Plowing through the preparations

December 10, 2012 | 11 a.m.

A look at what goes on behind the scenes to keep Bethel going through Minnesota winters

News | Jon Westmark

Plowing through the preparations

Despite its heavy usage, the path stretching from the Brushaber Commons to North Village takes a secondary priority during snow removal, with the crew focusing first on the roads and parking lots. | Betsy Wreidt

While students are preparing to transition from their fall schedules into finals week, Bethel employees are making similar preparations for the change in seasons. For the Bethel grounds staff, the fall provides a respite from summer projects and seasonal duties before taking on winter’s demanding obligations.


For students, at the beginning of December the rhythmic lull of the semester is interrupted with preparations for final tests and projects as well as for the next semester. This time marks a similar occasion for the Bethel grounds crew. According to Josh Gerth, Bethel’s Manager of Grounds, the team is busy with the duties of both fall and winter. “We’re doing our winter preparation, but we’re also using those machines to do fall cleanup,” he said. This involves changing mowers to sweepers and snow blowers, trucks to plows, and watering vehicles to salt dispensers.

Snow removal is the main task of the Bethel grounds crew during the winter months as the plowing, shoveling, salting and sweeping are all done in-house. According to Gerth, he and four others do the majority of the removal, and in snowy winters, they don’t get much time to rest. “A half-inch to four inches, we’re probably here at 3 a.m. at the latest,” he said. “If it’s a bigger snow, we’re normally here from the time it starts snowing until we can take a break.”

While Gerth and his staff take care of the roads and parking lots, seasonal student employees take care of the rest. Because the workers are on-call, Gerth says they hire a few extra. “When you’re telling people to come in at five or six, you only get so many people to respond,” he said.

It’s a community effort, according to Gerth. In 2010, during large snowfalls, he recalls that Facilities Management office employees came out to join the process.

But not all of snow removal happens after the fact. Instead of laying salt and plowing after it snows, Bethel Grounds also takes preemptive measures. In their anti-icing program, the grounds team uses a liquid salt solution that keeps the ice from bonding to the pavement, making it easier to remove. The rock salt is also sprayed with the saline solution in a process called “pre-wetting.” The fluorides in the liquid solution make it effective at lower temperatures. It also “activates” the rock salt, according to Gerth. “Surprisingly, for salt to work you need heat and you need moisture,” he said.

When he started at his current position 14 years ago, Gerth recalls going through about 200 tons of rock salt each year. In the winter of 2010-2011, which brought above average snowfalls, a mere 100 tons of rock salt and 2000 gallons of solution were used. This decrease saved money, but it also helped the environment. “We don’t want to be dumping a large amount of salt into Lake Valentine,” Gerth said. “Plus, it kills our grass and our plants.” Minimizing the amount of salt decreases the time and money spent on spreading fertilizer and grass seed.

Commuter parking is one of the main concerns for the grounds team. “If we lose a spot because people can’t see where the lines are and they park all weird, then it becomes an issue for everybody and it hurts the community overall,” Gerth said.

Despite the unseen traffic lines and slippery conditions, accidents do not increase during the winter months according to Andrew Luchsinger, Chief of Security and Safety. Instead, Security and Safety sees an increase in escort requests and car jump-starts. Luchsinger recommends that students get their car batteries tested before winter hits in full force.

For Gerth, the changes that come with the transitioning seasons are welcome. “I love it,” he said. “I enjoy not knowing exactly what’s coming – not knowing if it’s going to snow tomorrow, or next week, or how much. You kind of just have to roll with it as it happens. It’s part of what makes the job worth doing.”

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