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May 2018

The Changing State of the Snowmaking Art

Automated operations, to one extent or another, can lead to tremendous efficiency gains.

Written by Peter Oliver | 0 comment

Two words define snowmaking as it matures in the first part of the 21st century: efficiency and automation. Low-energy systems have dramatically reduced energy costs, both in dollar terms and in kilowatt hours, and automation is gradually insinuating itself into systems across the country. Low-e has already become the standard at many resorts; automation is the wave of the future. Together, low-e guns and automated controls can lower costs and improve productivity.

Snowmaking consultant Robin Smith believes that complete automation—what he calls “process control snowmaking automation”—is coming to America soon. It has already taken over European snowmaking, which Smith estimates is now 90 to 95 percent automated.

Low-e and automation are not new concepts to anyone who has been anywhere near a snowmaking gun in the last ten years. Efficiency is a no-brainer, after all; who doesn’t want to save money blowing snow? The cost of new hardware pays for itself relatively quickly. And automation may indeed be the inevitable way of the future, if the climate warms as much as most scientists expect (see related story, “Can Snowmaking Compensate for Climate Change?).

But nobody simply flips a switch and converts old technology into new. For financial and operational reasons, most areas that are bringing in new technology are doing it in phases. And for some applications, resorts are finding that certain older technology is still preferable.

That might simply be sound financial reasoning. Even Smith, a strong proponent of cutting-edge technology who calls himself “the champion of automation,” says: “Most of my clients have too much invested already [in old-school technology]. They don’t need to scrap the existing system completely.”

As ski areas everywhere try to keep pace with ever-changing technology, who is doing an especially good job of it? In an ongoing series, SAM will look at how a few areas are modernizing their systems, often in creative ways. Here are the first few examples.

Snowbowl: Starting from Scratch

Five years ago, ARIZONA SNOWBOWL faced a situation that was both challenging and enviable. After a decades-long dispute with Native Americans, who were concerned about the desecration of sacred tribal land, the resort was finally able to secure the go-ahead to install a much-needed snowmaking system.
While annual snowfall can exceed 300 inches, Snowbowl is located in a warm, dry climate, 14 miles from Flagstaff. Snowfall is inconsistent, with a lack of snow limiting the resort to just a handful of open days in some years.

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So the challenge that resort operators faced was installing a snowmaking system entirely from scratch. The imperative was simple, says Snowbowl GM J.R. Murray: Install snowmaking or go out of business. That would mean an upfront capital outlay of $15 million, no small potatoes for any resort, let alone a modest-sized day-skier operation.

In this case, there was no plan to phase in a new snowmaking system gradually over several years. But given the length of the dispute with the local Hopi tribe, Snowbowl had plenty of time to work out a financing plan with its lenders to soften the blow of the capital outlay.

At the same time, Snowbowl’s position was enviable in that there was no legacy system that would require retrofitting, replacing, modifying, or trying to integrate with newer equipment. And no staff retraining in learning to work with new technology. In other words, the resort’s hands weren’t bound by what was already on the hill. An entire system could be built based simply on whatever was deemed to be the best technology available.

Sussing Out the System
Snowbowl management did its due diligence. “In the early 2000s, we started researching all of this,” says Murray, trying to identify what technology would produce the best snow most efficiently given Snowbowl’s climate. “We looked at several resorts,” says Murray, “and almost all of them said, ’If you have a clean slate, go with fan guns.’ [We liked] the production capabilities, especially production at marginal temperatures.”

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After doing the research, Murray also determined that a big air plant to power an air-water system, with diesel generators and compressors, was not a sensible option. Hence the decision to go with SMI fan-gun technology with on-board compressors, which also offered the advantage of being able to crank up the system at a moment’s notice—the system can go from startup to fully operational in less than 30 minutes, according to Murray’s estimate. The resort bought 45 SMI Super Polecats, supplemented by a handful of HKD and SMI stick guns.

Some electrical modifications on the mountain were obviously necessary to power the fan guns. Snowbowl enlisted the input of the local utility company to assure an electrical network that was as efficient as possible, both financially and energy-wise.

may18 the changing state of snowmaking art 03More challenging than the electrical component was water, which simply did not exist anywhere near the resort’s 9,300-foot base. Snowbowl had to install a 14.5-mile pipeline, with three pumping stations, to bring recycled water from the city of Flagstaff’s municipal system up 3,000 vertical feet to the mountain. (The resort must still truck in potable water daily.)

Snowbowl also decided to invest in SMI’s SmartSnow automation technology. While automation might conjure images of a system operating autonomously, turning on and off automatically as the temperature dictates, that’s not quite the way it works at Snowbowl. “We could set it up so that it turns on by itself,” says Murray, “but we don’t do it.” Instead, the resort always has at least a partial crew on hand to respond to any snowmaking opportunities and to monitor and adjust the system to assure the most efficient and effective operation.

Retrofit 1: Holiday Valley

Holiday Valley in western New York makes about 1,200 acre-feet of snow every winter with an air-water system comprising 600 hydrants that feed an arsenal of HKD guns, about 90 percent of which are low-e. The system is currently about 50 percent automated, on its way to what resort GM Dennis Eshbaugh estimates will eventually be 80 to 90 percent automated. (Eshbaugh believes that “narrow, twisty trails,” where shorter throws are in order, don’t lend themselves so easily to automation.)

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The modest-sized area’s meteorological challenges include high humidity and winds that come off Lake Erie. But the biggest challenge, as at most areas, is to make the most of brief windows of snowmaking opportunity in marginal temperatures, especially early in the season.

Smith, who has worked with Holiday Valley in its many-phased, multi-year system upgrade, says that taking full advantage of those slivers of opportunity is where automation really pays for itself. Not only do guns fire only when a target temperature is achieved, but they shut off immediately when temperatures leave the comfort zone. Non-automated systems run the risk, says Smith, of “squandering energy at both sides of the window.” And automation essentially eliminates the risk of blowing wet slop at the end of a snowmaking cycle because guns are still running when it’s too warm.

Cost Control
may18 the changing state of snowmaking art 04Automation at Holiday Valley has also reduced the need for large on-mountain crews to move guns and hoses or to make other on-the-fly adjustments. Although “the goal was not to reduce labor” in moving to automation, according to Eshbaugh, Holiday Valley has seen a reduction of 39 percent in its snowmaking crew in the last five years. Smith warns, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean a similar reduction in labor costs.

Operating an automated system demands more investment in skilled labor—people with computer expertise, analytic skills in interpreting weather patterns and responding accordingly, and so on. Crew sizes for on-mountain reconnaissance are much smaller at Holiday Valley, according to Eshbaugh, and the overall labor costs for snowmaking have shrunk. But that might not always be the case, says Smith. The savings in on-the-hill labor might well be consumed by the higher pay for more specialized system operators in the control room.

may18 the changing state of snowmaking art 05The bottom line, however, is that with low-e guns firing more efficiently and with automation reducing the margin of error during critical temperature windows, Holiday Valley has seen its per-acre-foot costs plunge. The area’s $1,063 per-acre-foot cost 20 years ago was actually fairly low by industry standards at the time, but now the resort comes in comfortably under $400 per acre-foot. Equally important, says Eshbaugh, the system upgrades have allowed the resort to improve snow quality. Better snow at a lower price—sounds like a plan.

Retrofit 2: Bristol Mountain

Bristol Mountain, also in western New York, relies on 140 Areco fan guns to cover most of its 138 acres. The primary fan gun system is backed up by a secondary air-water system of mostly low-e guns. (Note: Bristol began integrating fan guns into its system in the early 2000s. Since then, Areco has been purchased by Sufag.)

may18 the changing state of snowmaking art 08As with most snowmaking operations, a principal objective is to respond quickly to narrow windows of temperature opportunity, and Bristol VP Steve Fuller says that “a significant portion of the fleet can be running in 15 to 20 minutes.” In the fan-gun-oriented system, there is no need to wait for air pressure to build in the system before blowing snow.

Geography has pushed Bristol in this direction. Fuller says that “it seems we run a little warmer than everyone else (i.e., nearby ski areas),” which has resulted in a “philosophy shift” in snowmaking. Put another way, the resort employs a snowmaking strategy that might compare more closely with mid-Atlantic or southeastern areas than with other areas of Bristol’s latitude. On the hill, that has meant “we have shrunk the distance between guns,” according to Fuller—closer together near the base, further apart at higher elevations.

may18 the changing state of snowmaking art 07A second challenge for Bristol is that 96 percent of its terrain is open for night skiing in midwinter. With ski operations ongoing for as much as 13.5 hours a day, potential snowmaking windows might be infringed upon. “It’s a juggling match,” says Fuller. “We are constantly thinking about skier traffic.”

It also means the resort doesn’t have the luxury of making giant whales that can be allowed to cure over a period of several days. “The snow we blow out is the snow we ski on,” says Fuller. That means some trails require replenishment two or three times in a season. Blowing a ton of base-building snow early to carry through most of the winter simply isn’t an option at Bristol. But because Bristol is regularly producing drier, skiable snow, Fuller believes the quality is better.

Custom Automation
Bristol has been particularly creative in adapting its hardware to maximize performance, rather than simply going with what it could afford off the shelf. For example, the resort took it upon itself to install actuators within the guns so that snowmakers can make water-pressure adjustments in smaller increments. It took, of course, someone on staff with mechanical and engineering know-how to make that work.

As at many resorts, Bristol has gradually been phasing in automation over many years. The move to fan guns was a step in that direction; each gun, equipped with its own weather station, can operate autonomously and can be set to fire on automatically when target temperatures are in play, and shut off when the temperature warms.

On its air-water guns, Bristol currently uses manual HKD Klik hydrants, which can be converted to automated hydrants relatively easily as time marches on. “A fully automated system is the plan,” says Fuller.

The Automated Future

Snowmaking suppliers have been preaching the benefits of automation for more than a decade, of course. As recent winters have stressed resorts’ early-season snowmaking efforts, more and more areas are listening, a trend that’s likely to continue. Due to time and cost efficiencies, says Smith, “I think eventually everyone is going to want automation on every trail.”

An added benefit to automation, along with the ability to make the most of narrow windows of weather opportunity, is a rich supply of what Smith calls “management data”—statistics showing, for example, how many gallons were used where and when, per hydrant. This data can help ensure not only that enough snow is made, but that snow isn’t overproduced.

Since most areas are looking to phase in automation in several steps, what’s the best way of going about it? Smith says the most sensible strategy is to go trail by trail, starting with core (what Smith calls “go to Jesus”) trails, rather than a piecemeal approach, with automated guns and hydrants scattered over the mountain. Smith adds that resorts will get “the greatest return on [automating] the hydrants that go on and off most often.”

Financially, it makes sense for most resorts to take baby steps rather than giant leaps toward automation. Not everyone can invest a few million bucks at a moment’s notice to pay for the changeover all at once. But full automation has its foot in the door, and like low-e before it, it is likely to become a standard part of most snowmaking operations in the not-too-distant future.