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Ski Season’s Annual Opening Day Gamble

The Snowfactory narrows the odds

Mother Nature has always been unpredictable when it comes to delivering snow to ski resorts, and global warming has made it next to impossible to set season opening dates with any degree of accuracy. However, there is a solution that has been used in Europe for several years and is beginning to make its mark on North America as ski resorts broaden their search for ways to survive the later and decreasing winter snowfalls.

The Snowfactory, developed by TechnoAlpin SpA in Bolzano, Italy, with U.S. headquarters in Denver, Colo., is growing in use around the world as it proves its ability to deliver huge quantities of excellent, longer-lasting snow wherever and whenever it’s needed to get ski areas open on time.

Housed in an insulated 40-foot shipping container mounted on a flatbed trailer, the Snowfactory’s efficient heat exchanger cools water to the freezing point. Charged with a refrigerant that stays in a closed and separate circuit, the unit makes large, clean ice chips without any chemical additives. A blower sends the resulting “snow” through a six-inch plastic rigid or segmented hose to create snow piles that will melt about two-thirds slower than natural snow under warm conditions.

The real beauty of this system is that the Snowfactory can produce snow at temperatures up to 86°F (30°C) and with even greater efficiency if the mercury falls below 59°F (15°C). Converting 11 gallons of water into snow every minute, the Snowfactory can make two tons of snow in just one hour. This snowmaking capability allows ski resorts to open at predictable and earlier dates than ever before.

Garrett Will, Western US sales manager for TechnoAlpin said, “The Snowfactory increases the planning security for resorts all over the world and will complement selected aspects of the systems.

It is ideal for relatively small sections at ski resorts, especially for the most neuralgic points such as slopes that are supposed to open earlier or slopes that are especially important for the resort.

“Besides providing snow for slope sections, it is particularly suitable for events of all kinds, indoor and outdoor alike, such as snowboarding events, ski races in big cities, and Nordic centers, which are often located at lower altitudes. Also, we are noticing an increased interest for a variety of fun and entertainment applications. We have different types and models available and are able to offer a suitable solution for every field of application. We are proud to be a partner of the Biathlon World

Championships 2020, where our Snowfactory will provide the requested snow guarantee,” said Will.

The Snowfactory, Underwriters Laboratories- and “Conformite Europeenne”-certified, can be installed more or less anywhere in the world, and is currently in use all over Europe, Asia, Australia, and now in the United States.

“I look at this kind of snowmaking as a necessity for any resort these days because with global warming, you just can’t rely on Mother Nature anymore.”

Ken Marlatt, Ski Apache

Battling decreasing snowfalls that are arriving at ever-later dates, Ski Apache, a ski resort in south central New Mexico, on the slopes of the Sierra Blanca Mountains and is owned and operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe, is using the Snowfactory for the first time this 2019-20 season.

Ken Marlatt is the director of operations at Ski Apache and he’s excited about the opportunities the Snowfactory is bringing to the resort. “We’re the most southern major ski resort in the U.S., so we’ve had to learn to make snow under extremely difficult conditions. We got our Snowfactory in the second week of October [2019] and one week later we were making snow.”

Marlatt says that the resort chose the Snowfactory over other similar technologies because it was the first to bring that technology together into one effective piece of snowmaking equipment that can make snow at almost any temperature; it’s been around for the longest time and has proven to be effective.

“More are being used in Europe because over there the much larger ski resort areas make it more affordable at the beginning. Currently there are only two units in the U.S.; we have one, as well as Lake Placid in New York, which is used for Olympians to train on at Mount van Hoevenberg’s Olympic Nordic trail,” Marlatt said.

“I look at this kind of snowmaking as a necessity for any resort these days because with global warming, you just can’t rely on Mother Nature anymore. At Ski Apache, we’ve organized our Snowfactory to produce a bigger chip of snow, a bigger crystal than what is used in conventional snowmaking. Basically, we make piles of this heavier snow to utilize its insulating value, and then we ‘connect the dots’ with our fleet of large snow groomers giving us a stronger, hardier base able to handle the temperature swings we often get here in southern New Mexico. We still have conventional snowmaking with a lighter crystal that spreads over a greater area, but it can’t hold up to the sudden warmer temperatures.”

At Ski Apache, the Snowfactory will be primarily used to establish a snow base at the bottom of the mountain as this area opens first and needs the thickest base to make the season last into April.

Marlatt says that in covering the resort’s lower run, Easy Street, the Snowfactory provided almost four acres of coverage in only five weeks.

“The installation time depends on the version,” Will said. “The mobile model of the Snowfactory arrives ready-for-operation in a container. After establishing connections to electricity and a water supply, snow can be generated immediately. Our team is usually on-side for a couple of days to do the installation and train the customer. For larger installations, the situation is a bit different. There we will need about two weeks for installation and training.”

TechnoAlpin’s Snowfactory support starts with a detailed planning and consulting process to find the best solution for each customer because every mountain is different. Experts help their customers determine which system technology and dimension will be right for their needs. The TechnoAlpin Academy offers a wide variety of training opportunities at their offices or on site along with any needed after-sales service with technicians available 24/7 during the winter months.

Marlatt says that the Snowfactory operates continually, even overnight, and usually only requires one operator. “As well, I can check up on it using my phone, my computer or our cam system – it’s very easy to monitor.”

The biggest benefits of the Snowfactory are its ability to give a reliable independence from temperatures and snowfall, accompanied with short installation times. However, as Will said, “Traditional snowmaking systems that benefit from cold temperatures to freeze the water are much more energy efficient because with the Snowfactory, we need energy to reach that freezing point.

This is one of the reasons why we see the Snowfactory not as a substitute, but rather as a supplemental snowmaking solution.”

At Ski Apache, Marlatt has no doubts that installing the Snowfactory was the correct move for them. “From a marketing standpoint, the Snowfactory is worth its weight in gold. We have people coming up from Mexico to see snow when it’s 70 to 80 degrees [Fahrenheit]. And this season, for the first time in years, we successfully opened on Thanksgiving weekend thanks to Snowfactory and the four acres of snow it delivered for us!”

The long-term trend for natural snowfall is towards declining levels as our climate continues to grow warmer; affecting the ability of resorts and ski areas to operate conventional snowmaking equipment and anticipate an opening date for the season. The Snowfactory offers an efficient and effective answer to this problem that is being faced by ski resorts and areas around the world.