Thursday, November 25, 2010

Whiteface Snowmaking Tour: 11/24/2010

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in the Whiteface Mountain Snowmaking Media Tour.  About a half dozen of us were met in the main lodge by Bruce McCulley, General Manager of the mountain, and Jon Lundin, ORDA Public Relations Coordinator.  We started with an overview of the past year, the outlook for this winter, and plans for opening day this Friday, the 26th.

Bruce: We had a great summer. Our summer revenue was up far above last year. I think a lot of that is from our Canadian guests: their dollar is running close to our dollar and that’s a great incentive for them to travel. With our proximity to the Canadian border that really helps us, and I hope it will help us in the winter too.

Last winter ski resorts across the east showed a little bit of an uptick and we did too. Our season passes are running ahead of last year, and we’re looking forward to the start of the season.

For the past 10 or 12 years we’ve been doing major capital projects pretty much every year, but we didn’t do a lot of capital projects this year. We put a lot of effort in our off-season maintenance. We made some improvements to our snow making system and we’re in good shape with that.

Jon: For Friday, we’ll be running the gondola and the Little Whiteface chair. We’ll have Excelsior, Summit Express and Upper Valley open down to the mid-mountain lodge. Skiers will board the Little Whiteface chair for the ride back up to the top. At the end of the day, they’ll download on the gondola.

Bruce: Right now, we’ve got Excelsior snowed in really well. We’re working to get Lower Valley snowed in so that we can have skiing down to the base for Saturday. We’d like to get Mixing Bowl open this weekend as well.

Jon: We’re going to visit some snowmaking sites on the mountain next, and then tour the main snowmaking pump house. We’ve got all different types of guns running, so you can get a good overview.

Bruce and Jon checking out snowmaking operations on Lower Valley

We piled in to two vehicles and drove up to Tower 10 on the Face Lift, about mid-way up Lower Valley. Snowmaking was underway on Lower Valley from the mid-mountain lodge down to the base, and possibly above the lodge as well. A fan gun was nearby, and tower guns and traditional air/water guns extended up and down the trail, all in operation.

Bruce: One of the improvements in our snowmaking operations is the use of fan guns. We ran a few of them last year and we’ll run some more this year. The technology works really well and they are very energy efficient. Each one has an on-board weather station so as the temperature changes you don’t have to send a guy down through to make adjustments, and you’re never running too much water or wasting energy. It’s always maximizing snow output: as the temperature drops, it turns itself up. But there’s only a few of those guns because they are a significant investment ($30 thousand apiece) and you need infrastructure on the mountain to run them (240-volt electrical service).

Bruce: Everything we do in snowmaking is moving towards automation, and there are different options for automation. Those fan guns you see running are started and monitored from the pump house with a lap top. You get temperature, humidity, gallons per minute, all right on the lap top. So that’s one level of automation.

We’re talking with another company about improvements down the road to help us maximize our energy efficiency. You save energy by reducing the amount of compressed air, and by maximizing the amount of time you’re making snow. That’s why the computer operated guns are so efficient: the computer makes the adjustments and you can get consistent snowmaking. Let’s say you have a trail with 10 air/water guns running and one guy might make snow that’s a little bit drier. I might go down that line and add a little bit of water to each gun to make more snow and reduce our air use. With the computerized guns, you don’t have to rely on one guy’s judgment. Automation of that aspect of snowmaking can be pretty significant.

Bruce: The other thing they can do with automation is design systems that can snap a trail on, just like that, remotely, by clicking on a trail. The idea is that you save labor and maximize snowmaking time. By the time you send two guys down a trail to shut down the snowmaking there, then you send them over to fire up the guns on another trail, you’re losing valuable time to make snow. That’s the direction things are going, but it’s a pretty significant investment. You wouldn’t put a system like that on every trail, but on your main bread and butter trails, it makes sense and we’re looking at those options right now.

We got back in the two vehicles and headed down to the pump house, where Mike Snow (yes, that’s his real last name), Snowmaking Department Manager, gave us a tour of the plant and explanation of the snowmaking operations.

Mike Snow at home in the pump house

Mike: On the lower level of this pump house we have all our water pumps. We also have a river pump house that keeps these pumps supplied with water. Water comes up from the river through the light blue piping, comes out of the pumps through the dark blue piping, and then up the hill. We have four horizontal water pumps at 600 gallons per minute, and four vertical pumps at 900 gallons per minute, for a total of 6,000 gallons per minute.

On the upper level we have eight air compressors. Each is 800 horsepower and produces 4,000 cubic feet of air per minute at 100 psi. So we have 32,000 cubic feet of air going out of here at 100 psi. The air passes through 2 heat exchangers to drop the temperature from about 120 degrees down to 50 degrees. By doing that, the moisture in the air is taken out. That way we keep the air lines going up the mountain dry so the nozzles don’t freeze. We monitor everything from this computer panel. Right now water pressure coming into the building is at 62 psi, water temperature is 38 degrees and dropping steadily, and we’re flowing 2300 gallons per minute out of here.

The horizontal and vertical water pumps

Mike: As temperatures get colder, snowmakers increase the water at the hydrants on the hill. We can start more pumps down here if we need to. That increases the flow up the hill, and air pressure in the system builds, which in turn allows us to turn more guns on. In optimum conditions we can run more than 100 guns.

I’ve been working at Whiteface since 1975 and making snow since ’79. In that time we’ve replaced all of our air compressors and added pumps. Back then we could do 3,000 gallons per minute and if it was good and cold maybe we could run 25 guns.

Five of the eight air compressors

Bruce: Most of the time the limiting factor is compressed air. The warmer it is, the more compressed air you use and the less water you’re pumping and the less snow you’re making. But our biggest challenge is in managing the dynamics of the river. We can have slush coming down the river that makes things really difficult. We’ve put in band screens that bring the slush to the top, out an outflow pipe and down the river. When we have slush in the river we have at least two guys down there keeping an eye on things. Once the river freezes over for the winter, the water is clear, and we love that. A retention pond would eliminate the slush problem, but this mountain is steep and siting a pond of the size we need would difficult, expensive, and there are environmental considerations.

Jeff: How will snowmaking operations progress across the mountain from opening day on?

The green panel is an antique.  Most everything now runs off a computer screen.

Mike: Obviously we’d like to offer something to everybody: expert, beginner and intermediate terrain. We’ll probably get Mixing Bowl in next, then Lower Northway, Essex, Broadway, probably Boreen. We try to get at least two routes down the mountain.

Jon: That concludes our snowmaking tour. Thanks very much for coming out.

The mountain from Jay.  Yes, the grass was that green.