
Any pad locks, door locks, chain binders or anything that can freeze up in frigid temperatures are sprayed with PB Blaster before winter hits. “And the first few cold nights will let you know if your truck and equipment batteries are weak,” Torgeson adds. “We replace them as soon as they are trouble.”
Once the cold comes in full force and preparations are made, additional challenges present themselves. For instance, Torgeson says, “we remind crews that the chippers’ infeed wheels have to be cleaned out every night so they don’t freeze up. And we have to make sure that chips get dumped every night so they don’t freeze in. Sometimes this means dumping them at the shop, because our normal dump sites are closed.”
Capital City Tree Experts no longer does plowing, but the company does do snow removal from roofs. “We’ll do that since we treat it like a regular tree job and do it during our normal work schedule,” Torgeson says.
Another winter practice in which the company stopped engaging is holiday lighting, which can be a common job for tree care companies in colder climates. “Years ago we did offer holiday lighting, but it proved to be more difficult then we thought,” Torgeson recalls. “The bucket truck doesn’t do 360-degree circles around trees, so trying to wrap lights around a tree is difficult. It’s usually very cold out, and you need to work with your fingers up in a freezing bucket. Then, if a light burns out, or strings go out, we get that phone call.
“Also, it’s hard to charge our normal [rates] to replace a bulb. People seemed to expect you to service the lights for free. The whole operation kind of changed the holiday mood from a happy time to more of a dreadful time, so we quit doing it.”
Torgeson also says his company doesn’t offer winter discounts for services, as the work load has been sufficient enough not to. He also lays off his plant health care staff for the winter, and uses days where it’s too cold (or snowy) to work outside to service equipment, update company policies and look at company strategies – all tasks that are nearly impossible in busy summer months.
Veterans of the cold
Much like in Wisconsin — and as Sinclair Lewis so eloquently told us earlier — anyone who lives and works in Minnesota knows that harsh, relentless winters are a way of life.
Rainbow Tree Care has been an arboriculture mainstay in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area of Minnesota since 1976. In those almost 40 years of business, the company and its staff are experts in preparing for and working through winter months.
“Our biggest focus is making sure that we have backlogged the appropriate amount of dormant-season work,” says Ben Cooper, general manager at Rainbow. “Our technical arborists are full-time employees, and we take a lot of pride in not having to lay off any of our climbers in the winter months. This takes good long-range planning and training.”
Rainbow does “make every effort to create winter work for [the] pruning division,” according to Cooper. The company’s plant health care and lawn technicians finish out the season by working in the company’s holiday design division. “This extends our season to make those employees’ year two to three months longer,” adds Cooper. “This allows for a more full-time career track versus a seasonal career track. It’s also a good way to leverage the resources we already have invested into that area of the business.”
As far as preparing for the winter, Rainbow does extensive winterization to the business and equipment to ensure November through March is taken care of. “All of our plant health care and lawn care rigs are [inspected] at the end of the season, typically once the ground freezes,” Cooper says. “We go through the entire vehicle from top to bottom, rebuild pumps on a regular basis and fill the lines with antifreeze. Here in Minnesota, it’s always a balance of being able to finish out the season before the below-freezing evenings come, in which case we need to move all of our vehicles with pumps indoors.
“Good winterizing sets you up for a more stress-free start to the next year. This means less to do in the spring, which can be pretty variable start dates.”
Rainbow does not engage in any plowing, but does install holiday lights on homes and trees. No specials are offered to customers in the winter, but Cooper says Rainbow does try to sell the benefits of doing work in the winter to prospective customers, for example explaining how frozen ground is less susceptible to damage and how trees’ winter dormancy allows for the least impact on their health when work is being done.
Additionally, according to Cooper, the winter months allow Rainbow to simply “catch its breath from the non-stop growing season.” Rainbow also “spends time assessing and planning for the next year and updates training materials to focus on our incidents from the previous year,” Cooper explains. “We do more in-depth training with our technical arborists. We have four tracks that they move through; part is classroom training, which we do in the winter, and the other is on-site progression and verification of skills.”
Take it from these two tree care companies — it’s all about preparation and planning. That’s how you survive the winter blues.