Leaves, Ice & Snow

It’s that magical time of year, when Mother Nature puts on a raucous color show, fiery reds, vivid yellows and oranges that flame with an intensity that takes our breath away. Then she loses interest and you’re stuck with a lawn full of dead stuff the color of rotten bananas. Time to rake the leaves. Time for the Public Works Department’s leaf trucks to make their rounds.

As with almost all things the public works department deals with, leaf pickup is weather-dependent.

During leaf collection season, which this year is from October 7 to November 30, the collection crews work 10-hour days, including Saturdays. “We set up a collection schedule, but we can’t always keep to it,” says Public Works Director Rudy Sukal. “The rain slows us down.”

Since it’s illegal to put leaves into a landfill, “In the fall, we give every resource to leaf collection,” says Sukal. “That’s how important it is.”

Although Mt. Lebanon leaf collection crews work 10-hour days during October and November, weather can still cause delays.

Some years, the leaves just will not cooperate; collection days come and go and you don’t have enough for a decent-sized pile to rake to the curb. Then a big rainstorm comes and knocks them all
down at once.

So now you have huge clumps to set out for pickup, but since most of our collection trucks are vacuums, super-fast for collecting dry leaves but hampered by too much moisture, collection slows down and the crews get further behind. And bear in mind, a snowfall turns leaf trucks into snowplows.

Mt. Lebanon puts six trucks on the road every day to collect leaves. The trucks will not move on to a new section until they have cleared all the leaves from the section they are working in. So if your pickup day is Tuesday and you don’t see the trucks that day, it doesn’t mean they’ve skipped you. It means they’re still working on Monday’s leaves and they will get to you when they’re finished.

At the same time, if the trucks finish a section early, they will move on to the next day’s assignment to get a head start, so again, if your day is Tuesday but you see the trucks on your street on Monday afternoon and you weren’t planning on raking until Monday evening, don’t worry. They’ll come back to finish up.

One thing that slows the process is when residents rake leaves to the curb the day after the truck departs, or several days before the schedule. Public works asks that you rake the leaves to the curb the day before your scheduled pickup. Even two days before is OK, but any more than that can cause snags.

“If the leaves sit out for too long, they just get dispersed, rained on, driven on,” says Sukal. “It’s a big help if you stick to the deadline.”

You can help speed collection by raking your leaves into smaller piles. The leaf chutes are about three or four feet wide, so a pile that takes up more space than that will require multiple passes. If you live near an intersection, keep your leaves as far back from the intersection as possible. That makes it easier to maneuver the big trucks.

Of course, the priority shifts when snow is in the forecast. Switching from leaf truck to snowplow is not a quick process. Removing the leaf collection boxes, mounting the salt spreaders and servicing the trucks—leaf duty takes a toll on the brakes and coats a lot of moving parts with dirt—takes a full day and sometimes part of a second day.

Every year, well before the snow starts falling, public works crews take a refresher course in snow and ice control. That includes reviewing the nine snowplow routes—three main and six residential—first on paper, and then by driving them. On the first callout, senior staff will ride shotgun with newer employees to ensure they have a full sense of everything they need to accomplish on the route.

Sukal routinely keeps an eye on the weather at all times—in addition to the eight weather apps on his phone, the municipality also subscribes to the Skywatch meteorological service—and he also relies on the police department, with their 24/7 street presence, to be the early-warning system when the snow starts getting troublesome.

Quitting time for the public works crews is 3:30 p.m. When snow threatens, Sukal will keep them on call for an additional two hours or so before making a decision. “If the guys are coming from home, they’re fighting the same weather everyone else is,” Sukal says.


While a salt truck travels the speed limit when conditions permit, the maximum speed a snowplow can travel is 15 miles per hour. 

A full callout requires nine drivers and one employee, called an “operator,” who is responsible for loading the trucks. The department’s two mechanics are also on duty to make any necessary emergency repairs. Although the trucks are on standby, they’re not loaded until they’re ready to roll out, because the two to six tons of salt can wreak havoc on even a heavy-duty
suspension system.

Once the trucks are on the roads, it takes about three or four hours to salt each of the routes, which consist of about 20 to 24 lane miles of street. (Lane miles are calculated by multiplying the number of miles in a street by the number of the street’s lanes.) This factors in time to return to base and reload, since each route requires more than a single truckload of salt. “And if it’s still snowing and the roads are getting covered, the drivers have to start all over again,” Sukal says.

Plowing takes significantly longer than salting. While salting takes just one pass of the truck, it often takes three or four passes of the plow before a road is drivable. Plowing is also more time-consuming because, while a salt truck travels the speed limit when conditions permit, the maximum speed a snowplow can travel is 15 miles per hour.

The first priority is, of course, public safety. Crews will make sure emergency vehicles can get around, and there is a clear path to St. Clair Hospital and the community’s assisted care facilities.

Schools and steep grades also get extra attention, as do brick streets, because their uneven surfaces make for difficult winter driving. Once those areas are cleared, crews begin working on the residential areas.

As with leaf collection, you can make snow and ice control easier by doing a few things.

It’s best not to park on the street while the plows are running, but if you can’t avoid it, at least try not to park directly opposite another vehicle.

The fire department makes the same request, and it’s because getting a 10-foot or wider vehicle through two parallel cars can make for a pretty tight squeeze.

As you clear your driveway and sidewalk, it’s best to shovel the snow into your yard, behind your sidewalk. If you have to shovel snow into the street, shovel it to the right as you are facing the road, because that’s the direction the plows will be going. If you shovel it to the left of your driveway, you’re going to see it again after the
plows pass by.

“We have to get it off the streets,” says Sukal.

Leaves, ice and snow. Eventually they’ll go away. Like that screaming Guns N’ Roses guy says, just a little patience is all you need.

Snowplow photos/video by Ken Lager; tree photos by Judy Macoskey