Every fall, school bus operators concern themselves with securing necessary equipment to "winterize" their buses. What equipment they specify depends largely on the type of weather their area experiences, the benefits of the proposed equipment and, of course, the equipment's price.
From reducing driving hazards to increasing comfort levels, manufacturers and operators are recognizing the many benefits aftermarket products have to offer. Most can be spec'd on the bus or added later in the aftermarket. Here are some of the most popular products, how they work and the benefits of each.
Automatic tire chains
When it comes to traveling up and down mountains and around dangerous curves on slick roads, automatic tire chains are invaluable. Brad Barker, head mechanic at Park City (Utah) School District, says chains are a necessity in his area. "We operate in elevations from 5,400 feet to 8,000 feet above sea level, and winters are long and cold," he explains. "The [aftermarket product] most used is the automatic tire chain."
Automatic tire chains offer the same traction as regular tire chains, but with added convenience. With the flip of a switch on the bus' dash, a driver has automatic traction in icy or snowy conditions. Rick Ransom, Rotogrip product manager at Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Rud Chain Inc., says they work very simply. "You have a switch in the cab and when you flip the switch the air will flow through the cylinders," he explains. "The chain wheels engage on the side walls of the rear tires, and the centrifugal force will allow the chains to fan out and spin underneath the tires."
The convenience of automatic activation benefits drivers and mechanics alike. "A lot of the time mechanics have to get up very early in the morning to put chains on the buses so they can go out," says John Atkinson Jr., CEO of Insta-Chain Inc. in Springville, Utah. "Or some drivers may be caught in the storm without chains. With [automatic tire chains], if they're out on the route, they can just flip the switch, keep going and get back home without having to worry," he says.
Because they're only used when needed, manufacturers say automatic tire chains last longer than conventional tire chains. "In a typical case, a mechanic may put chains on and if [the driver] gets on the main street and it's clear, but wet, he's not going to stop and take the chains off because he knows he's going to need them on the other side of town," explains Patrick Freyer, president of Onspot North America Inc. in Stratford, Conn. "Because you never use automatic tire chains on a dry road, theoretically, they would never wear out."
Freyer also stresses the safety benefits of automatic tire chains, particularly when drivers need additional stopping traction. "Not only does the chain give you traction, but by giving you traction in a braking condition, it will also reduce your stopping distance," he says. "They could conceivably reduce stopping distance by as much as 20 percent."
Automatic tire chains require little maintenance, aside from regular greasing of parts (particularly the swing arm pivot and other points of movement). Manufacturers estimate chains to last anywhere from two to eight seasons, depending on their frequency of use.
Chains are available with varying numbers of strands, ranging from six to 18. Products with more strands offer greater traction beneath tires, but are higher in price, typically ranging from $1,800 to $2,000. Regular six-strand automatic tire chains are sold in pairs for the rear wheels, and range from $1,400 to $1,800.
Though occupant safety is the most common reason for purchasing aftermarket winterization equipment, comfort also plays a role in purchases. Auxiliary heaters, for example, warm the bus on cold mornings and provide added comfort to the driver and passengers. Roger Rittenhouse, president of Rittenhouse Bus Lines in Smock, Pa., says his drivers take their buses home at the end of routes, and parking them in a heated garage is not an option. "The biggest benefit [of auxiliary heaters] is the comfort of the driver," Rittenhouse says. "They leave in the morning and [the temperature] is below zero. You really have to focus on the drivers — keep them in that seat and make their jobs as easy and comfortable as possible."
The heat that auxiliary heaters send into the engine reduces idling time, which increases fuel economy, notes Rittenhouse. And reducing vehicle emissions at start-up can virtually eliminate the "white mushroom cloud" that hangs over garages before buses begin their routes.
Paul Baczweski, school bus product sales manager at Webasto Thermosystems Inc. in Lapeer, Mich., says his company's auxiliary heaters are fully automated to recognize when the bus has reached a comfortable temperature. The heaters, which run off diesel fuel and the engine's battery, are equipped with a timer that works like an alarm clock and automatically turns the system on at a programmed time.
On special-needs routes where the doors stay open for long periods as wheelchairs are loaded and unloaded, keeping students warm is often a challenge. "Everybody always says, "Put another blanket or coat on the child," but when you're talking about special-needs kids, that's not an option," says Baczweski. "A lot of them have poor circulation and they just can't help being cold." Users of Webasto's auxiliary heaters, says Baczweski, report a 70 to 80 percent improvement in the time it takes to regain heat lost in the loading/unloading process.
Webasto's auxiliary heater is manufactured to last the lifetime of the vehicle. "There's nothing that the driver can do to hurt the unit at all," notes Baczweski. Maintenance recommendations include inspecting the unit for leaks, securing the attachment and replacing the fuel filter as needed.
A relatively new product to the school bus market, heated stepwells offer increased safety during winter months when children leave snow and ice on the step treads as they enter the bus. Bill Dyer, president of Lighthouse International in Spokane, Wash., says mass transit buses have been using heated stepwells for the past 10 years, and the drivers and managers note the reduced number of slips and falls in inclement weather. "It has cut down on lawsuits and liability claims from people slipping on steps," he explains.
The Warm Welcome product is a silicone rubber-insulated heater that is installed beneath the treads of the bus steps. The heated mat immediately melts snow and ice from the steps, in temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Dyer says the product is either thermostatically controlled or operated from a dash switch and can be ordered with a new bus or retrofitted. "Typically on a retrofit, you just pull up the tread and put the heater underneath, like a sand-wich," says Dyer. "Then you wire it up, and wiring isn't a problem. We send schematics if the mechanics want them."
Dyer says Lighthouse International offers heaters of all sizes for all makes of stepwells and features units that are compatible with rubber or plastic flooring. "We have 75 different models, and they typically start at just below $100 per unit," he says. The life of the heated stepwells has proven to be well over five years, according to Dyer. Blue Bird has been installing heated stepwells since 1992.
Keeping the windows clear of ice and snow is essential, and two products that make that possible are airfoils and heated windshield wipers. Pete Saucier, transportation director for Maine School Administrative District 27 in Fort Kent, Maine, contends with snow for almost six months out of the year. He is now spec'ing every bus with an airfoil for clearing the back windows. The product, manufactured by See II Corp. in Darby, Mont., is useful on snow and ice and can also be used to clear dust or calcium from windows. "It mounts onto the back of the school bus — right over the rear door — and extends above the roof," he says. "As the bus is driving down the road, it picks up air from the roof and turns it down to sweep the back windows of the bus."
Saucier says he immediately noticed a change after installing the products on his buses. "I've noticed a big difference on the buses that have it on the same routes as those that don't," he says. Saucier says the airfoils cost about $250, spec'd with the bus. They can also be retrofitted. "Once it's mounted, there's no maintenance to it," he adds. "It needs to be properly adjusted, and once it is, there is no reason you have to tend to it at all."
Heated windshield wipers melt snow and ice from the window and prevent wiper freeze-up. Thermoblade wipers, made by Specialty Mfg. in Pineville, N.C., have a continuous heater built into the wiper's blade and frame and can reach tempera-tures in excess of 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Thermoblades are available in four sizes, ranging from 16 inches to 24 inches in length.