Proper use of technology critical in making of snow and money

The next time you go racing down the hill on your skis or snowboard, give a thought to the folks who were out in the middle of the night grooming those runs. Or the folks who pay the electric bills to power that high tech snowmaking gear. And don’t forget the mechanical and electronic technology folks who make all this possible.

Andrew Cradduck is the guy who keeps the snow just right at Panorama Mountain Resort in British Columbia. As Director of Mountain Operations he commands the snowmaking gear and co- ordinates the business side of that operation too. “We schedule our snowmaking to coincide with our electrical billing periods,” he says,“so that we only run our air compressors and water pumps within three electrical billing periods. We even negotiated with BC Hydro to have our meter read on the 20th of each month, and historically we’ve been able to make snow starting on October 20.”

How big is the monthly variation in electrical demand at the resort? Cradduck gives this analogy: “Throughout the year, we’re driving a Toyota Corolla, but when we make snow we’re driving a Ferrari, so BC Hydro basically charges us a premium for renting a Ferrari for three months.”

In Alberta, he says, electricity service is privatized but still a large expense for ski areas. “I know at Nakiska, for example, they manage their electricity very carefully, but it’s got more to do with how their consumption rate varies throughout the day. So they negotiate and buy blocks of power that they can use at various times of the day, and they’ll choose to make or not make snow. We’re lucky in that we don’t have to worry about that factor.”

Cradduck says BC also charges a “conservation factor” charge which Cradduck is hoping to see go away. It encourages year over year energy efficiency and penalizes increasing use. He says this “works fine for places like shopping malls, but not for us in the East Kootenays where we can have a cold spell that you didn’t have for the last three years – it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Snowmaking is particularly important to lure skiers and snowboarders from far away, an important factor for a destination resort like Panorama. “If you’re booking your vacation in the fall, for skiing in March, you don’t want to get a call that says don’t bother coming. Last year we had tree to tree, summit to base skiing right up to closing day.” He also argues that because man-made snow can be precisely controlled, it provides a better surface which many ski racers prefer to the natural stuff.

He says there’s art as well as science in snowmaking. “If the perfect temperatures hit at 3 in the morning, but you expect them to warm up the next day, you’re not gonna call people in and do a start-up, because by the time you get started and everything, you’ll be shutting down again. So we look for forecast trends where we’re going to see a sustained period of cold weather, we can keep things running through, or at least start up say at five in the afternoon and shut down the next morning at nine o’clock.”

Cradduck sits amidst an array of radios and pump controllers, though much of his job can be handled from a laptop. “We have software on it that monitors the fan guns,” he says, “and the nice thing is that they all have kind of a mini-weather station on them, so that we can see what the temperature is throughout the mountain.” He also has remote control software that so he can start a pump from his dining room table. “The pump house is literally across the creek from my house” he says,” but when it’s -10 and you’re in your pajamas you don’t really want to go out and drive to the pump house.”

As for the future, he sees the installation of a booster pump house at the top of the first lift. Water is not a constraint since they draw from the creek, and have a large water license. “For all intents and purposes, we have an infinite water capacity, which is not the case at every ski hill. Some places are drawing their water from their domestic water supply, so you’re paying someone to treat that water and pump it to you, and that costs a lot.” Other areas have a mountaintop reservoir, but it has a finite capacity so they can run out.

“The ultimate dream for me would be that we would have permanently mounted guns on every run that we have snowmaking on, and I sit in a pump house with a control room that has a massive green button on the wall that I press, after I’ve selected which runs I want to make snow on, the water valves swing automatically and the air is supplied through a series of valving, and all I have to do is go out on a snowmobile and make sure the snow is going on the run and not into the trees on onto a chair lift.”

Or, of course, he could just send in the drones some day in the future. For the next few years, though, it will be crews of workers moving snow guns and lines. And Andrew trying to ensure that you have that smooth ride down the hill. Give him a wave as you fly by.

Dr. Tom Keenan is a professor of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, a Research Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and author of the best-selling book Technocreep.