UND’s grounds managers get the most out of versatile equipment

Expectations for snow removal have changed drastically at UND since Ed Koble started at the university. It used to be if it snowed 2 inches or less, the snow didn’t get cleaned, but now everytime it snows it needs to be cleared from sidewalks and parking lots.

Ed Koble and Byron Anderson are friends and longtime colleagues in the grounds maintenance department at the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks, N.D. Together they’ve accumulated more than 55 years of experience maintaining the campus.

Koble is the grounds superintendent at UND, which is the first university founded in North Dakota. It’s still the largest and has an enrollment of approximately 15,520 students. Koble is responsible for 17 full-time employees, and in the summer he adds 15 temporary employees to help maintain the campus and complete seasonal projects. Additionally, he oversees the purchase of equipment to maintain the campus through the university’s bidding process. Altogether, he is responsible for maintaining 650 acres, including buildings, sidewalks and parking lots.

Koble and Anderson have seen a tremendous change in equipment usage and technology during their tenure. Today, Koble, Anderson and the grounds maintenance and landscaping department rely more heavily on compact equipment to maintain the university’s property year-round. While large equipment still plays an important role, particularly in heavy snow removal applications, compact machines and attachments have improved the ground maintenance department’s productivity and responsiveness.

UND Grounds Superintendent Ed Koble, left, is responsible for maintaining 650 acres, including buildings, sidewalks and parking lots. Koble and his colleague Byron Anderson, right, together have accumulated more than 35 years of experience maintaining the campus.

“Equipment has changed so much since I started working for the university,” Koble says. “It’s night and day in the development during the past 30 years.” New features like changing attachments without leaving the loader cab and two-speed travel have improved his department’s productivity. They can get across the campus in a fraction of the time it previously took, while minimizing damage to established surfaces like grass and sidewalks.

Perhaps more than any season, winter is when compact equipment plays an important role in helping keep students and staff safe as they traverse the campus to reach their classrooms.

Early to rise

It’s 2 a.m., and Koble and his employees are getting an early start on snow removal at the University of North Dakota. Koble and his crews need to have the inner campus snow-free by 7 a.m., a task that couldn’t be completed without careful planning and job-matched equipment.

Eighteen pieces of equipment are designated for snow removal. They include wheel loaders, box scrapers, four Bobcat skid-steer loaders and two Toolcat utility work machines, plus multiple snow removal attachments for the units.

“We have 27 miles of sidewalks and 130 acres of parking lots,” Koble says. “Normally we get about 39 inches of snow in Grand Forks, and – although last winter (2011-2012) we had just 20 inches – we have been averaging about 60 inches for the past 15 years. A few years ago we had 79 inches.

“We run 17 routes to clear the snow, pushing it into piles. At night, we don’t have time to haul it; we simply get it out of the way as fast as we can and place it on the grass. Expectations for (snow removal) have changed drastically. When I started, if it snowed 2 inches or less, we never cleaned the snow. Now, every time it snows, we have to clear it from sidewalks and parking lots, which is one of the reasons why we have so much snow removal equipment.”

In addition to clearing snow with two Toolcat 5600s, the UND grounds maintenance department operates four skid-steer loaders – two smaller ones for clearing sidewalks, ranging from 6 to 8 feet wide – and two larger loaders that his employees operate with a snowblower attachment to clear parking lots. All of his compact equipment is utilized to its maximum potential.

“We have angle brooms, blades, buckets, pallet forks and snowblowers, and the machines get a lot of hours,” Koble says. “In winter, we place sand and salt spreaders in the cargo boxes of the Toolcat utility work machines. We prefer to sweep the snow from the surfaces and spread salt or sand afterward. Anything over 3 inches we have to plow, and then we come back through with the snowblower to clean them more thoroughly.”

With a front-mounted snow removal attachment and a salt and sand spreader in the cargo box, the Toolcat 5600s are a complete snow and ice removal system.

Year-round performance

College and university grounds maintenance departments like UND’s are among the most resourceful at maximizing their equipment, ensuring they get the most productivity with little or no breakdowns. Some traditional one-dimensional machines like mowers are still needed, but grounds maintenance professionals are utilizing more compact equipment with attachments to maximize their versatility. Instead of having a machine for one season, they’re adding attachments to their compact equipment to keep it working year-round.

Koble says the Toolcat machines are used every day, 12 months of the year. They can transport two people with shovels, rakes or other equipment or material in the cargo box and “a lot of times that’s all we need. We have very little room to park vehicles. It’s convenient for us to pull off the road and park on the grass,” he says.

Spring cleaning

After a long winter, Koble and his crews have quite a bit of cleanup and landscaping to do to make the campus presentable again. His crews are assigned to particular areas and provided with compact equipment to complete their projects.

“I have an employee who handles landscaping, planting, mowing and flowers, and I do the moves and deliveries,” Koble says. “It takes a lot of planning over the years, a lot of repetition to know what to expect and where to send people. For example, I have a paving crew, striping crew, mowing crews, etc.”

In spring and summer months, crews operate compact equipment to complete dirt projects such as building and repairing retaining walls and landscaping projects. Koble says his loaders use front-mounted angle broom attachments to clean parking lots before paving projects start.

Due to the nature of the work, UND grounds maintenance crews regularly switch between attachments. They can change non-hydraulic attachments from inside the cab, from a bucket to a pallet fork, which Koble says is a timesaver. Another timesaver is two-speed travel.

“We have a big campus,” Anderson says, “and sometimes we need to go from one end to the other. We can get across campus in a matter of a few minutes; otherwise, it may take 15 minutes or more.”

In May, when students are moving out of the dorms, compact equipment comes into play again. The machines pick up items left behind by students in parking lots and load them into roll-off containers. Employees can easily maneuver next to buildings and near cars and trucks to pick up and dispose of trash, replacing work that would otherwise be done by hand. Recyclable metal and next-to-new items not wanted by students are often rescued from the trash and claimed by UND staff.

UND and Grand Forks at a Glace

The University of North Dakota is a public research university founded by the Dakota Territorial Assembly in 1883, six years before statehood. It offers a variety of professional and specialized programs, including the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, which trains air traffic controllers and pilots from around the world. UND specializes in aerospace, health sciences, nutrition, energy and environmental production and engineering research.

The athletic teams compete in the NCAA’s Division 1 as members of the Big Sky Conference. At the University of North Dakota, hockey is one of the most popular sports, and for good reason. The UND men’s hockey team has won the Frozen Four championship seven times and was runner-up five times. The team plays on the UND campus at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, which cost more than $100 million to build.

Grand Forks is situated on the western banks of the Red River of the North, in the Red River Valley, an area known for flooding. The town is roughly 140 miles south of Winnipeg and 75 miles north of Fargo, N.D. The metropolitan area has slightly fewer than 100,000 residents, and the University of North Dakota is the largest employer in the area. Traditionally known for its agriculture production, the metro area has diversified considerably and now employs residents in defense, health care and manufacturing.

In-house service department

One of the benefits of working at a university and having a large equipment fleet is having a full-time transportation (service) department next door. Koble says they do a majority of the regular service work, and that he and his crews rarely run into any big mechanical problems. He easily puts 3,000 to 4,000 hours on his compact machines before he trades them in.

“We don’t do major repairs, and we certainly can’t afford to have broken-down equipment,” Koble says. “I’d rather spend money on newer equipment than on fixing it and having it sidelined in the shop.”

Once a month, employees report the number of hours on the machines. That information is turned over to the transportation department and they keep track of the usage. “Oil and transmission fluid changes are done regularly, according to the manual,” Koble says.

By the first of November, the equipment has to be ready for another long winter of snow, ice and wind. A versatile lineup of equipment including attachments means that the UND grounds maintenance department will be at full strength come winter.

Stormy Smith is with Two Rivers Marketing in Des Moines, Iowa.