A frightful few days may have many St. Albertans staying indoors, but public works staff are still a familiar sight on the city’s frozen roads.
After a warmer-than-usual beginning to December that saw the ice melt off of St. Albert’s outdoor rinks, the city – along with the rest of the capital region – found itself plunged into a deep freeze this past week.
The change in weather was precipitated by a blizzard that hit two days before Christmas, stirring up fierce winds and howling snow. Temperatures plummeted to a low on Dec. 29 of -33 C and prompted Environment Canada to issue an extreme cold warning for Northern Alberta, with conditions expected to last through the weekend.
Louise Stewart, the city’s parks and open spaces operations manager, said a cold snap like the one St. Albert is experiencing doesn’t stop public works crews from hitting the roads, although it does require city staff to change how they deal with issues like ice build-up.
Although the cold doesn’t affect the road physically, temperatures below -18 C render salt ineffective as a de-icing treatment.
“We will use a heavier grit sand to provide grip for icy conditions in this case,” Stewart said in an email.
The public works department is required to meet service level standards regardless of how low temperatures drop outside, and crews will be on standby for New Year’s Day as well. Stewart said crews are trained to keep a vehicle close by and take frequent breaks to warm up.
City vehicles are fitted with block heaters and temperature-sensitive machines are kept in heated bays. The type of work staff do also changes.
“During cold weather snaps such as the one that we are experiencing, any preventative or non-emergent outside work is put on hold until the weather warms up,” Stewart said.
The city also ramps up inspections for some of its buildings when cold weather hits.
“Riel (Larry Olexiuk Field) had a pilot light out, which was fixed before the pipes had time to freeze,” Stewart said.
On the utilities side, water main breaks are the number one issue city staff contend with. Cold weather makes such breaks harder to locate, although Stewart said the city has a monitor for its utility facilities that alerts staff to things such as low temperature.
That means a faster response when cold weather threatens water distribution or wastewater collection operations.
Allen MacAllister, utility supervisor for operations with the infrastructure services department, said the city normally experiences between two and six water main breaks each year.
“To date this year, we have only had three,” he said in an email.
Stewart said heavy snowfall affects utilities more than the cold.