Snow-melt systems enable elementary students to use school playgrounds during the snowy Colorado winter.

Strawberry Park Elementary School in Steamboat Springs, Colo., has a snow-melt system installed under 9,600 sq. ft. of its playground. Photos courtesy of Playground Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

The average snowfall in Steamboat Springs, Colo., is 350 inches. But Colorado winters are different than winters in the Midwest and Northeast. In the afternoons, the sun comes out, the temperature warms up and school kids are out playing in the snow wearing very little winter gear in the middle of January. Most people in the community spend a lot of time outdoors in the winter.

But slipping and sliding around melting snow can be dangerous. Students at the city’s two elementary schools -Strawberry ParkandSoda Creek- are now able to play safely at recess during the snowy winter months with the installation of snow-melt systems underneath two of the school district’s playgrounds.

The Steamboat Springs School District is comprised of 2,600 students and 300 employees in five buildings - two elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools. The idea for adding snow melt to the playgrounds came from the parents of two handicapped students, saysPascal Ginesta, director of maintenance, operations and transportation for the school district. Before joining the school district four years ago, Ginesta worked for a local construction company and was a project manager on the Strawberry Park and Soda Creek playground projects.

Shelly St. Pierre and Julie Taulman formed Let’s All Play to raise funds for playgrounds at the elementary schools that would be accessible year-round to all children, including those with disabilities, reports Steamboat Today. The wooden playground at Strawberry Park was more than 20 years old and falling apart, and a playground wasn’t planned for the new Soda Creek school.

In 2008, the school district approved the plans for the barrier-free playgrounds. Let’s All Play raised about $950,000 through Education Fund Board contributions, grants, the school district, and in-kind and cash donations for the construction.

This second playground at Strawberry Park Elementary does not have a snow-melt system installed. 

Year-round accessibility

Community volunteers assembled some of the playground equipment before the concrete pad was poured. Local contractor Aspen Grove Mechanical installed the Uponor snow- and ice-melting systems, which include 3/4 in. multilayer composite tubing. MLC tubing features an interior aluminum tubing sandwiched between two layers of PEX.

The snow-melted area for the playgrounds is 9,600 sq. ft. at Strawberry Park Elementary and 9,300 sq. ft. at Soda Creek Elementary. The snow-melt system for each playground was installed the same as any sidewalk or driveway system, except that a recycled tire surface was placed over the system to provide cushioning for playing kids.

A Laars natural gas boiler with water lines provides the warm water that circulates through the MLC tubing and melts snow and ice on the playgrounds. The system is activated from strategically placed sensors that detect falling snow and turn the boiler on, then turn the boiler off when snow stops falling. That means the system only runs during snowfall, Ginesta explains, so snow never accumulates.

“Some people have a misconception about snow-melt sytems - they think they run all the time,” he says.

A Laars natural gas boiler with water lines provides the warm water that circulates through the multilayer composite tubing and melts snow and ice on the playgrounds.

The community dedicated the two playgrounds in September 2009. After three winters, the systems have been trouble-free for the school district. “The kids love it and the teachers love it,” Ginesta says.

About four years ago, Peak Mechanical installed a snow-melt system to the sidewalks at the middle school. And during the summer of 2011, Aspen Grove Mechanical installed snow melt under the sidewalks and the front area of Strawberry Park Elementary.

“Adding snow melt to the sidewalks is not inexpensive,” Ginesta says, “but when I look at the big picture, such as what it costs to have someone shovel, the snow-melt system does a much better job. The sidewalks - and the two playgrounds - are completely clear of snow. I have no more slip-and-falls, no more workers’ comp claims and the concrete lasts longer. I try to give a bigger-picture look when people ask me how expensive is it to run. The way I see it, it saves me money.”

One lesson Ginesta did learn was to remove the sensors from the kids’ traffic patterns. When students would walk across the snow-melted areas with snow on their shoes or boots, the sensors would turn on the boiler.

“One beautiful sunny day I noticed the boiler was running,” he recalls. “The sidewalks were dry but the boiler was running. I finally figured out it was the kids walking on the sidewalks and playgrounds with snow on their shoes.”