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How does Concord pick up 2,500 tons of leaves? Very systematically

Last modified: 11/14/2015 12:39:40 AM
It’s the time of year when the huge piles of leaves that line the streets of Concord slowly disappear, almost like magic.

Except that it’s definitely not magic.

“You feel every muscle at the end of the day,” said Kevin Rowell, one of six men working on a Concord crew picking up leaves on Winant and Rundlett streets in the city’s South End recently.

The crews started working last week and for the next six weeks or so, up to four crews will be out every day, collecting leaves along the city’s 220 miles of maintained streets. The leaves, which homeowners have moved to the edge of the road, are deposited at five locations throughout Concord, on city-owned land and a few private farms.

Concord uses vacuums contained in large trailers hauled behind six- or 10-wheel trucks. One person drives, inching the truck along at a few miles per hour; one person swings the 16-inch diameter hose, which dangles from the right side of the trailer; and the rest rake leaves into the long piles called windrows, accessible to the pipe’s limited reach. The crew, which starts work at 6:30 a.m., switches jobs throughout the day.

The vacuum system, unusual if not unique among New Hampshire cities, speeds the process of leaf collection but doesn’t make it effortless, as this reporter found when taking a turn. Even with the motorized assist, keeping the hose swinging a few inches off the ground requires a constant bending and moving that takes a toll – although no more of a toll than raking, of course.

What really takes a toll, however, is where those piles of leaves are placed and what’s in them.

“It can’t be too far from the road, we don’t want to drive onto the lawn,” said Kevin Demers, city highway system supervisor. “Some people love to leave a big pile in front of the home, but that’s problematic for us. If people cooperate, put windrows along the edge of the road, it goes much faster.”

Anything other than leaves in the pile can snarl the collection and mulching system, which grinds up leaves to reduce their volume and thus the number of trips that the truck must make to each deposit site. The inserts placed inside city trucks to handle leaves are not wood chippers, and can’t handle anything much bigger than twigs.

“If we come to a pile full of branches, we’re not going to deal with it. It just takes too much time,” Demers said.

It’s not just branches that crews encounter: “We might get a pumpkin.”

Harry Lewis of Lewis Farm in the South End, who gets “about 300 tons” of leaves from the city each year for composting, said he finds a lot more stuff than that.

“I get a tremendous amount of tennis balls. I bet I get 100 or 200 of them a year. . . . Hockey pucks, and an awful lot of bottles and cans,” he said.

But that’s not the worst, not by a long shot.

“As soon as we vacuum up dog feces, it gets airborne and the whole neighborhood stinks,” Rowell said, as the rest of the crew grimaced in agreement.

“Dog waste is a problem, with people cleaning out their backyards, raking it all” to the curb, Demers said. “There are some hot spots, that’s all you smell.”

Moisture is another issue. As we all know, wet leaves are much heavier, so a rainy autumn can slow the process enormously. On the other hand, too little rain is also a problem.

“If it’s really dry, you get a real dust cloud” as the mulcher works, Demers said. “There are times when we’ve had to go around and wet down some piles, to hold down the dust.”

Then there was last year’s Thanksgiving snowstorm, which fell when many streets still had leaf piles, freezing them to the ground. It slowed collection almost to a halt, much to the vocal dismay of some residents, because the city sometimes had to bring in front-end loaders to scrape up the leaves.

“We did our last pick-up on Christmas Eve,” Demers recalled.

Carl Whittier, who has worked for the city for 42 years, remembers how decades ago, leaves were collected as part of the twice-annual pick-up, when the city would haul off anything you could drag to the curb, even bulk items like mattresses.

“We’d take anything. It all went to the city landfill,” he said. “That was a long time ago.”

These days, leaves don’t end up in a landfill but turn into compost at five spots around the city, designed to reduce the distance trucks have to travel from collection sites.

One location is the city-owned earth materials storage site at Fort Eddy Road, which has been managed for seven years by Gelinas Excavation. There the leaves are piled into massive mounds, 30 feet tall or more, which are so huge that the process of turning them to aerate the piles and speed decomposition must be done by excavators – not even front-end loaders are up to the task.

These leaf mountains are so big the heat generated by natural decomposition of organic material can become astonishing, generating steam even when the weather is warm.

“Look at this,” said Dan Gelinas, co-owner with Jennifer Gelinas, holding up a phone with photographs he had taken from the cab of an excavator. “Look at the steam! I had to stop because I lost sight of the machine. . . . And it was warm that day.”

Foxes regularly come out of the woods and relax atop the warmth of the mounds, and in the spring turtles lay their eggs in them, said Jennifer Gelinas – despite the fact that decomposing leaves can be, shall we say, aromatic.

“Turning it; oh, what a stinky job. You can’t believe the smell,” she said.

Leaves are also taken to private locations, including Brochu Nurseries and Lewis Farm in the South End, where city trucks deposit them in long, neat windrows at the request of owner Harry Lewis.

“We compost them, use most of it in our greenhouses or in the field. We sell about 40 percent,” Lewis said.

Lewis turns his compost piles “maybe 13 or 14 times a year” using a 12-foot-long turner that hooks to the back of a tractor that runs at 2,400 rpm.

“I’ve been doing it for, I don’t know, probably 20 years anyway,” he said. Like many farmers, he has a compost recipe – “I add maybe some horse manure, chicken manure, some grass.”

Meanwhile, back on the streets, leaf collection will continue for weeks. And those doing the work face one more obstacle: leaves of their own back home.

“Most of us own leaf blowers,” Rowell admitted. “We’re sick of raking.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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