Monday, February 4, 2013

Snowmaking Capacity Planning: Increasingly a Lifeline to the Ski Industry

Snowmaking Capacity Planning: Increasingly a Lifeline to the Ski Industry

By Stephen Thorley

      At first thought, one might assume as cold as Ohio can be, offering downhill skiing and snowboarding would be easy money for dedicated entrepreneurs. Truth is, Ohio’s erratic winter weather could only support a handful of ski days each winter and in order to keep the slopes covered, lifts turning, tickets selling (and drinks pouring) ski areas execute the delicate balancing act that is snowmaking.

Snowmaking makes a ski season possible at Mad River Mountain in Bellefontaine, Ohio
            Snowmaking is extremely expensive and when snowmakers can operate is always at the hands of often unpredictable windows of optimal weather conditions. Several of the key factors that go into planning a snowmaking operation are:
1)       Access to water: Most preferable option is an unrestricted stream or resort-owned pond. Some ski areas suffer from water restrictions and thus the effectiveness of the entire operation is capped by how much water the resort can acquire.

2)                    Pumping Capacity: Often after a low snow year skiers can expect to hear resorts touting pumping capacity improvements which promise to take greater advantage of snowmaking temperature windows. A local ski area, Mad River Mountain near Bellefontaine, Ohio can pump 7,000 gallons of water uphill every minute. According to the attached video, resorts can typically pump as much water uphill every minute as the average family uses in showers over the course of a year. Strategies for investing in snowmaking capacity can directly affect the number of days a resort can operate each winter, and the quality of the product (snow), which is a key factor influencing the happiness of guests.
            3)  Automation: A very large investment can make snowmaking equipment much more efficient. By automating a system of snowmaking units resorts can maximize the time conditions are right and save on labor costs up to 30% by eliminating the need for a technician to manually activate each unit.

           4) Cold Temperatures: Obviously, water can only freeze below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. For snowmaking to be effective, however, a measurement of temperature and humidity called wet bulb must remain below 28. In moderate climates like Ohio and even the east coast mountains, there are certainly a limited number of hours each year and sometimes warm-ups following extended periods of optimal weather. Because of the high price tag on snowmaking hours, it is uncommon for a resort to make snow if only a few days later a warm period would melt away the new snow.

The author enjoys the snow on a day that would have had only grassy slopes if it were not for snowmaking technology