Even with little snow it is better to be equipped
The market for snow ploughs is large and diverse, but it is difficult to fit into a statistical framework. The trend of the sector is conditioned by the frequency and amount of snowfall that in recent years have decreased significantly. The sector, however, maintains a certain dynamism, especially in terms of prevention
The past year seems to have been the hottest in the history of the planet. Even Italy has recorded high temperatures combined, beyond extreme events (who does not remember the Emilia-Romagna flood of May 2023?), with little rain and snowfall reduced to a minimum. In such a scenario it seems almost paradoxical to address the issue of snowploughs and the equipment needed to better manage the inconvenience caused by white crystals. Regardless of the performance of a market, which for obvious climatic reasons cannot be considered explosive, lowering one’s guard is never a good solution and appears short-sighted in the face of any emergencies, always possible in the national panorama.
The commitment of manufacturers. This is why dozens of manufacturers of agricultural equipment continue to boast in their range snow blades (for tractors and motor cultivators), mounted and towed salt spreaders, snow throwers and multifunctional equipment carriers. Quantifying the market is a difficult task but some numbers can be given. The FederUnacoma Comagarden does this for smaller machines, wheeled or tracked snowploughs carried by hand. Data from the Association of Mechanical Gardening Equipment Manufacturers describe a market that is anything but “modest”: in the three-year period 2018-2020, there was an average of about 3,000 machines per year, doubled in 2021 thanks - according to the Comagarden analysis - to the replenishment of stocks by retailers (over 6,000 machines) and then reached just over 4,000 machines per year in 2022, the latest available figure. It is impossible to quantify the market for snow blades (some venture a ‘blade park’ of a few tens of thousands of units) and ploughshares (however less used in agriculture). Blades and ploughshares that, in combination with the tractor, still remain the main equipment for the management of these operations. A combination of tractor and equipment that, with advance emergency planning and remote control of the vehicles available, can significantly limit the problems and speed up the return to normal after the atmospheric event.
All kinds of blades. Blades, which have the main function of moving the snow sideways, can be found in all sizes and, of course, in the most varied prices. The smallest, which can be combined for example with motor cultivators or tractors, have widths of even less than a meter and heights of around 50 cm, rarely more. With limited costs: a few hundred euros and generally less than a thousand euros. Expanding the front of the centimetres of sweeping of the blades the price goes up: on average it takes around 5-6 thousand euros to get to the top of the range which can reach and exceed 10 thousand euros. Also on the material front the options are different. Steel, generally treated with sandblasting and epoxy painting with drying at 200°C to increase durability, remains the most frequent solution. But, both for reasons of weight and cost, polyurethane and polyethylene blades have also gradually spread. Adapting a tractor for a snow emergency does not seem so difficult. The combination is usually done in front (rear in case of reverse driving) using the three-point hitch now frequently present or, alternatively, with plates equipped with hydraulic systems that allow their movement. Speaking of operation, adjustable slides are used to adjust the working height, normally made of special wear-resistant steels and placed on the sides of the blade in such a way as to allow the weight of the blade to be partially discharged onto the ground. This is an aspect already highlighted in an article in this magazine by Davide Facchinetti (Machinery World no. 12/2022) , who also stressed the importance of being able to adjust the vertical inclination of the blade. The operation can be carried out mechanically (on the simplest models) or hydraulically, with the possibility of continuous adjustment from the driver’s seat. Facchinetti himself, on the accessories front, put the emphasis on electronic control units specifically dedicated to snow blades that, allowing the various actuators to be managed automatically, allow the operator to work faster and concentrate on driving.
Rotary cutters. Tractors and blades are the most common combination when faced with large amounts of snow and frequent events, however, you can also consider the use of cutters and snow blower turbines coupled to the three-point hitch, capable of operating at a low feed speed (1-2 km/h) but with a snow clearing capacity, depending on the model and snow, ranging from 50 t/h to over 250 t/h. The beating heart of the system are the front-mounted toothed rotors on a horizontal axis. In small tractors with power between 15 and 30 kW the rotors have a diameter of 400 mm and working widths from 1 to 1.5 m, with snow throw from 10 to 20 m, depending on the tractor power and the type of snow. In higher power tractors the rotors have diameters from 450 to 500 mm and the working widths reach up to 2 m. The chimney can be fixed launch with one or more hydraulically controlled deflectors to control the distance of snow throw, or rotating, always hydraulically controlled.
A look at authorisations. Beyond the possible technical options and proposals on the market, to carry out the snow clearing service with agricultural tractors equipped with specific front blade it is necessary to be in order on the administrative front. First of all, the registration certificate of the agricultural tractor must bear the approval that allows the “snow plough blade” to be attached, in temporary use, together with the requirements to be observed when the tractor circulates for transfer with the aforementioned equipment raised and positioned. Approval is ordered by the competent offices of the Department for Land Transport, at the request of the agricultural or forestry company; the tractor's registration certificate, if the inspection and the test of assessment have been positive, shall be duly updated. The tractor with blade mounted, when it exceeds the limit gauge of 2.55 meters in width (art. 61 of the Highway Code) or must pass on the roads to make transfers in anticipation of snowfall and for the return to the company’s premises, is configured as an "exceptional vehicle" and is therefore subject to specific traffic authorisation (art. 10 and 104 of the Highway Code). The exceptional vehicle, thus equipped, must also comply with the provisions for visual signalling devices for exceptional vehicles (Art. 11 of the Regulations of the Highway Code): from the installation of the yellow flashing light to the movement, if necessary, of the lighting devices in a visible position and as close as possible to the regulatory ones. However, it should be noted that the snow plough tractor must also be considered an “operating vehicle” when circulating on snow-covered roads and those connecting them to the nearest road maintenance centre and as such, must comply with the provisions imposed by art. 38 of the Regulations of the Highway Code. Specifically, art. 38 prescribes both the signs to be put in place when these vehicles are stationary or moving on the road, and which lights are to be used (one or more flashing lights). Obviously, in the event that the snow plough tractor circulates by mounting a blade model that raised and folded respects the shape limits of art. 61 of the Highway Code (meters 2.55 wide) the authorisation is no longer due. Another point to highlight is that relating to the technical stock. It is clear that the tractor, even if approved to carry the snow plough blade, maintains for all intents and purposes the classification of “agricultural machinery”, even if exceptional, and as such is subject to the application of the escort (paragraph 4 of art. 268 of the Regulations of the Highway Code). With this article the legislator requires the escort for all exceptional agricultural machinery exceeding the width of 3.20 meters; it is a technical escort carried out directly by the company (not by that authorized for exceptional transport or in exceptional conditions and not by the traffic police). Therefore, the use of snow plough blades of limited size or folding type and such as not to exceed the width of the tractor beyond 3.20 meters, during the transfer of the vehicle only, does not impose the obligation to use the escort, a circumstance certainly not in line with the need to often intervene promptly.
An opportunity that remains. A final point: does it still make sense for a contractor or a farmer to do the ‘snow service’? A long-time agromechanical entrepreneur historically engaged in snow emergencies responds: the activity has always represented an opportunity for “rounding” of revenues and the equipment is of absolute quality, with limited maintenance and a really long service life. Certainly, some bureaucratic steps are not fluid but still today it is better to be prepared for any eventuality. Snow (absent) permitting.