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Holland, Mich.: Snowmelt capital of the USA?

Holland, Mich., has the largest system snowmelt system for roads and sidewalks in the US. The concept is based on similar technology used in some European countries and has been adopted, to a more limited extent, in some other US cities. 

Citizens of one US city walked unimpeded (largely) this winter thanks to a city-wide snowmelt system. Blankets of freshly laid snow immediately met heated sidewalks and roads. The result was an ice and snow free path to anywhere within the 405,000 square-foot downtown.

The luxurious technology may conjure images of metropolis New York, urban Chicago, or the capital streets of Washington D.C., but Americans looking for ice-free roads would do better in Holland, Mich., whose website boasts the "largest municipally-owned snowmelt system in the United States."

And rather than installing the expensive electric coil heatings systems that keep the sidewalks in front of New York's luxury apartment buildings clear, Holland's system uses heated wastewater from a nearby power plant that would have otherwise been pumped in to a lake.

A 6-mile network of thin tubes installed just below the surface of sidewalks and roads keeps the pavement warm enough to melt one inch of snow per hour in 15-20 degree temperatures, according to the Holland Board of Public Works.

The system was installed in 1988, during a construction period that saw most of the downtown roads and sidewalks already torn up. The city leadership began thinking about installing a heating system that could help melt snow, but there was little information about the technology in America.

“Back in 1988, when the idea was first launched, it was rocket science to us,” Former Holland Mayor Al McGeehan, who was a city councilman in 1988, told Michigan Radio on Tuesday. “We didn’t know anything about it. It had never been done before in the United States. We had no idea, number one, how it worked, how we could hook it up to our power plant. We had no idea how much it was going to cost to create, and the biggest question was, how much is it going to cost to operate it and maintain it?”

The system costs the city about $30,000-$35,000 during a typical winter, Downtown Manager Dana Kollewehr told The Grand Rapids Press in 2014, though unusually cold winters have brought unexpectedly high costs.

The city has expanded the system several times since the first pipes were installed, and now 10.5 acres worth of sidewalks and roads remain snow- and ice-free.

“Windy conditions may slow the process, but for the most part, the system works just as designed,” Downtown Holland states.

Similar systems have been adopted in other cities around the United States. Oak Park, Ill., near Chicago, heats it's downtown sidewalks. Luxury hotels and businesses in New York are also installing heating below sidewalks leading up to their entrances.

The technology is more prevalent, but still rare, in Europe. Iceland uses geothermal heat to warm public sidewalks in Reykjavík and Akureyri. Oslo, Norway also has a majority of public sidewalks heated, according to Conde Nast Traveler.

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