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Goodbye, piles? Fargo eyes snow-melting machine

Graphic: How it works

FARGO - Though residents are envisioning a potentially less-than-white Christmas here, the city is busy looking into a new cost-effective way to remove snow, whenever it comes: just melt it.

Ben Dow, director of operations of Fargo's Public Works Department, is meeting with a consultant next week to determine the feasibility of buying or renting a snow-melting machine, otherwise called a snowmelter.

Dow said Fargo has been looking at getting a snowmelter for about two years, but last year's 88 inches of snow forced the city to evaluate new options for getting rid of excess snow - particularly downtown.

Initially, the city looked at the Oak Grove neighborhood as a dump site, but has since been allowed by BNSF Railway, at least on a short-term basis, to use some BNSF land between NP Avenue and the tracks for dumping snow plowed from city streets.

With a solution in hand for this year, the earliest a snowmelter would be used would be next winter. The machines aren't cheap, but Dow said they are expected to actually save money due to the steep cost of hauling snow to dumping areas.

"It's going to be more cost-effective to sit and melt it rather than haul it," he said. "Fuel adds up quick."

The most expensive melt machines cost about $1 million, while more modest options run about $250,000. Dow said Fargo is considering leasing or buying a less-expensive model, small enough to be pulled behind a truck.

Dow said he'd have a better handle on the potential savings after meeting with the consultant next week.

The devices are simple: Dow described them as "basically a big bath of hot water" between 80 and 100 degrees, powered by diesel fuel or natural gas.

The machine melts the snow that is dumped into it, then discharges that melt into a designated discharge site - typically a sewer system. A waste bin collects any debris or trash from the snow.

If Fargo does get a snowmelter, the city would be able to discharge at a spot near the Red River, or into residential sanitary sewer systems, Dow said.

"We ran models to make sure we wouldn't flood the systems," he said.

The city has been in contact with at least two snowmelter manufacturers, including Canada-based Trecan, which has been making the machines since the 1960s.

Terry Dwyer, Trecan's general sales manager, said the machines use about 1.5 gallons of diesel fuel to melt one ton of snow, and have a lifespan of roughly 35 years.

Today, there are more than 800 of the company's machines in use in North America, he said. Airports typically have the largest use for the machines because they have nowhere to put their snow.

Larger cities such as New York City, Chicago or Philadelphia already own several snowmelters, and Dwyer is seeing their use expand to smaller locales.

"When cities have issue with space, or the cost to truck the snow is too expensive, that's when melters come into play," Dwyer said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535