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Snow Dragon

Article courtesy of Guelph Mercury.

Meet the keeper of Guelph’s snow dragon!

GUELPH – Snow plowing is a standard service offered by most Canadian landscaping and property maintenance companies but the white stuff can pile up quickly during a heavy season. Finding somewhere to put large amounts of snow can be a real problem for businesses and municipalities but not for Bill Hamilton owner of Turf Plus Inc in Guelph. He just gets his dragon to melt it.

“There are only two Snow Dragons in Southern Ontario,” said Hamilton. “It’s like throwing a handful of snow in the hot tub. We fill it with water and we have a burner inside that heats the water to 120 F.”

When a load of snow is dumped into the heated reservoir the water level rises, overflows and runs down the drain.

“It just keeps overflowing and the sediment goes down to the bottom,” he said. “It’s actually an environmentally good tool because the machine takes the gravel and garbage out of the snow and sends out the water cleaner than it would naturally.”

The Snow Dragon can melt 100 tons or 240 cubic yards of snow per hour and because it is mobile it can be towed to a location and operated on site eliminating the need to haul the snow away.

“It can do typically 12 tandem (truck)loads an hour,” said Hamilton. This makes the process significantly cheaper with less environmental impact than traditional snow removal processes.

The Snow Dragon has helped Turf Plus secure snow removal contracts throughout Southern Ontario and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

Hamilton was born and raised in Guelph. His father, Bill Hamilton Sr. operated Hamilton’s Corner Garage with his brother Jim Hamilton, on Gordon Street, until he died last fall at the age of 84. Hamilton inherited his father’s entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic.

“I started with a push mower in the back of my car,” he said. “I worked for the University of Guelph grounds department. I was done at two and my buddies were done at five. I had three hours to kill so I went out and cut grass.”

In 1994, he started Turf Plus and the business has steadily grown. He now has seven employees including his wife of 15 years, Lisa (nee McCrone), who takes care of scheduling and customer relations. They have a fleet of trucks as well as loaders, tractors and other landscaping equipment and facilities in Fergus, south Guelph and the head office on Smith Avenue.

“I wear a lot of hats in the summer,” he said. “We concentrate on plaza maintenance. Keep the lots clean, sweeping, landscaping, look after the lighting and things like that. We also do residential in softscape – mulching, small walkways, ponds, fences and concrete work.”

Four years ago he bought the Snow Dragon from a manufacturer in Ohio. It is parked in the garage at the Smith Avenue location waiting for big dumps of snow to come.

“We didn’t even start it up last year,” he said. “There was no snow in North America other than Alaska.”

That, however, wasn’t the case in February 2010 when record snowstorms battered the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. forcing the mayor of Baltimore to declare a state of emergency.

Arrangements were made to get the Snow Dragon along with Hamilton and his crew to the city in record time.

“They got them across the border in less than 24 hours,” said Lisa.

The city was paralyzed after receiving more than 180 cm of snow over a couple of days.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was desperate to get the streets cleared.

“When a city like Baltimore shuts down, she is not a popular person because it is her fault that the snow came,” said Hamilton. “Everyone was on her so she brings in this big noisy fire breathing thing to show she means business.”

The Snow Dragon and Hamilton’s crew of Canadian crusaders were a media sensation.

“Fox News was there everyday,” said Hamilton. “The fire department was there to fill us up and they would just do circles with a helicopter and light the whole parking lot. It ran 24-7 for 30 days.”

At the end of it all they received a letter of commendation from the mayor for accomplishing what she described as a “Sisyphean Task” removing 4,300 “lane miles” of snow from the city streets.

Hamilton said the incident led to them being called in to help in several more U.S. cities including, Hartford Connecticut and New York City.

He said despite the publicity and the success in the U.S. they have not been able to secure contracts from municipal governments in Ontario, including Guelph. He attributes it to resistance from unions.

He is, however, offering a service previously provided by the City.

“This is the first year we are disposing of Christmas trees for people,” he said. “The City is no longer picking trees up. They can keep the mulch and we will chip them on site.”

They are also implementing a texting service for customers.

“Say you are pulling out of your house in the morning and we had snow overnight,” he said. “We have it set up so you just text “snow” and instantly you get a response that we have that in our email. We can look after that driveway while they are at work and it will be done when they get home.”

Keeping up with the latest technology is one way to keep the business growing into the future.

Both he and Lisa hope one day to pass the business on to their children, Joshua, 13, Nathan, 11, Adriana, 10 and Nicholas 8.

“They are all interested,” said Lisa. “That may change but right now Joshua doesn’t leave Billy’s side. He is mechanically inclined already and has a big interest in taking it over some day.”

“It is nice having my own business and having the time to spend with the kids,” said Hamilton. “It’s nice to see what we have accomplished.”

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