It’s part of the season for northern and Midwestern states: mounds of snow piled up at the corners of city streets, icy sidewalks and salty slush. It can be a drain on city resources and a problem for business owners. But the city of Holland, Mich. — among others — has come up with a solution for some of that wintry mess: a snowmelt system of heated sidewalks.
This isn’t a new concept. After all, Holland installed its first section of heated sidewalk in 1988 — paid for by a donation from local philanthropist Edgar Prince.
“He saw it in Europe and thought ‘why couldn’t we do it here in Holland?’” related Amy Sasamoto, interim downtown development director for the city of Holland.
They installed the first section of tubing for the heated sidewalks under Eighth Street in downtown — one of the major shopping streets in downtown Holland. It was installed at the same time as the downtown streetscape. Sasamoto said initially they used water out of Lake Macatawa and transported it through the PEX tubing. When they extended the snowmelt system, they started transporting water from the power plant, where the water comes out heated at about 95 degrees, according to Sasamoto.
In 2015 the city extended the snowmelt system even more so that they now have 600,000 square feet or 4.9 miles of snowmelt, making it the largest publicly owned snowmelt system in the United States.
“We built a new power plant because the old one was at capacity, and that enabled us to do it,” she said.
It’s been a boon to downtown. “It’s one of the biggest draws in downtown Holland,” Sasamoto said.
There are basically two types of snowmelt systems being widely used: hydronic, which uses heated water and is the system Holland has, or electric. With an electric system, electric cables are fed into concrete, or for smaller applications, electric mats can be installed.
There is also a geothermal system that uses geothermal energy to heat water under the sidewalks. The town of Klamath Falls, Ore., has been using a geothermal system.
In Holland’s case, a nearby electric generator releases heat into the water from its turbines and transfers the heated water into the loops where two pumps channel the water at a rate of reportedly over 700 gallons a minute through the coils of PEX tubing and under the downtown sidewalks. The water then returns to nearby rivers.
Without the benefit of a nearby power plant, those using a hydronic system would need a nearby boiler to heat the water.
Benefits and downsides
Several sources cite numerous benefits for
heated sidewalks that include:
- Eliminates the need for snowplowing, freeing city employees to concentrate on other areas.
- Eliminates the need for sidewalk shoveling so there is no need for either city employees or employees of the business to take time to shovel.
- Reduces the risk of injuries caused by shoveling.
- Reduces the risk of slips and falls by residents and customers.
- Reduces wear and tear on carpeting and flooring from snow and salt tracked in.
- Reduces the cost of salt and other snowmelt chemicals.
- Saves sidewalks from the heaving and buckling caused by freezing and thawing.
- Saves plantings from harmful salt and chemicals.
- Makes good use of an industrial waste by-product (in Holland’s case).
- Draws downtown development.
- Draws customers downtown in winter months.
- Eliminates the need to haul away snow mounds.
The only downside seems to be the initial cost to install the system and,
depending on the type of system, the cost to operate.
The village of Oak Park, Ill., installed an electric-heated sidewalk
system in 2007 as an experiment under the 100 block of North Marion
Street and has determined it to be too costly at this point.
Village Engineer Bill McKenna said in a typical winter they figured it
cost $25,000 annually, which was “a little more costly than anticipated.
Therefore, we haven’t expanded the system at this point.”
He said the costs were due to maintenance and electricity use.
Although McKenna wasn’t in his position when the decision to install the
system was made, he said to his knowledge they did consider hydronic
systems and geothermal systems as well as the electric system.
“One of the constraints we had with the hydronic system was a building
to house the mechanics and equipment,” he said, adding, “A hydronic
system probably would’ve had lower maintenance costs.”
Despite the village’s decision not to expand, McKenna said the
feedback has been great on their heated sidewalk; the customers and
businesses love it.
“It’s a great amenity,” McKenna said, adding that now when there is
snowfall going, downtown is like “night and day,” with the heated block
being clean and dry while the others are icy and slushy.
Holland pays for its system with an annual special assessment
for the property owners and adjacent properties in the snowmelt
area. She called the cost of that assessment “low” and said it was
“truly linked to those adjacent to the snowmelt.”
According to Sasamoto, there is no downside. “I love it because
it keeps people coming downtown in the winter.”
She also said when people are interested in locating to Holland,
the snowmelt system is one of the first things they ask about, and
she said it is a definite draw to downtown business development.
If snow and ice has been a strain on your city’s budget or
employees’ backs, or if you’re looking for a way to draw more businesses
to your downtown, a heated city sidewalk system might be