You can't control Mother Nature, but you can take preventative actions to minimize the impact of snow and ice. With nearly four decades of experience, Randy Strait, owner of Arctic Snow & Ice Control Inc. in Bradley, Ill., knows a thing or two about life as a snow removal contractor.

He offers the following advice for hiring a reliable winter-maintenance partner.

1) Find a full-time fighter. A company that's 100% committed to snow removal can respond at a moment's notice for the entire season: Nov. 1 to April 15.

Most part-time snow contractors offer snow removal to keep equipment and staff busy during slow winter months. While such a service may cost less, your community could be without adequate coverage during early spring when the weather seems to be improving.

"If warm temperatures get them pulling their equipment away to other things, your operation can be left in a lurch in a surprise event," says Strait. "We all know how quickly the weather can change."

Ultimately, the decision to go with a full-time or part-time snow removal company depends on your community's needs and expectations.

2) Know what you're getting. After deciding whether your community needs a full- or part-time commitment, you have three types of contractors to choose from depending on the level of service required and budget limitations.

A snow removal company plows and - especially important for congested communities with limited storage space - removes snow. The company hauls piles away in large trucks or brings in heavy-duty snow melters; and can clear and salt sidewalks and pedestrian areas as well.

Because of the service level provided, this is often the most expensive option. But the professionalism, reliability, thoroughness, and peace of mind these contractors bring to the table make them worth every penny.

A snowplow company, on the other hand, provides similar but less thorough service. Many are full-time, dedicated contractors with their own equipment and personnel, but they don't remove snow.

A snow management company differs completely from the first two options. Rather than owning equipment and hiring staff to service customers, these companies subcontract out their client accounts to smaller, third-party entities. Snow management companies are often located hundreds, even thousands, of miles from the client's property.

Because these companies have minimal overhead costs, they offer very low rates. You'll have no say in which subcontractor is hired for your community, so there's some risk involved.

"It's not unusual for a big company to subcontract jobs to other businesses that sometimes turn around and produce a third-generation contract," Strait explains. "Each step separates the business farther from the work they want done, and the quality often diminishes with each subcontract."

3) Ask for proof of insurance. The burden of a slip-and-fall claim almost always rests solely on the contractor, so make sure whomever you hire has adequate insurance. If the contractor has been negligent in obtaining liability insurance and can't afford to pay a claim, your operation's the next target for remuneration.

For additional protection, look for a contractor that maintains electronic job tickets with GPS tracking. This provides a level of insurance if your operation becomes the target of a lawsuit even after several years. If the contractor's maintained impeccable records and is deposed, it'll be easy to prove your agency wasn't at fault.

4) Find a well-prepared contractor. Any contractor is more than just a machine and plow. Equipment quality has a huge impact on efficiency and effectiveness.

Plowing boils down to one key factor: the plow itself. Ask to see the potential contractor's equipment or, better yet, have the company demonstrate its equipment. This is a great opportunity to be sure the plow does a superior job of pushing snow and scraping compact snow and ice clear down to the pavement.

The equipment's scraping ability reduces expenses for you and your contractor because minimal salt will be required. This is especially important where temperatures rarely rise above single digits - or above zero for that matter.

"Salt is most effective at about 20° F and above," Strait explains. "And sun activates salt, so you're looking for some specific, ideal conditions if you must apply salt." Banking on salt as an effective backup is a mistake, and all the more reason to look for a company with effective plows.

Then there's the equipment powering the plow. Ask if the contractor rents or owns. A company that owns its equipment has full control over it in the event of maintenance, repair, or complete replacement.

"A contractor that rents equipment is at the mercy of the rental center if something goes wrong," Strait says. "He could be held up for days waiting for a piece of equipment to be repaired. If he's a one-man operation running a single skidsteer, his entire operation is stalled."

Finally, find out how many people the prospective contractor employs and how many other clients it has. If possible, obtain references.

Does the company handle accounts efficiently and promptly? Or does it appear to be in over its head, struggling to keep up with the work?

Being able to provide professional, dependable service is a hallmark of a truly reliable contractor, so choose a company with the resources to take on another account.

5) Write multiple-year contracts with 30-day cancellation option. Along with reliability, trust is a major component of the client/service provider relationship. When it's 4 a.m. and a blizzard has just dumped a foot of snow on your streets, it's not enough to simply hope the contractor will honor his commitment and show up to work.

Ideally, plan out three to five years when hiring a contractor. Owners and supervisors will become familiar with your community's routes and be more likely to buy specialty equipment for a particular need when there's a long-term investment and good working relationship.

On the flip side, you can get yourself into trouble by signing a long-term contract only to find out the relationship isn't a good fit. To avoid this, have a 30-day cancellation notice due to poor service written into the contract.

By spending the time to research and check qualifications, you can keep snow and ice from cutting into your operation's effectiveness. PW

- Randy Strait (randy@arcticsnowandice.com) is President of Arctic Snow and Ice Control Products, Bradley, Ill.