Q: Lower Macungie Township has a neat snow-removal system that was utilized this year for the first time since 2009. It's called the 'blue goose' and uses a snowblower system to remove deep snow from the streets. Township Manager Bruce Fosselman videotaped the device in operation and discussed the system at a recent township commissioners' meeting. Come see how efficiently snow can be removed from municipal streets. Allentown and others could learn a lot about this system.
— Michael Siegel, Macungie
A: Blue goose is a nickname given this small tractor by township workers, and though it's the only model of its kind I've seen in operation, its industrial-strength snowblowing attachment seems very efficient, driving crusted snow and ice through the long chute directly into the dump trucks that follow closely alongside.
I was surprised to find that there's no auger in the collecting box, but rather, two large fans that basically suck the snow in, break it up and blast it into the adjustable chute, which the operator aims directly into the truck bed.
Township Public Works Director Richard Hinkel said the force of the fans does the job. "The propellers pick it up and align it through the chute," he said.
The occasional chunk of ice spews a bit wildly from the chute or bounces off a wall of the truck. It's not really dangerous — without worry, I walked by the machine while it was operating a number of times — and Hinkel said no injuries or property damage have resulted from the process. A township worker on foot stays ahead of the machinery to make sure the way is clear of trash, debris or any objects large or small that could jam up the works or damage the goose.
It is a noisy operation, and that's part of what attracts attention and lures the curious out of their homes or businesses. There are observers aplenty, according to Steve Miller, the 12-year township employee driving the goose during my visit last week.
"Everybody's coming out and taking pictures as we go by, and video," Miller said.
I asked if it was fun running the contraption.
"For the first couple minutes," he said. After that, it's just work, like using your home snowblower — easier than shoveling, but not something you necessarily enjoy. Miller gets to sit down, but there's more going on for him than an average homeowner clearing the driveway. The goose has to fly close to the curb, the chute needs position tweaks, and there's coordination with the truck drivers.
"It's just a typical 145-horsepower snowblower," Miller quipped. (For comparison, my walk-behind packs a 5-horsepower punch.) Miller refused to drive the thing to my place in South Whitehall to blast through the piles on the ends of my driveway in about 30 seconds. "We've got to stay within the township," he said, and only on the public roads. The guy's no fun.
Miller does appreciate the goose for its efficiency, though. "It's great for stuff like this — you know, bad winters and high-density developments. It really works nicely, it goes quick."
Lina Rivera of Crane Crossing in the Hills at Lockridge development, where the goose worked Thursday, appreciates it. "Wow," she said as the noisy operation passed her home. "Thank God they're cleaning it, finally, because our [snowblower] broke down twice."
Recent winters had been relatively easy on the Lehigh Valley in terms of snowfall, so the goose hasn't been used for snow-clearing in a few years, Hinkel said. The unit requires logistics — several dump trucks are needed to keep the operation moving, and it's best to have dumping locations relatively nearby — but its efficiency advantage gains traction as the accumulation totals rise.
When the snow is deep, front-end loaders often need to back up repeatedly, pushing the material into piles to be lifted over the walls of the dump trucks, all of which takes time. The goose simply moves steadily ahead, sucking up the snow and depositing it instantly into the bed.
A loader is still needed to clean up any remnants, and in the recent weather conditions, with unrelenting cold and ice layers clinging stubbornly to the road surface in places, the snowblower tends to "ride over" the ice, which has to be scraped off by the loader, Hinkel said.
Four dump trucks were tending the goose during my visit, which at first I thought might have been a bit of overkill. Hinkel said it may have seemed that way because at my location the dump site was only a few blocks away, on the parking lot of a nearby park. But these are "moving operations," and additional trucks are needed when deposit sites are more distant, he said. Crews grow accustomed to the four-truck rotation, getting in a groove and working efficiently, so it's maintained throughout.
Township Manager Bruce Fosselman said the goose, more formally known as a New Holland MV145 tractor, was purchased in 2004 for $145,000. Though it doesn't hit the road for snow removal every year, various attachments make it capable of spring and summer weed, grass and tree maintenance, he said.
Hinkel said the unit is used every season for those purposes. "It's really something you can use all year round," he said. It also has a plow-blade attachment, and the tractor's tight turning radius makes it effective for use in cul-de-sacs and narrow streets, he added.
Allentown has four similar direct-deposit street-clearing devices, according to Public Works Director Rich Young. Two of them are new, but still I'm surprised I've never seen them in operation. "They work very well" generally, Young said. But this year, "Sometimes with the ice it was hard to get them to work."
I thought the goose was neat too, Michael, and asked PennDOT spokesman Ron Young whether the state used anything like it.
He stole the goose's thunder by emailing a photo of the truly industrial-scale snowblowing vehicles PennDOT steers onto the interstates and other limited-access highways to nuke the stuff from the road — giant, motorized attachments to large tractors or front-end loaders. The attachments alone cost up to $65,000 each, Young said. Taken together, these behemoths, as my colleague Bill White might say, render the blue goose a winter wren by comparison.
PennDOT has 45 of them in all, including three in Allentown-based District 5, Young said.
As any good auto mechanic knows, nothing smooths the road like the right tool for the job.
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