Snow is a big deal for the Utah Department of Transportation. That’s not surprising, considering that parts of the Wasatch Range east of Salt Lake City can get up to 500 inches of snow a year, attracting hundreds of thousands of skiers.
“Our biggest job is primarily plowing snow,” says Jeff Casper, UDOT equipment operations manager. “That’s what we do, plow snow.”
Plowing is a punishing application, with repeated shocks to the trucks’ chassis and components, exposure to corrosive salt and brine, and demanding engine and transmission cycles. Plus, public safety requires well-plowed roads. Lives may depend on it.
The amount of snow the mountains get, combined with the steep terrain near Utah’s world-famous ski resorts, produces significant risk of avalanches washing over some of the heavily traveled roads leading to the slopes. Little Cottonwood Canyon Road to Alta and Snowbird is the most avalanche prone highway in the U.S. — yet it handles thousands of cars every day. In these cases, UDOT operates constantly moving trucks in order to clear the roads and prevent traffic from coming to a standstill. Stationary cars are targets for being buried or even pushed over the side of the road by avalanches. Even UDOT’s plow truck drivers wear emergency avalanche beacons, in case their trucks get buried.
So obviously, this calls for a tough and reliable truck. Most of UDOT’s 500 Class 8 trucks are Mack® Granite® models. Casper says the trucks take the punishment of plowing in stride and the drivers like the Granite, too. That’s important when the drivers may be working 16-hour shifts during major storms.
“They’re nice inside, nice and roomy. We’ve tried other manufacturers, and it’s pretty tight in those. They feel like the driver’s sitting right on top of the wheel,” Casper says.
The interior of UDOT’s Granites gives drivers a clear view over the front plow and to the sides of the hood. Individual trucks are tailored for the demands of their routes, Casper says, with some having wing plows on both sides or only one side. For plowing the interstates, they may deploy both wing plows and a “tow plow” attached to the rear of the truck, so that a single truck can clear two lanes and the shoulder in one pass. The cab is a snow-removal command center, with joysticks for each plow, controls to measure the amount of deicer spread per mile, radios and side camera monitors.
Casper appreciates that Mack’s Body Link III wiring allows for plug and play installation of many of these systems, without the complications found in CAN networks.
“Mainly what we’re looking for is consistency,” he says. “We want a driver to be able to go from one truck to another and everything looks the same. When he gets in, everything functions the same way, the plow controls work the same, so there’s no surprises. We try to match every detail as closely as possible to the other trucks. It improves efficiency and safety.”
The drivers appreciate the Mack mDRIVE™ HD transmissions the trucks now come with, not least because they no longer have to worry about shifting and can focus on the road conditions and plow controls. This additional focus can be critical, given the dense traffic they frequently find themselves in near the ski resorts and the Salt Lake City metro area.
The fleet is responsible for roads and highways across the entire state, all 84,899 square miles of Utah. When not plowing snow, UDOT maintains the roads, including Interstates, highways, secondary roads, lighted streets, signals and bridges.
“The farther you get away from Salt Lake, the more UDOT actually takes care of,” Casper says. More rural areas are taken care of by the state, while larger cities and towns, especially Salt Lake City and nearby towns, have their own public works departments. Large parts of the state are desert.
UDOT has refined the base spec for their Granites to an efficient package: Mack MP®8 engine rated at 455 hp and 1650 torque, mDRIVE HD 13-speed automated manual transmission and auxiliary pusher axles in some configurations. They are expected to remain in operation for 16-20 years.
Since the Granites take so much abuse during their normal operation, UDOT places a premium on technician training. The fleet does all non-warranty repairs on the trucks and has about 85 technicians statewide. There are six regional repair facilities across the state, while the fleet headquarters in West Valley, outside of Salt Lake City is the “hospital” for major repairs.
“Our guys are trained up on the Granites, we pay for factory training directly from Mack. They come train us on parts, their software. So our guys, when they’re going out at 2 o’clock in the morning, they feel really familiar and know they’re pretty well trained on this. It’s easier to fix than trying to go out and learn something in the middle of the night.
“They do everything online, and then twice or three times a year we get with the Mack training people. We haven’t quite gotten where everybody’s been through every single module, but that’s the goal, to work every single technician through that training. It’s helped a ton.”
He’s also positive about Mack’s Connected Services. GuardDog® Connect telematics and Over the Air software and parameter updates are welcome, since OTA can save a seven-hour one-way drive for a software update.
Casper praised his Mack dealer, Mountain West Truck Center. “They treat us extremely well.”
Mountain West and UDOT have worked together over the years to get snowplow spec dialed in and to streamline the process necessary to get such complicated vehicles into service. When Granites are delivered from Mack Trucks, the dealer “pre-inspects” the units before sending to UDOT, who installs some systems, such as wing plow components and radios, before the units are sent to the body builder to install the hydraulic systems and the dump body. UDOT installs the rest of the components and “finishing touches,” as Casper says. Mountain West then runs the units through a final pre-delivery inspection and signs off on the completed vehicle. Finally, each new Mack Granite is delivered to the UDOT facility it will be domiciled at and placed into service.
Casper likes to point out that Utah has a range of challenges, and attractions. “You can go skiing this morning, get on the freeway, go to St. George (in the southwest corner of the state) and play golf this afternoon.” And that’s because UDOT will have plowed the roads.