Business: For private plowers, this is a season to celebrate

02/09/2011 1:46 PM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Paul Fizzuoglio of Flanders plowing in Polish town during last Thursday's storm.

Another week and another snowstorm. That’s been the pattern this North Fork winter.

Highway department road crews have been extraordinarily busy, and they aren’t alone. Working conditions may not be ideal, but for the companies and individuals who clear parking lots and driveways, the weather has been golden.

Landscaper Chris Mohr of Cutchogue said his plow crews call the snow “white gold.” The hours are long, but they’re quite happy to have the work.

How long? Shifts of 32 to 36 hours are not unheard of, said Mr. Mohr. His crews regularly work 16 to 20 hours as a time to keep up with demand.

“It’s been a tough winter,” he said.

Paul Fizzuoglio of Flanders agrees.

“I used to like snow,” he said. But after 30 years, “It’s just work.”

Still, he readily admits a fondness for being out by himself and he likes the “plow culture” of camaraderie among fellow plow drivers. In Riverhead, many tend to meet at the 7-Eleven on Route 58 to grab a quick cup of coffee and exchange war stories. There’s great cooperation among the drivers, who back each other up as needed, he said.

And of course, there’s the money: $65 to $125 an hour, depending on the amount of snow and the size of the area to be cleared.
The money seems good until you factor in equipment repairs, the men agree.

Mr. Mohr said his equipment is in excellent condition, but calls to remove 30 inches of snow at a time take a toll and caused one truck’s fuse box to catch fire. He also needed to replace another vehicle’s bumper. With seven trucks, seven plows, two payloaders, a backhoe and other equipment, he began the season well prepared. But he didn’t expect he’d need to hire yet another worker, a full-time mechanic.

Depending on driveway size, a homeowner could pay between $55 and $175 to have a Mohr crew clear away the snow. Ice melt is another $19 a bag.

Similarly, Scott Butler of Absolute Clarity Snow Removal said this winter has proven a boon to his business, even if it’s a burden to residential and commercial customers.

“We’re driving trucks, not bulldozers,” Mr. Butler said about difficulties of plowing through large amounts of snow.

Mr. Butler’s customers pay $85 to $200, depending on the size of the job. Not everyone can afford it.

“In this economy, a lot of people have been shoveling by hand,” he said.

Both men wish people would call for service in advance of storms. Once the crews are out and about, it’s not easy to schedule new customers, Mr. Butler said.

Regular customers on Mr. Mohr’s list can expect a crew to show up when there are four inches or more of snow. If only a few inches fall, you’ve got to call.

Commercial account parking lots get cleared after only two inches of snow.

Mr. Mohr uses calcium chloride rather than rock salt to deal with ice. It’s more environmentally friendly and doesn’t eat through driveways, he said.

Snow plowing is a family affair for Paul Tocci of Riverhead, his dad, Phil, and brother Scott.

“Everybody’s got to leave at 6 in the morning,” Mr. Tocci said of customers clamoring for priority service. While plowing is a sideline to his auto painting business, in years like this his client list swells dramatically.

He’s often up at 3 a.m. during major storms and sometimes works all night. His equipment is also susceptible to damage and he wishes customers would keep that in mind when it comes time to pay. This year he blew a transmission, a $2,500 repair.

Commercial plowers also routinely carry at least a $1 million in liability coverage in case someone slips on a plowed area and is injured.

Members of the plowing fraternity are quick to add that the benefits of hiring one of them extend beyond the freedom of movement.

“People complain about the cost, but you can pay for plows or pay the chiropractor,” Mr. Butler said.

Barbaraellen Koch contributed to this story.

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