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September 2013

By the Numbers

Jiminy Peak and its sister area Cranmore are making more snow earlier while cutting expenses. Here's how they do it.

Written by Rick Kahl | 0 comment

Snowmaking is all about efficiency these days. No one wants to spend any more on the energy required to pump water and compressed air uphill than absolutely necessary. Jiminy Peak, Mass., and its sister areas have taken the quest for efficiency further than just about anyone else.

The Jiminy group saves energy and money in two ways. First by using low-e guns. That, of course, allows any resort to spread its air across more guns. But second, the Jiminy group knows exactly how much air it's pushing up the hill, and whether or not it has maximized the amount of water it could be using.

To do this, the areas have cataloged their snowguns and their air/water use and capacities, and put all the numbers into a spreadsheet that allows snowmakers to use their air and water to maximize production at all times.

Jiminy has assembled an array of low-e tower guns over the past several years, from HKD and others. A few years ago, the resort cataloged the whole lot, put all the information on gpm and cfm into a spreadsheet, and analyzed snowmaking conditions and needs at each and every one of the resort’s hydrants. Then the snowmaking managers repositioned guns to maximize efficiency.

Jiminy has a 425-gun arsenal with various heights. Each is now dialed in by height, flow characteristics and matched to a location on the hill. For example, a 15-foot gun works well on a narrow trail with a lift nearby. Taller guns with more flow are positioned in high use/high need areas. The result is a mix of sizes, and even manufacturers, on many trails.

The area configured its various snowmaking phases so that the system operates at maximum efficiency and capacity, taking advantage of the full pumping capacity for both air and water. Jiminy’s VP of environmental sustainability, Jim Van Dyke, says the area knows exactly what trails/pods it can run to be at maximum air and water capacity at every wet bulb temperature.

Jiminy has taken other key steps, such as adding system valving so that it can open/close the air and water valves for an entire trail at one shot, and it has cut its cfm use in half. But the real key has been rigorous use of the Excel spreadsheet that tracks air and water capacity and use for each gun and each trail. The spreadsheet makes it possible to allocate air and water to maximize production on whichever set of trails the resort is working.

This also makes it possible to hold snowmakers accountable for production. “At this point, we know we have a pod, it’s a certain number of guns. We communicate that to the snowmakers, and tell them where production should be at a certain point. If they are running, say, a third less guns or water than they should, they have to have an answer for that.”

Sister resort Cranmore has adopted a similar system, and president Ben Wilcox is completely sold on it. The area has vastly increased both its energy efficiency and its early-season snowmaking output. The system has allowed Cranmore to open more terrain earlier in the season and at a lower cost.

Cranmore’s diverse array of guns and recent implementation of the Excel management system make it a good case study. A decade ago, Cranmore’s snowmaking operations were old school. Nothing was on a spreadsheet, and the snowmaking manager ran the system by the seat of his pants. “Now, we’re rivaling some bigger mountains on acreage, especially early in the season,” Wilcox says. “That changes our clientele and what our guests are looking at.”

He says the effort starts at the top, with Jiminy CEO Brian Fairbank. “The Fairbank group has a great culture around snowmaking,” Wilcox says. “Brian’s focus has been great. He understands every detail. And he’s excited about it. Not everyone at the top level focuses on snowmaking that much.”

While Cranmore has upgraded its equipment over the past several seasons, its improved snowmaking is due more to philosophy and approach. That philosophy is to put the most efficient and highest-capacity guns on high priority trails, match the capacity and throw characteristics of each gun and location, and make snow whenever possible.

“There are operators who won’t make snow at 26º F and high humidity,” Wilcox says. “But Brian told me early on, ‘I won’t tell you to ever pass up a window, no matter how small or tight.’ It can be a tough pill to swallow, but you have to make snow whenever you can. We haven’t played the waiting game at all in the past three years. With the fickle nature of our weather patterns, if you wait for more optimal temperatures, you might come up a few inches short of the snow you need to open a trail. That little bit of production during marginal times can be very important.”

As with Jiminy, Cranmore took stock of its 400-plus guns. They include a dozen or so fan guns, hundreds of low-e towers ranging from 10-foot sled-mounted guns to 38-foot sticks, and 80 older ground guns. Several manufacturers are represented in the fleet.

“Our first major step was to dissect what each phase of our plan looks like,” says Wilcox. The area prioritized trails into seven phases, based on their importance to the on-snow experience. Each phase is also set up for maximum efficiency. “We went from running 60 to 80 guns at maximum to 150, without changing our pumping capacities,” Wilcox says. That allows the area to open 65 percent of its terrain by Christmas, almost solely on machine-made snow.

“There’s quite a science to which guns you’re using in each location,” Wilcox says. That starts with the size of the gun and its capacity. “We have reached an understanding of where guns should be, based on contour of the trail,” he adds. It also meant moving the ground guns off the early-customer-service terrain and into the later phases.

The water capacities, along with the air each gun requires, go into an Excel spreadsheet (see below), along with the water pumping capacity. The type of gun, air and water capacities are totaled for each trail and for each phase. That allows managers to make adjustments, as temperature and humidity require, to take full advantage of the resort’s pumping capacity. “We run a spreadsheet every day,” says Wilcox. “This forces you to say, ‘I have more water, and have to figure out what guns to add, and where, to max out air and water. ‘Since our air is so much more efficient now, we sometimes run out of water. It’s no longer just a question of maxing out the air,” he says.

“We have five compressors, “ Wilcox notes, “but two now handle most of it. We used to run all five compressors with the tripod guns, and we would run out of air at 60 guns. We would max out at 1,500 to 2,000 gallons of water. Now, we often run 3,000 gpm, our maximum capacity, and operate 150 guns, with just two compressors. Because I don’t have to start up the last three older compressors, I can use a lot less air, and more water. So our electric bill has come down—electricity relates to air more than water.

“Once you turn the system on, you can run 80 guns or you can run 150 guns, there’s no difference in cost between the two. So the goal is to maximize the number of guns and flow. If you’re not utilizing your equipment efficiently, it costs you a lot more money. You want to increase production and decrease expenses.”

And Wilcox sees even more efficiency in Cranmore’s future. “Down the road, we’re looking at newer technology guns with even better air efficiency. I’d like to get down to running just one compressor.

“Now we are looking at upgrading our pipe, looking at weak areas where we need to increase pipe size or add hydrants. We have had a full crew on this summer. And it makes a huge difference.”

Cranmore’s first phase consists of eight to 10 trails—the exact number depends on how many acres the resort will be able to open, given the temperature and humidity limitations. “I treat it as a little bit of a race,” Wilcox says. “If I can run 150 guns rather than 60, I can cover more terrain and open it quicker. It used to be late February before we had all our terrain open. Now, it’s mid to late January We’ve cut four to six weeks out of the schedule. It’s really fun to get the comments from our guests.”

Cranmore still uses ground guns in the last few phases. “Those spreadsheets don’t look as pretty as the earlier trails. There, we’re maximizing water, but with fewer guns,” Wilcox says. As the area continues to replace older guns with new, and as it automates some of the key customer-service trails, the efficiency gains will continue.

One unexpected side effect was the way the snowmaking crew viewed the increased efficiency. “The first day we tried out the system, we were able to run 140 or 145 guns. I was impressed with how much snow we were making. But one of the snowmakers said, ‘Is this to put us out of jobs? Now, everything’s in place, it’s more organized, we don’t have to drag guns around, I don’t think I like it.’”

While there is a good deal less moving of guns, and it’s easier to start them up, Cranmore hires just as many snowmakers as it used to. And the job is, in fact, a bit easier. “We now do more monitoring than digging out and dragging machines around,” Wilcox says. “We’ve engaged the snowmakers and described our system, our goals. I work directly with the snow surfaces manager. We talk at the beginning and end of every day, review what we’ve done and where we’re going.

“And we put them up on a pedestal. They rarely see the guests, so we do snowmaking appreciation dinners. We want them to be proud of their accomplishments and meeting their goals. We look at acreage of other mountains and make it a competitive thing.”

With more trails coming on-line sooner, the next step is communication with the guests. Hence, Snowmageddon.

“Last year, we [the Fairbank group] put together Snowmageddon, a website/ branding campaign that talked about each resort’s snowmaking philosophy and plan,” Wilcox says. The blogs, on each area’s website, allowed guests to track the areas’ snowmaking progress. It was, in effect, a simplified version of the snowmaking phases spreadsheets.

“I was skeptical at first,” Wilcox says. “I felt that people wouldn’t want to know every detail, each phase. Nonetheless, we did a snowmaking blog, updating it every other day about our progress.

“A real telling sign for me came after we had a pipe blow up on a trail, and we had to shift some phases. A guest asked me about the shift, and I explained the issue. He said, ‘I thought so,’ and then he asked, ‘Why wasn’t that on the blog? I read that every day.’

“I told him that, honestly, I didn’t want to talk about it. But he said, ‘but I want to know about that. What you did was smart, it’s nice to know that.’”

Which makes the renewed snowmaking effort a success on just about every level. “There’s a renewed pride factor at Cranmore,” Wilcox says. “We were one of the first areas back in the ’60s to install snowmaking, and had a leadership role into the early ’70s. To step it up again is very satisfying.”