It’s the most expansive municipally owned snowmelt system in North America.
Recently, a Facebook post from a popular national page drew attention to the West Michigan community of Holland. The post claimed: “The city of Holland, Michigan has 168 miles of tubing coiled underneath its streets circulating hot water in order to melt any snow on the ground.”
Naturally skeptical, I had to fact-check it. And with a few minor discrepancies—the tubing runs for 22 more miles than the post claimed, and the system covers sidewalks, streets, and even parking lots—the rest all checks out.
Holland calls it their “snowmelt system.” And although similar ideas exist elsewhere, this West Michigan city on the shore has the largest municipally owned snowmelt system in the continent.
The science of how it works is actually pretty cool. When surplus heat is created during the process of generating electricity, it’s stored in water that flows through huge pipes to downtown. At 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the warm water is redirected through 190 miles of tubes that run underneath Holland’s downtown sidewalks and streets.
As a result, the sidewalks and streets are warm enough to melt snow at a rate of an inch an hour. For a place that receives six feet of snowfall a year, you can see how that would make a difference during winter-time.
The infrastructure dates back to 1988 and, true to the town’s name, derives from a European model. A local businessman pitched the idea as a way to draw more people downtown during winter months. The idea caught steam in the community, eventually earning the necessary political approval.
What started with three blocks has grown to 4.9 surface miles, mainly around the downtown corridor. And a new clean-energy power plant that opened in 2017 means that the system could expand further, with the capacity to quintuple in size. The same infrastructure also has alternative uses, including the ability to heat buildings.
For this reason, the city considers the system cost-effective and good for the environment—reducing the reliance on snow plows, reusing wastewater and excess heat, and recycling it all under the city’s sidewalks and streets.