Winter is Coming…

As winter gets closer, many snow removal companies are already thinking about how to maximize their profits in the coming snow season. We’ve been looking ahead to snow season too, and recently, we’ve been noticing a lot of media coverage about one unexpected topic.

Municipal sidewalk snow removal laws have received a lot of attention this fall. It seems like city councils in many states have been debating changes in laws and updating their enforcement policies just about every week.

With all this change, it could be tough keeping track of the laws, and this could lead to confusion and concern among businesses and homeowners.

Lots of Laws

As this article makes clear, state and municipal laws on sidewalk snow removal are already a confusing mess. They are contradictory, they frequently change, and some have weird and specific rules about when things need to be done and what creates a violation.

But Businesses Seem Uninterested

You might think this would all add up to an extra business opportunity for service companies. But the snow removal companies I talk to all seem to hate sidewalk snow removal because it is the most manual, the least efficient, and the most tedious part of many snow removal jobs. And I have yet to talk to a company that promotes sidewalk clearing as an independent service.

A different Idea

But what if clearing sidewalks was viewed as an independent business opportunity? Even if the economics of sidewalk snow removal are unproven, I think there could be an argument for a high-volume sidewalk clearing operation as a standalone thing.

An individual proprietor (who can commit himself to the labor) or a large company (which can allocate labor as a commodity) could consider sidewalk snow removal as a secondary winter revenue stream. I’m envisioning this primarily as a residential business, since commercial customers probably have their snow removal needs covered.

A Limited Service

One key could be to position the service only as a means to ensure compliance with the law and avoid civil penalties. The actual clearing of sidewalks is a secondary benefit.

With a service agreement that allows for considerable flexibility about when it gets done, you could address sidewalks after you’ve addressed any time-critical parking lot and driveway clearing for your existing customers.

The contracted service could simply be to remove snow and ice from sidewalks on their property as a means to avoid civil penalties. Companies could even guarantee that their customers will not get a fine or offer to cover any fines they might receive.

The odds are stacked.

There are a couple things working in the contractor’s favor in this scenario. Firstly, snow clearance ordinances normally allow a significant amount of time between a snow event and a code violation. So a “sidewalks only” customer could be serviced with less urgency than a parking lot or driveway clearance customer who contracts for complete clearance by an early morning start time.

Also, many municipalities simply don’t enforce their snow clearance ordinances. Many cities lack the personnel and the will to enforce sidewalk clearing ordinances. Normally, other issues are more vital for public safety, and the relatively low fines don’t justify enforcement as a revenue operation.

How to manage it?

Ideally, I would set up a monthly service fee to be paid whether there is a snow event or not. I think about something with a 3 month minimum for core snow months like December, January and February.

If you wanted to do a seasonal “per-occurrence” model, that would be fine too, but I would avoid an “on request” model, since this takes the timing flexibility away.

For someone just getting started in the commercial landscaping industry for example, this could offer a welcome boost to off-season revenue. Many commercial mowers can be fitted with a rotary broom attachment that would make short work of sidewalks. Or, for someone willing to do it all by hand, the cost of getting started could be as low as $50 for a shovel and a few bags of salt.

The Bottom Line

Of course there may be lots of good reasons why the economics of a commercial sidewalk operation wouldn’t make sense. But whenever a potential need arises in the market, the entrepreneur who can figure out a profitable solution can generate a lucrative income.

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