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Federal Highway Administration / Publications / Focus / April 1996

Accelerating Infrastructure Innovations

Publication Number: FHWA-SA-96-015
Date: April 1996

Snow Fences Benefit Motorists--and Farmers

Now that one of the country's worst winters in decades has finally come to an end, it's time to start preparing for next year's snow. Anti-icing chemicals and snowplows are great for clearing pavements of ice and snow, but imagine how much easier it would be if we could prevent the snow from accumulating on roads to begin with.

That's what the Utah Department of Transportation (DOT) has been doing for the past several years. By using 1-m (4-ft) high plastic snow fences, the DOT is preventing snow from blowing onto highways near Monticello, a farming community that gets an average of 2.2 m (84 in) of snow a year. With few trees or buildings to block the snow from blowing, the open fields around Monticello foster hazardous driving conditions by allowing snow to drift across highways. Blowing snow can temporarily blind motorists and create sudden obstacles in the road. It also increases snow removal costs because a plow must be sent out to clear the drifts. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data show that it costs 3 cents to store a ton of snow using a snow fence versus $3 to plow the same quantity.

To effectively counter the problem of drifting snow, fences must usually be installed beyond the right-of-way, on privately owned land. The traditional wooden snow fences require regular maintenance, and, because they are usually permanent installations, they are often an impediment during planting and harvesting seasons. Utah DOT decided to try the new plastic snow fences, which had been evaluated as part of the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP), because they are easier to install and remove.

The fences have performed admirably. Says Craig Leavitt, Monticello area supervisor for Utah DOT, "The snow fence project has become very successful." The roads around Monticello now have fewer snow drifts and less blowing snow, removing a serious hazard to drivers. By preventing drifts, Utah doesn't have to send snow-clearing crews out as frequently. As a result, snow removal expenses have dropped, as has wear on equipment. Utah DOT says these savings are more than sufficient to justify the expense of the snow fences.

The plastic snow fences are easy to set up and remove. Utah DOT reports that a three-member crew can install or take down 300 m (1,000 ft) of fence in an 8-hour shift. For the region's farmers, this means the snow fences can be cleared out of the way before the spring planting season. For Utah DOT crews, easy setup and removal means an end to the chores of maintaining permanently installed wooden fences and clearing out the vegetation and blowing debris that collect on the fences over the course of the year.

The only time the fences have failed Utah DOT was several winters ago, when Monticello got 3.6 m (142 in) of snow over the course of the season, almost 70 percent more than usual. Leavitt says this heavy snowfall was enough to completely bury the 1-m (4-ft) tall fences.

For the region's farmers, the portable snow fences bring more than clear roads. The most obvious benefit comes every spring, when Utah DOT crews can quickly remove the fences before the planting season. But there's another, less obvious benefit as well--by retaining snow, the fences keep more moisture on the land, and some farmers are thrilled with the results. According to Leavitt, one local farmer harvested 40 bushels of wheat from areas where snow collected behind fences over the winter, more than twice as much as he harvested from areas without snow fences.

For more information on snow fences, contact Salim Nassif at FHWA, 202-366-1557 (fax: 202-366-9981).

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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