Snowmelting, Turfwarming and the Snows of December

It was Thursday, and the groundskeepers were getting the place ready for a game that was, in the minds of most of the locals, bigger than Bunker Hill. Pats vs. Dolphins, and a savage December Nor’easter was churning its way up the coast, which was just fine with the New England Patriot fans. Let’s see how the Miami team deals with a couple of feet of snow and a gale-force wind. I was in a big, warm room, 80 feet above the 50-yard line, with 170 guys who had shown up for a GasNetworks seminar I was doing. The weather was still fine, colder than Pluto, but fine. It smelled like money. The groundskeepers were taking the tarp off the field now.

“I think they’ll have to sod it before Sunday,” one of the contractors said to me. “I’ve got season tickets and this place was really torn up after the last game. There’s no way that field is in good shape. No way.”

Three groundskeepers, all strong young men, walked to the sideline and picked up handfuls of tarp. They turned toward the other sideline and took off like a team of Clydesdales, peeling the pieces of tarp off the field like skin off a potato.

“It takes them 12 hours to get this job done,” the contractor said. “The tarp up, and the lines down, I mean. That’s something you never give much thought to when you’re watching the game on Sunday. These guys really bust it to get the job done on time. They use 200 gallons of paint to get all those lines down. Did you know that?”

“I didn’t,” I said. “Everything about this place is big.”

“Big and important,” he said. “Real important.”

In December 1990, I flew to Stockholm and landed there before dawn, which happens at about 9:30 in the morning in Sweden because it’s so close to the North Pole. I waited for some other people to arrive from their corners of America, and we all got into a car and drove to the city and checked into an old hotel. And that’s when I saw my very first panel radiator. It had tiny, plastic-coated pipes feeding it, and a thermostatic radiator valve, and I had never seen anything like it before. It felt good.

I went out for a walk on the bitter-cold streets of Stockholm later that day, and I saw workmen putting plastic pipe under the stone blocks that made up the sidewalk, and I had no idea what I was seeing because it was 1990, and the concept of melting snow with plastic pipes was not something I had ever considered. I watched them for a good long time, and I wondered. A few days later, I found myself in a town called Västerås. I sat and listened to Mr. Engel talk about the technical journey from polyethylene to what he came to call PEX, and it was a wonderful story. So much of this was brand-new to me back then. And later that day, I walked around the little town that is Västerås in the snows of December and I marveled at how the flakes landed on the sidewalks and the streets and not one of them stuck.

I remember asking a woman how they could afford to melt all that Swedish snow and she said, “If we didn’t do it, people might slip and fall on the ice, and that would be terrible.” And I remember thinking that Sweden is a country with cradle-to-grave socialism, and twelve-dollar beers, and ten-dollar Big Macs, and that everyone there is a little bit crazy because they melt snow. I was so young then.

Last summer, my friend, Matt “Mad Dog” Sweeney, who has more enthusiasm than the entire staff of Disney World, talked to me about a snowmelt project that he had just landed from a wealthy man on Long Island’s Gold Coast. It was Mad Dog’s first, and he wanted some practical guidance from someone who had done a lot of this. I sent him to Mark Eatherton, Colorado Madman, because Mark has done more of this than anyone I know. Mark and Mad Dog emailed each other for a while and then Mad Dog laid his pipe and set his boilers, and then he spent the rest of the summer, and all of the fall, hoping it would work when the time came. And there’s not a person in this business who has ever done snowmelt that didn’t go though this same process. The logical mind just doesn’t believe any of this is possible.

They kept peeling off that tarp at Gillette Stadium, two days ahead of the big game with Miami, and when they got to the middle of the field, the part that had been chewed to pieces two weeks earlier in a football war, they pulled back the tarp to reveal summer-green grass that needed a good mowing. My jaw dropped. And I smiled.

There are 38 miles of radiant tubing under the field at Gillette Stadium. It’s not there to melt snow; it’s there to keep the roots warm so that the grass will do what it had done during the previous two weeks, which is to think that it’s July. The tarp, I learned, is a solar tarp, and it helps as well, but it’s the warm roots that really get the job done. A guy came out on a mower and rode for a few hours.

We got a tour of the mechanicals at Gillette that day. Everything there is big. There are three boilers, each pounding out 8.5 million BTUH. The pumps were moving 2,700 GPM at 125 feet of head over to the flat-plate heat exchangers and DHW bayonet heaters. It’s all so big there, but it’s not at all complicated. In the mountains of Colorado, in a place they call Copper, there’s a ski resort that has an area that’s bigger than the field at Gillette Stadium. No snow ever sticks to the streets of Copper. There’s so much large-diameter PEX under that place that I’m told the contractor actually ran the manufacturer out of all the supplies in all of the United States of America while the project was going on. It, too, is big, and it, too, made me smile.

When I was done with the seminar at Gillette, I stayed overnight and set out for the Isle of Long the next day. Normally, it’s a four-hour drive, but it took me 10 hours that day because of the snow, which was plentiful. We wound up with about 18 inches at home. The next morning, I checked the Wall at to see what was going on, and there was Mad Dog Sweeney in a color, digital photo, standing on that driveway up there on the Gold Coast of the Isle of Long, and looking like the King of the World. There was 18 inches of snow on the ground, but not a flake on that driveway he had wondered about for six months. And I knew that he now owned the snowmelt, and that it would never again cause him to doubt. He was standing on that clear driveway on the most miserable day of the year, and he was smiling.

I couldn’t believe my eyes in December of 1990 when I watched them lay that pipe in Stockholm, and when I walked the snow-free streets of Västerås. Back then, I never imagined we’d someday be doing this in America, but it’s becoming commonplace now, and more and more people are believing in the potential of hydronics, not only to warm us, but also to keep us safe on our roads and sidewalks.

The Pats kicked the snot out of the Dolphins. The field was a muddy mess by the time they were finished. They had put the tarp back down after the lines went down on that previous Thursday, and I’ll bet you they ran the turf-warming system all the while it was snowing on Saturday, even though you’re not supposed to. I’ll bet they did anyway.

On that same Sunday, I shoveled snow from our driveway and panted like an old dog. I longed for a snowmelt system, and I dreamed of Västerås. I thought about how far we’ve all come, and I thought about all the places we have yet to go. Can’t wait.

Dan Holohan

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