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How Snow Makers Work

By: Tom Harris & Talon Homer  | 

Costs of Snow-making

Fichtelberg Ski Resort, adjust snow cannon
An employee of the Oberwiesenthal lift company adjusts a snow cannon on the slope of the Fichtelberg Ski Resort, Saxony, Germany, 2022. Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images

To cover several ski trails with machine-made snow, you need a lot of water. According to SMI Snow Makers, it takes about 75,000 gallons (285,000 liters) of water to create a 6-inch (15-centimeter) blanket of snow covering a 200 x 200 foot (61 x 61 meter) area. The system in a good-sized ski slope can convert 5,000 gallons (18,927 liters) of water to snow every minute! The fluid is pumped up from nearby sources like lakes and reservoirs.

SMI states that about 80 percent of this water ends up running back to its original source, making the process pretty efficient. Draining too much water at once from reservoirs can however have adverse effects on the marine fauna living in them, so water levels should be carefully managed.

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A significant environmental concern, and one of a resort's biggest expenses, is power consumption. If a slope uses compressed air in its snow guns, it has to provide a lot of energy to run the large air-compressing pumps. It also needs a pump system to provide the water to the snow makers. These pumps are often run by diesel engines, which expel a high level of air pollution.

Modern resorts have taken to installing airless fan guns for increased efficiency. According to the Snow Valley Mountain Resort, these machines consume about 70 percent less power compared to the old compressor designs. Even with technological advances, snowmakers still take a lot more energy to do the job than natural clouds do. Vail Resorts, which operates 17 ski lodges around the United States, estimated its total power consumption to be 310,000-megawatt hours in 2019. That's the equivalent of about 30,000 U.S. households. To lower the associated costs, many skiing destinations have turned to wind turbines and solar panels to sustainably produce energy on-site.

Because of the expense of making snow, ski resorts have to develop a good strategy for when and where they are going to use their machines. A lot of the work involved in snow-making is the task of balancing the cost of running the machines with the benefits of extending the ski season. Efficient snow-makers make sure they don't waste power making snow where it won't do any good, and they are very careful to make snow only when it will stick around.

As we've seen, snow-makers have to take many variables into account to cover a slope with ideal skiing snow. The idea behind machine-made snow is extremely simple; but actually getting it to work effectively is quite a feat. As professional snow manager Brenden Ryan told Freeskier magazine, "Many snow-makers describe the job as a challenging marriage of science and art — the basic elements are precise weather measurements and expensive machinery, but you need instinct, improvisation and creativity to get it exactly right."

Snow Maker FAQ

Do snow machines make real snow?
A traditional gun-style snow maker produces water droplets by combining cooled water and compressed air.
How do ski resorts get snow?
These days, sn­ow-making machines are standard equipment in the vast majority of ski resorts around the world.
Can you make snow in warm weather?
Snow-making machines can allow you to create snow in warmer weather. However, like nature-made snow, if the weather conditions are too warm or too humid, any snow created will melt.
Can you rent a snow maker?
Companies do rent out snow makers, or offer to bring snow-making machines to your location, for a price.
At what temperature can snow be made?
Natural snow forms at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

Originally Published: Dec 6, 2000

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