November 24, 2012

New snowmaking technology puts ski areas ahead of the storms

Low-energy snow guns, which operate well at higher temperatures, make good snow at a much lower cost.

By Deirdre Fleming
Staff Writer

Waiting to see snow out your living room window before thinking about a ski outing is fast becoming an obsolete was of approaching the winter season.

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Sugarloaf began making snow early this month after investing $1 million in 300 low-energy snowmaking guns, bringing its total number of low-e guns to 450. The ski area plans to replace its 150 older-model guns before next season.

Photos courtesy of Sugarloaf

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At Sugarloaf, the 45-man crew starts making snow at 28 degrees. Previously, they wouldn’t start drawing water from the Carrabassett River until it was 26 degrees.

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Advances in snowmaking that have been embraced by Maine ski areas could soon make the "no-snow-in-my-backyard" mentality a thing of the past. The ability to produce quality snow in warmer temperatures while using less energy will change traditional thinking.

That growing sentiment is why Sugarloaf invested $1 million in 300 new low-energy snowmaking guns this year, bringing its total number of low-e guns to 450. The new guns were paid for in part with a $300,000 energy grant from Efficiency Maine after the ski area proved it was making more snow with less power than before.

Sugarloaf now has a total of 600 snow guns and will replace the remaining 150 older models next year, said Sugarloaf Mountain Manager Rich "Crusher" Wilkinson.

The new guns make twice the snow with half the electricity. And they do it in warmer weather. And that's why twice as many trails are open at Sugarloaf than there were at this time last year, Wilkinson said.

"We've had to change the way we fundamentally think about snowmaking. These guns, when it's 28 to 29-degrees out, we're running 120 guns. It is snow production, even in warm temperatures," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson expects to have 15 total trails open by this weekend, compared to eight that were open this weekend last year.

Now the 45-man crew starts making snow at 28 degrees. Before they wouldn't start drawing water from the Carrabassett River until it was 26 degrees.

And last winter, one of the mildest, the mountain still had ample snow to build a half-pipe that stands 18-feet high and runs 400-feet.

"We wouldn't have been able to build it without those low-energy guns," Wilkinson said.

Sugarloaf isn't the only Maine ski area upgrading its snowmaking systems with new, low-energy technology.

Sunday River also has invested $1 million in low-energy snow guns, said spokeswoman Darcy Morse.

Now the Newry mountain can run 8,000 gallons of water per minute as opposed to the old rate of 4,000 gallons of water per minute, said Bill Brown, the mountain manager.

"Because it's more efficient, it makes us more willing to turn it on a lot more often," said Brown, who's been making snow for 25 years. "Fifteen years ago, we didn't think we'd be able to do what we can do right now. Or we didn't know how we'd do it."

It is the savings in energy costs that allow ski areas to run the guns more often and in warmer temperatures to make more snow, said Ian Jared, the vice president at HKD Snowmakers in Natick, Mass., which has sold guns to several Maine mountains,

"You will continue to see more efficient systems, and those systems will translate into being able to take advantage (even in warmer weather) to make snow in a shorter time," Jared said.

However, Jared said further technological change will come slowly because the ski industry is small compared to say, the automotive or computer industries.

But using the old technology that takes twice as long won't make economic sense at any mountain pretty soon.

"You look at the smaller mountains, they almost can't afford not to invest. The return on the investment is so good, a one- to two-year return," Jared said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

Twitter: Flemingpph


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Additional Photos

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Low-energy snow guns have changed the economics of making snow at Sugarloaf, above, and Sunday River.


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