Saskatoon dreams of snow-free sidewalks as council considers controversial plan to heat the pavement

By Joseph Brean, National Post December 16, 2013 - With winter fully arrived, Saskatoon’s city council is to debate Monday an ambitious plan for its downtown core that includes a controversial proposal for heated sidewalks.

“Well, a lot of snow is going to fall in the winter, and Canadians have pretty much been dealing with it in the same manner they have for probably a hundred years, and that is to just simply avoid it, get rid of it, move it somewhere, take it away, get it out of here,” said Alan Wallace, Saskatoon’s director of planning and development.

That is the old way. In its new plan, Saskatoon is looking toward a future in which snow will simply melt away from its prime civic spaces — such as City Hall Square and 21st Street — thanks to pipes under the concrete carrying runoff hot water from building heating systems.

It is a bold vision replete with perils, not least that melted water is likely to refreeze somewhere else in the bitter Prairie cold.

“We haven’t worked out the technical details,” Wallace said. “There’s a lot of things we have to wrestle with here. … We’re going to give it a good college try, that’s for sure.”

He said the overall city plan is well supported on council, and the heated sidewalks are just a small part of it, open to revision. The costs are also unclear. Snow removal would still be needed after storms, he said, but heated sidewalks could melt the trampled remainder.

“We have some people here at the city who think it is a feasible, viable opportunity,” he said.

For example, one restaurant owner wants to extend his new infloor heating to include the sidewalk out front, which could be a model of private-public synergy.

“Every building downtown has a hot water boiler somewhere,” he said, and they drain ultimately into the South Saskatchewan River. “Basically there’s some lost heat there, some lost energy.”

Saskatoon already has heated ramps to parking lots, for example, but those take advantage of gravity, such that melted water runs away. It is less clear how this will work on a more or less flat sidewalk, though Wallace said new sidewalks could divert water toward buildings, where it could drain into existing sewers.

Compared to running a fleet of dump trucks, the project could save money.

“Most people would see [snow] is a little amount of water, and if they realized that, it would seem like a waste to everybody,” Wallace said. “If you really boil it down, it’s just water, and it’s not that much.”

Snow can vary in density, but roughly if you melt newly fallen snow, you get about one-tenth its volume in water. Older snow is more dense, with more water content by volume.

The proposal to heat sidewalks so they melt snow on contact sounds faintly satirical, but it follows other Canadian cities, such as Edmonton, that have pursued them as dreams yet to be realized. Richmond, B.C., even has a pilot project, though its winters hardly compare to Saskatoon’s.

Until 2008, curiously, Wisconsin had banned heated sidewalks since the 1970s energy crisis.

Iceland’s capital Reykjavik has heated sidewalks in broad use, but these take advantage of the volcanic island’s abundant geothermal energy.

“I wouldn’t compare us to Iceland,” Wallace said, and a coastal city whose climate is unlike Saskatoon’s famously dry cold.

It is not the first time Saskatoon has pursued an infrastructure pipe dream. Long-serving Saskatoon mayor Don Atchison, back in 1996 when he was a councillor, proposed an $80-million structure, called the Atreos, that would enclose the downtown core in glass, 10 storeys high at its peak, with “ethnic and pioneer laser shows beamed on the glass after dusk, and themed decor along the street,” according to a news report.

Atchison has since disavowed that idea.

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