We Survived a Charleston Snow Day

It began on a Wednesday afternoon – most of Charleston was home from work and school, anticipating a historic weather event. What started as freezing rain became snowfall flurries, then a bit of a blizzard. It has been nearly thirty years since we’ve experienced this sort of thing, so we enjoyed the novelty of it. And there is truth to the concern that because a Charleston snow to this degree is so rare, the combination of limited removal ability and inexperienced drivers tends to shut down the city.

Park Circle snow on East Montague Avenue
📷: Laura Cannon

Here in Park Circle we were blanketed with five inches of powdery fluff, and some areas saw quite a bit more. This is about in line with similar snowfalls in the past, including 5.6″ in February 1973, and 6.0″ in December 1989 (that was a rough year). So, now that we’ve established that it does actually happen, there are a few things to consider about winter storms in the Lowcountry.

The Roads Generally Become Unsafe

I’ve seen Boston in such a shape that looked like another planet. I’m not convinced that Buffalo isn’t another planet. But when a storm dumps several feet of snow, those cities have the infrastructure to deal with it. The roads of the Lowcountry, however, can be shut down by not just major snowfall, but also by significant ice events – these occur more frequently, and never without snickering by our friends from the North. The winter storm infrastructure we have is modest, and most would agree that it’s rather sufficient considering the rarity of such events – for caution and safety we typically close roads for a day or two, and are back up and running in no time.

In a Charleston snow or ice event, the biggest priority is the bridges – sometimes we take for granted how many there are until they all shut down! During the peak of the ice and snow event last week, that’s what happened – and SCDOT was working diligently to quickly de-ice them. More than 280,000 gallons of salt brine solution was sprayed onto bridges and roads across the state, along with calcium chloride, salt, and sand to control the ice. This worked well for the primary roads, however neighborhood and city streets remained slushy on Friday when many of us returned to business. By Monday, temperatures were in the 60s – think snow cones in summertime.

Get Ready for Power Bill Shock

Home heating systems in temperate climates such as the South Carolina Lowcountry generally fall into one of two categories: a natural gas furnace or an electric heat pump. While the gas furnace produces a warming hot heat, many homes do not have this feature, even if natural gas is available in the neighborhood. Instead, the efficiency of the electric heat pump is found in many homes – particularly newer, very energy efficient builds. In these well-insulated homes, an electric heat pump is far more efficient than the gas furnace in maintaining a comfortable temperature, working by extracting heat from the outside air even when it’s quite cold. However, that’s the catch: when the temperature outside drops, so does the efficiency of the electric heat pump. 

Heat Pump in snow

As a backup plan for very cold days, the system kicks on its heat strips – like a big whole-house space heater, often indicated by “Aux Heat” on the thermostat. It’s much less efficient than even the natural gas furnace, but it works in a pinch. Besides, how many days of the year will those heat strips kick on? Well, probably enough for one big electric bill for January, but it’s often ideal for mild winter days.

As for those with a natural gas furnace, we too will see a sizable bump in our wintertime power bills. While our furnace knocks the cold out of the house without breaking a sweat, it’s typically less efficient at maintaining a warm temperature than a heat pump (although many new models are quite efficient – best of both worlds). The gas fires up several times throughout the day, but our Nest thermostat has been a great for moderating its use.

Charlestonians Will Make the Most of It

Five Inches of Snow in Park Circle
📷: Bryan McElveen

For us, we sat by the big picture window and really enjoyed the sight of the serene snowfall, enjoying hot cocoa and red wine while burning through Netflix and HBO GO as if our Internet connection may drop at any moment (and for a few unfortunate souls, it did). We enjoyed the dogs as they experienced the apocalyptic wonderland, frolicking in the wide open field of snow oblivious that a roadway existed below.

Others broke out the snow gear, as we were treated to photos of residents on skis at the Battery, and probably the most Charleston snow scenes: snowboarders and skiers being pulled behind a golf carts and Jeeps!

All in all, it brought us together – mostly within a quarter mile radius because not much driving or bicycling happened. Neighbors checked in on each other, built weird snowpeople that vanished into a mound of vegetables within a couple days, and trekked down to the local pub together when the cabin fever began to set in hard.

Also…

I Shoveled Snow for the First Time

This was not on my 2018 bucket list.

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