Repairs, Maintenance and Renovations
Choosing the Right Winter Maintenance Company
From the Fall 2022 issue of CCI Toronto Condovoice Magazine, Volume 27, Issue Number 1.
Winter in Toronto is an inevitable nuisance for everyone, but for the management and Board members of condominium associations, it's a season of constant stress and pressure. Keeping a property cleared of snow and ice and enabling safe, 24/7 access is a full time job, and the consequences of failing in these duties are catastrophic. Leaving your premises unprotected, or in the hands of a shoddy contractor can lead to accidents, personal injuries, and potential lawsuits.
The snow and ice management industry comprises many different companies of varying degrees of capabilities and trustworthiness, and choosing your contractor correctly is vital to establish an adequate level of service for your property. The demands of every type of condominium association and its lands and premises are based on the unique needs of the property, so it is of utmost importance to do your homework before signing your next snow removal contract. Your due diligence is required in order to ensure that you are entrusting the safety of your property to a winter maintenance contractor that is well staffed, equipped, prepared, capable, reliable, and experienced. There are many important factors to consider before hiring your next snow and ice maintenance contractor, and some of them might not be immediately obvious.
Define your requirements
Winter maintenance is a complicated operation, so make sure the contractor you choose is fully prepared and able to provide the level of service your property requires. Your property needs to be reviewed in full detail, in order to create a comprehensive estimate of work and scope of service. No two properties are the same, and you need to go over the service of all parking areas,
driveways, walkways, landings, entrances, and steps as well as details regarding fine points such as snow piling, existing damage and any potential obstacles. How busy is your property? What exactly do you have in mind, in terms of your expectations when it comes to arrival times? How quickly do you need your contractor to visit after the snow stops falling? Do you expect bare pavement conditions at all times? Do you require service during the snowfall, if it is ongoing? Do they have backup equipment? Do they have access to a full team of staff? Do they even focus on snow and ice removal as a core facet of their business, or is this just a side gig? Is your contractor prepared to answer these questions, confidently and with a high degree of account ability in case something goes wrong?
A high degree of experience is necessary to monitor and forecast localized snowfall events, calculate strategic service routes and plans of attack, prepare the logistical response to varying types of weather, arrange the staff and equipment needed to provide the work, and manage the varied needs of multiple clients. Your contractor should be an expert in all things snow and ice. Ask them before signing any contracts, how exactly will their company meet the stringent demands of your property?
Do Your Due Diligence in Regards to Insurance
Slip and fall accidents can happen on any property, and the average cost of settlements can be in the millions. Adequate liability coverage is an absolute necessity. Winter weather presents every property owner with the risk of slip and fall lawsuits, and due to the prohibitive costs of litigation and personal injury settlements, a winter maintenance company with anything less than $5,000,000 of liability insurance is unacceptable. Many smaller contractors who are unable to acquire sufficient policies operate with inadequate or non-existent coverage, and it is imperative that as a prospective customer, you do your due diligence in making sure the company is properly covered for the work at hand. Make sure the company has the industry specific "snow removal" rider, and that every one of their employees is covered by the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB).
Today, fewer insurers write policies for contractors engaged in snow removal. Many contractors have been left without proper coverage or no coverage at all as a result. Contractors who face insurance issues are often still actively pursuing and signing new customers. It is only once a legal issue arises that it becomes apparent their coverage is inadequate or not present. Simply checking a paper or PDF copy of a company's insurance policy is not sufficient due diligence from a client's perspective. It is imperative that you contact your insurer to verify coverage, including permission for snow removal and winter maintenance work.
Another very significant consideration is worker safety. In order to avoid liability for potential injuries, it is essential to provide adequate protection for people working on your property. To cut costs, some unscrupulous companies are completely uninsured and can even operate with illegal workers. There is a staggering risk for the customer in these situations. In the event that an 'under the table' worker is injured on your property, you may be liable for their injuries or damages. It is even possible for property owners and businesses to be liable for injuries sustained by their own employees while performing snow removal work. If you are considering hiring a company, you need to do your homework and find out exactly who they employ.
Have an Established, Properly Worded Contract
The weather may be unpredictable, but a company that gives you a proper winter maintenance contract will allow you to know what to expect no matter what. It is important to note that not all snow maintenance contracts are created equal. An exemplary winter maintenance contract should be legally binding and detail all aspects of the scope of work, service times, level of service, and quantitative measures of weather events, as well as details and diagrams tailored to each property's needs. Make sure the contract specifies at what hour after snowfalls or after how many centimeters of snow accumulation service will begin, and what is done in the case of blizzards, ice storms, and freezing rain. Avoid companies that offer a contract that looks like not much more than an invoice. In the event of a dispute with your contractor or in the event of personal injury or damage to your property, a winter maintenance contract that is little more than an invoice or bill of sale will not protect you.
Contracts that appear open-ended and ill-defined may leave your property unattended should the contractor neglect their duties. Some companies offer open-ended contracts and pay-per-visit rates that may initially appear like a better deal compared to other companies that offer all inclusive fixed-rate packages that guarantee unlimited service in any and all weather outcomes. However, an open-ended, poorly worded contract may ultimately leave the client vulnerable to any possible charges at the contractor's discretion, such as hidden equipment costs or charges for additional services. It also provides little recourse should the contractor fail to show up at all, leaving you with the liability of clearing the snow and ice yourself. It's important to remember that even though your contractor may leave you with a good personal impression, they will ultimately only be as good as their service contract.
Compare Parameters of Service
When reviewing contracts, compare how different companies define what constitutes a serviceable snowfall. Some companies will only attend to snowfalls, but not to ice accumulation events, while others provide a full, comprehensive level of service for all types of risky weather. Some will provide service to all snow events that measure one centimeter of snow accumulation or greater, while others will intentionally have written into the fine print of their contracts that they will not plow snowfalls with any less than two, or even three, inches of accumulation. Historically, the Greater Toronto Area receives a number of light snowfalls each season between one and five centimeters of accumulation. These light snowfalls still present a great hazard to the people who use your property, which is why all snowfalls of one centimeter or more should always be serviced and salted. It is always important to make sure your snow and ice removal contract does in fact include these considerations.
Ask About Their Employees
No one wants their property tended to by untrained and unhappy staff members. A company that has an adequately-trained, dedicated, well-compensated, and legally hired snow removal team will deliver the best service, ten out of ten times. Having a team on retainer is essential to ensure that staff will always show up to the task whether there are several snowfalls in one week or none at all. Make sure there are more than enough employees to cover the amount of properties the company services. Having sufficient staff relative to properties served is crucial to excellent service. A proper ratio of one worker for every five properties is ideal. However, some companies operate with a ratio as high as one to sixty, leading to long wait times measured in days not hours or even no service at all. While a small contractor cannot operate a plow and simultaneously check the forecast or answer phone calls, and an umbrella company may have outsourced their plow work and customer service to an individual who does not know all the intricacies of snow and ice management, a professional winter management company retains a fully staffed workforce even in periods of calm weather, ready to go in the event they're needed. Small contractors without these resources and umbrella companies without this specialization are often left unprepared for unexpected snow events – and in Toronto's winters, these happen frequently. Avoid companies that utilize subcontractors or hire day labourers through employment companies. These companies tend to be more focused on speed rather than quality, and sub-contracted employees are often less experienced in the nuances of snow removal. They are also more likely to lack proper insurance and WSIB certification. Make sure that all employees are WSIB qualified so that you will not be held responsible should any injuries happen during the clearing of your property.
Understand Their Prices
We all hunt for bargains in our everyday purchasing, but snow and ice management is not something one should trust to the lowest bidder. The consequences of poor quality winter maintenance are too high, and unfortunately the industry is replete with scammers who will over-promise and under-deliver in order to make off with your money. Pricing of snow removal
contracts vary greatly depending on many factors, such as the size of the property, the intricacies of the work, or even the competence and integrity of the surveyor. If the quote sounds too low - it probably is. Ask if the quoted price includes deicing as well as snow clearing, additional visits in periods of heavy accumulation, and all equipment costs. Understand how your winter maintenance estimate is calculated; you might be quoted per individual visit, priced according to the area of the property, or given a fixed-rate all-inclusive price that takes care of your property for the duration of the winter. While flat rate pricing can sometimes appear more expensive up front, case studies have shown that it is almost always the most cost effective route. Every necessity is already priced in regardless of the amount of snow storms that occur throughout the season. From the beginning to the end of the season, your property is covered. Should you need extra deicing done, multiple visits per snow event, clearing of windrows or blowing snow, or touch-ups, your rate will not change. With the unpredictable nature of Toronto's weather, it is always better to know what you are paying upfront without fear of an ever-growing invoice. Look for value up front, not discounts. Seek guarantees in terms of service quality, instead of cutting corners. If it looks too good to be true up front in terms of your pocket book, it will very likely end up costing you much more money down the line.
Check Out Their Equipment
A proper company should have a diversified collection of snow and ice management equipment that is well maintained, modern, and specialized for the task at hand. Many contractors will cut corners in order to keep operating costs low. Plowing vehicles for commercial use are expensive, and manufacturers often have long waiting lists for them. Various snow plowing blades are available, from simple plastic blades to hydraulically operated stainless steel blades with adjustable wings and other features designed to remove the maximum amount of snow. In order to meet the needs of each property, a proper company's fleet must include specialized equipment, such as deicer spreaders, haulage crews, dump trucks, snow melters, tractors, and utility vehicles. The company should also use eco-friendly ice control products that are less corrosive and act faster than regular road salt. Weather conditions in the winter can be extremely damaging to trucks and equipment, and breakdowns are inevitable. Without a backup fleet of vehicles, companies are at the mercy of independent repair shops that often suffer shortages and backorders. One of the most common statements from prospective clients we hear is: "My contractor's truck broke and I went without service for two weeks while he fixed it!" A professional winter maintenance company must have at least one back-up unit for every five active units at all times. Winter weather is more difficult for small contractors because they don't have the necessary resources at their disposal. Many of their clients are left waiting for repairs because their equipment quickly becomes overwhelmed. Today, auto parts can take days, if not weeks, to arrive. A contractor without adequate backup equipment will leave your property vulnerable.
Treat Snow And Ice Management With The Respect It Deserves
Proper winter maintenance is no casual feat. Anyone who watches the Weather Network knows that it is never possible to predict the weather with 100% certainty. This is not the concern of the City's public works, which requires snow to be cleared within 12-24 hours after every snowfall. Your winter maintenance company needs to have a dedicated weather monitoring system to stay ahead of the snow and provide up-to-the-minute localized forecasting, and experienced analysts able to interpret the advanced data and identify impending ice attacks and surprise snow events. Timing is crucial in these logistics, and the company needs to have a streamlined staffing structure that enables teams to be dispatched at a moments' notice throughout the winter. It must command expansive facilities strategically located to give access to the main transportation arteries of the city, and must be aided by GPS tracking, live cameras and sophisticated algorithmic software to calculate the most strategic routes. A company that commands these resources and this level of expertise can only be forged by experience, dedication and cutting edge software at their disposal. When interviewing your potential snow removal contractor, make sure that your are properly informed of the technical prowess, knowledge and experience required to properly take care of your snow and ice on an emergency basis.
Be Informed and Pro-Active
As you can see, there is a lot to consider when selecting the right contractor. With so much on the line it pays to be informed and do your due diligence. Once a relationship is established with a successful contractor, not only will you provide safety and peace of mind for your residents but you will also enjoy the satisfaction of making a difference for the people that count on you.
Use the guideline questions below to help interview your prospective snow and ice contractors:
1) "How many properties did your company clear last year?"
Tip: If the answer is 60 or less, they are a one-man show.
2) "How much, and what type of insurance do you have?"
Tip: $2 Million is not enough for snow removal; the answer should be $5 Million.
3) "Are ALL your employees covered by WSIB?"
Tip: Request a current issue of their WSIB clearance certificate and check its validity.
4) "How many trucks are in your fleet, and of those, how many are backup vehicles?"
Tip: A ratio of one backup truck per every 5 service trucks is excellent.
5) "Do you sub-contract any of the work performed?"
Tip: Did you know that many contractors take on more work than they know they can handle, and will then sell off any extra jobs to the LOWEST bidder prior to the beginning of the snow season? Beware of companies that have their headquarters located in a different city, or whose websites use stock photos. Successful companies love to show off their work, and how hard is it to provide some quality pictures?
6) "Do you have a 24/7 dedicated customer service team?"
Tip: The contractor's answer will likely be: "Yeah, you can call me any time you want; I am up all night anyway!" Remember, they will be operating the plow then asleep after the shift and will, in fact, not be able to speak with you. A dedicated and true customer team is a must.
7) "Do you provide detailed diagrams and descriptions of the areas of my property you will be servicing?"
Tip: Avoid disputes during the service season with your contractor; have a copy in writing of all areas to be serviced.
8) "Is your pricing all-inclusive and flat rate for the season?"
Tip: Don't be fooled into signing a contract that ultimately will leave you open for extra charges, no matter how initially cheap they make it seem.
9) "What volume of snow does your company start plowing at?"
Tip: A proper snow service should clear snowfalls at an accumulation of at least one centimeter of snowfall, as well as freezing rain, otherwise your property will be left vulnerable to black ice, hazardous freezing, and a severe danger for slips and falls.
The Stakes Are High
Hopefully this article has shared some new insights into the winter maintenance industry that will allow you to be better informed when you're shopping for improved services this coming season. Like everything else, professional contractors that can properly get the job done are in high demand, and there is an overall shortage of quality services available on the market. Avoid disappointment, frustration, and legal issues by securing the services of a reputable company as early as possible. If you leave it to the last moment, you'll be left out in the cold.
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