Starting a snow plowing business?
Is the tail wagging the dog?
Several years ago I wrote a Hub on some of the parameters involved in pricing snow plowing, and much to my surprise this has been my most popular Hub, ever, not to mention having generated a lot of follow up conversation and caused some business people to contact me "off line" with other snow related opportunities.
This is all well and good and very interesting, but what I find even more interesting is the number of inquiries I get that say, more or less, "I want to start a snow plowing business, what should I buy?" This question sends little shivers of fear down the back of my neck, cause it sounds like someone is about to make an expensive mistake.
At the risk of sounding trite, the first thing you need to plow snow, is a plow truck, which can be a Jeep Wrangler with a 6 foot plow on it, a four wheel drive pickup with a 8 foot plow or, if you are going to be plowing highways, maybe a 10 wheel Mack dump truck, with a 10 foot plow on it.
But what you really need is a business that gives you an excuse to already own one of these vehicles. A new four wheel drive pickup with a new 8 foot plow is gonna set you back 25-35 thousand dollars, and the payments on that truck are a pretty big nut to pay on a monthly basis, particularly when you consider how many months of the year ARE NOT WINTER.
If you think you can buy a new four wheel drive pickup truck and make the payments with a plow only, you may well be the kind of guy who thinks he can come out ahead in Las Vegas on a regular basis as well. Hence the subtitle, is the tail wagging the dog?
The guys I've observed over the years who really make money plowing snow generally have a complementary business that will lie fallow in the winter, but utilize much of the same equipment. That is generally landscapers, pavers, utility (water and sewer) installers, businesses that use pickups, dump trucks, loaders and Bobcats, all of which are also very handy when moving snow. On the fringes of that are the carpenters and builders who already use pickup trucks who can justify upgrading to four wheel drive when they buy new and investing in a plow as well. It is probably to these guys this piece will apply more than the landscapers, as it is frequently the guys doing the landscaping in the summer who are doing the plowing in the winter.
If you already have the truck, the investment at risk when you buy a plow is around $3,000, a much better risk, much better than buying the whole truck on the promise of snow.
A 3/4 ton four wheel drive pickup truck is one of the most often used for plowing. While you can use a half ton four wheel drive pickup, I wouldn't recommend it; they are more lightly built and plowing is hard work on a truck, the heavier duty chassis will last longer between repairs. With a pickup and an 8 foot blade, you can plow large driveways up to good size parking lots. A Jeep Wrangler or similar lightweight 4x4 can be fitted with a plow, but they can be defeated by a wet heavy snow. I picked up my first half dozen commercial customers in NJ 35 years ago when a heavy wet snowfall of about 12 inches knocked all the Jeeps out of contention for plowing that snowfall. Plowing with the blade straight they would push up a mound of snow and come to a stop, their wheels spinning. Plowing with an angled blade, they would push up a mound and eventually they would get pushed sideways. I had a friend push himself off the road once as a result of this phenomenon, It takes a whole lot more to slow down a 3/4 ton pickup, and you can add sand or salt as ballast if conditions warrant and you have a gravel yard nearby.
When you have that 3/4 ton 4x4 pickup, you want to buy an 8 foot plow for it. A straight bladed plow works fine, and I have pushed plenty of snow with one, but my favorite plow was an articulating "V" plow I had years ago on a Dodge Powerwagon. It had more complex hydraulics than a straight plow, but it was great for commercial lots. You could move the wings and make it a "V" to punch through the wall of snow the highway crews had put up by the business entrance, and it was less of a shock wave on the truck than a straight plow, and once you were down to "cleanup" you could push each wing forward a bit to make a scoop, making it much faster to catch loose windrows of snow in the parking area than pushing it around with a straight blade when you inevitably had some fall off either side. The extra money they cost was recaptured in saved time fairly quickly.
Drumming up customers is a year round job. You have to be aware of business opening and closing, and get right in to introduce yourself to the incoming owners, or new property managers. If local laws don't force you to have your name on your truck, you do yourself a dis-service to not at least have magnetic signs for the winter that state you plow with a contact phone number and/or email address that go the cell phone in your pocket. Be sure and have one on your tailgate.
Hand out lots of business cards. People that don't call you for a 4, 6 or 8 inch snow fall may feel differently when they are faced with moving 12-18 inches of the stuff by hand and they don't own a snow blower. That's when they may remember they took your business card and call you in a panic.
There is a learning curve in plowing efficiently, and one mistake that you might want to avoid getting customers spread out over too far a geographical area. Driving two or three miles on a dry day to look at a driveway is very different that driving that same two or three miles when it is snowing, and traffic is moving at 10 miles an hour or less.
When the weight of snow pushes the plow Jeep off the cliff
- Adventures in snow plowing, when the snow wins and the Jeep goes over the cliff
"Jon, the snow became too heavy and the jeep went sideways off the road, only a tree kept it from rolling 500 feet down a hill" the breathless voice of my friend Rick exploded through the wires. When mother nature...
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