Run a Rural Ice Delivery Service

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Surprisingly enough, the process of setting a 300-pound, four-foot-high "ice cube" up on end or down on its side is relatively easy once you learn how . . . there's more skill involved than strength.

You can keep your cool and turn it into green in the heat of summer with a refreshingly profitable home business by running a rural ice delivery service.

In 1964, after many years of factory work, my 62-year-old
father retired . . . and immediately began to look for a
way to make some extra money. And, since Dad had once been
a commercial fisherman and crabber, we decided to break out
his long unused nets and try fishing for our fortunes.
However, when we brought our first day’s catch home and set
about getting it ready for sale, we suddenly realized
that–because the town’s icehouse had closed some
years before–there was no block ice available within
a 20-mile radius!

Well, we quickly reasoned that if we couldn’t get
ice easily, then neither could anyone else in our
community. Fortunately, Dad and I already had a tiny cement
building that we knew stayed pretty cool–in fact,
we’d used it for cold-storing seafood–so we drove to
the nearest operating icehouse, bought our first pickup
load of frozen blocks, and trucked it back home.
Voila! We were icemen running a rural ice delivery service . . . and although our
original plan was to concentrate our efforts on supplying
the area’s sport and commercial anglers, we soon learned
that our small operation could also do a brisk business
servicing restaurants, construction projects, factories,
and dozens of other customers that the nearest big-city
companies didn’t consider worthwhile to handle.

In other words, you’re likely to find plenty of
demand for ice, too, no matter where you live in this
country. And you can start a simple delivery
service–that is, you’d be buying ice from a large
commercial plant and selling it, the same- day, to route
customers–with little more than a pickup or trailer,
some plastic holding tubs, a pair of tongs, and a supply of
business cards!

I know a man in northern Pennsylvania, in fact, who started
just that sort of shoestring operation several years ago.
By keeping his costs to a minimum (he takes orders in
advance and picks up only the amount of ice he knows he’ll
sell during any given day), the fellow has been able to
earn a very good living indeed. Currently, he delivers 70
or so 50-pound containers of ice a day . . . and the three
hours of work required to do that job nets him a hefty $150
to $200 daily!

A BACKYARD ICEHOUSE

Although having your own cold-storage facility at home
isn’t a requirement for getting started in the ice
business, there are advantages to owning such a
building: It does–for example–allow you to keep
an inventory of your product, and that can cut out a lot of
costly trips to your supplier (plus eliminate a good bit of
loading and unloading) . . . and with a little effort, you
can build up a good list of regular walk-in customers as
well as (or instead of, if you wish) a delivery route. So
if you have the time and money to devote to the project,
you should seriously consider buying or building a backyard
icehouse.

I’ve found that prefab models, which are usually made of
sheet metal, range in cost from expensive (at least $1,500
for a 6 foot by 6 foot unit) to very expensive (up to
$5,000 for a 10 foot by 10 foot cooler) . . . and although the price
does include delivery and setup, refrigeration compressors
are extra. What’s more, nearly all the ready mades I’ve seen
are designed strictly for interior use–in a grocery
store’s stockroom, for instance–so if you don’t have
a suitable place to install such a unit, you’d probably
have to add both insulation and exterior weatherproofing
before you could use it outside.

Therefore, I honestly believe you’ll get more value for
your money by building your own icehouse. And you’ll not
only save cash by doing so, but also be able to design,
equip, and insulate the structure as you see fit. In
addition, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in
adding a permanent asset to your business with your own two
hands.

AN INSIDE TIP

I can give you the secret of successful icehouse
construction in just two words: Plan ahead. First,
check out your local building and zoning codes, just to be
sure that what you have in mind is legal, and to see
whether you’ll be expected to meet any special
requirements.

Now, consider three factors before drawing up a set of
plans: the size of the ice blocks produced by your
supplier, the capacity of your truck or trailer, and the
volume of business you anticipate doing (both now and in
the future). These points will help you approximate the
floor space your building should have.

For example, our shed is truly tiny . . . only 6 foot by 7 foot on
the inside, providing us with a scant 42 square feet of
storage area. We buy our ice in 300-pound blocks that
measure roughly 1 foot by 2 foot by 4 foot each, and we stand them on end
so that each cake occupies only two square feet of floor.
The cooler’s total capacity, then, is 21 cakes or
approximately 6,300 pounds.

During our first few years–when we were using our
pickup to haul ice–we could fit only seven of those
300-pounders in the truck’s bed . . . so we always bought a
full load, never a partial one, and knew that our icehouse
held exactly three trips’ worth. Later, however, when our
business began to grow, we bought a stake-body truck that
carries 24 blocks (about 7,200 pounds) . . . which is more
than our little cooler can hold. Therefore, to replenish
our inventory, we must either wait until the stock is
nearly sold out to be able to accommodate close to a full
load, or make frequent (and expensive) half-load trips to
and from the supplier.

If our icehouse were just two feet deeper, we could hold an
additional seven blocks . . . and our problems would be
over! You can see, then, just how important it is to plan
before you build. I’d say that–in general–a
small icehouse should hold a minimum of 9,000 pounds and a
maximum of 15,000 . . . which, given the dimensions of the
blocks sold around here, would require roughly 60 to 100
square feet of floor space. (Remember, though, that the
per-unit size and weight of bulk ice in your area may be
different.)

While you’re still in the planning stages, you may as well
also talk with a heating and cooling contractor about the
possibility of installing a refrigeration compressor in
your icehouse. Now you don’t necessarily need that
equipment right away, but you might want to add it as your
operation grows.

In our early days, before we bought any cooling apparatus,
we could expect–say–15 blocks of ice to melt to
about three-fourths of their original size within three or
four days. That rate of attrition wasn’t
intolerable–in fact, you can expect some
loss
even when using refrigeration equipment–but
within a year or so our business had grown to the point
where we could afford to buy a 1-HP conditioner (today’s
price for a good-quality unit of the same size, new, would
be about $400 to $600 … while used models can be had for
about $150 to $175). Later, we switched to two 3/4-HP
conditioners (current prices: $300-$500 new, $100-$150
used) in order to be able to keep one running while the
other was turned off and defrosting. This way, we can
maintain a consistent temperature of 28 degrees Fahrenheit to 32 degrees Fahrenheit in
our cooler.

At any rate, anticipate such needs before you build, so
that you can at least allow space for whatever equipment
you might eventually install. Remember, too, to give your
icehouse enough inside height to permit easy standing room
. . . but no more (a 6-1/2-foot ceiling is about right in
most cases). Also, plan to install sufficient lighting (one
protected standard bulb is usually enough).

CONSTRUCTION FEATURES

Our icehouse is made of concrete block, with one walk-in
entrance and no windows. The 10 inch-deep, 24inch-wide footings
and the 4 inch- to 5 inch-thick slab floor–which slopes
gradually to a central drain that’s connected to drainage
tiles–were poured at the same time. The walls consist
of ten courses of 8 inch wide blocks, lined with 3-1/2 inch-thick
fiberglass batts–installed between 16 inches-on-center
studs and covered by 1/4 inch exterior-grade plywood–over
which we’ve also applied 1 inch rigid-board insulation
and a final sheathing of plywood.

If I had it to do all over again, though, I’d insulate the
entire structure more thoroughly . . . by adding material
under the ceiling, inside the walls, and beneath the slab
floor. If the building inspector would allow it, I’d even
bank the outside of the icehouse with earth (after putting
down an appropriate vapor barrier) right up to the roof!

In order to make a raised floor that would help us keep our
product well-drained (ice standing in water melts
especially quickly), we placed pressure-treated 2 by 4’s on
the cement slab, and then laid a grid of 2 by 6’s across
those boards, leaving a 1/4 inch gap between the slats. (This
arrangement also simplifies the task of cleaning the ice
and the floor.)

Our shed has a standard 36 inch door, to which we’ve added a
makeshift “sandwich” of insulation (it consists of a layer
of 1inch Styrofoam boards topped with 3 inch fiberglass batts).
The whole affair is covered with a sheet of white canvas
cut to size and stapled down to protect the inner stuffing.
In addition, we nailed a second panel of similar cloth to
the inside top of the door frame. The fabric hangs loose,
nearly to the floor, and serves as an elementary air lock
when the door is open for long periods.

The storage house’s roof is of typical shallow-pitch shed
design, constructed of 2 by 6’s and covered with tar paper.
If you follow my advice, though, and make your structure
larger than ours, you should probably use more substantial
roofing lumber . . . 2 by 8’s at least, or–if the
price is within your budget–2 by 10’s or even 2 by
12’s. The wider the beams, you see, the more insulation
you’ll be able to install, and–despite the higher
initial cost of materials–that will result in bigger
energy savings. In any case, do build your roof carefully!
Ours was plagued by minor leaks, and we eventually had to
cover the entire surface with black tar . . . which soaks
up summer’s heat like a solar sponge and, as a result,
increases our cooling costs. (It’d probably be a good idea
to finish your entire structure off with a couple of coats
of good old sun-reflecting white paint!)

ACCESSORIES AND OPTIONS

If you’re hoping to keep your equipment purchases to a
minimum, you should be able to get by–in the
beginning, at least–with ice picks and tongs . . .
which you can generally obtain at flea markets for just a
few dollars apiece.

You’ll probably find it useful to place–just outside
your cooler’s door–a large sheet of plywood, with
drain holes drilled in it, to keep your product off the
ground while you’re loading or unloading. A nearby water
hookup will also come in handy when you have to wash off
ice that’s to be used in drinks and water coolers. And a 2 by 4 or 2 by 6 plank, fastened on the outside wall near the
door, can be used (once you’ve driven some heavy nails part
way into it) to hang tongs and jackets and such.

Before too long, you might want to invest in an ice
crusher, too. We purchased our first model for $150 (you
can pay up to $400 or more today) from a fellow who’d
worked in our town’s former icehouse. It was adequate for a
while, but later–when clients began calling for
larger quantities–we bought a bigger machine. Our
present contrivance is a plate-steel, electric-motor-driven
affair with heavy metal teeth set in a revolving drum.
It’ll munch 50 pounds of ice in about 30 seconds and hasn’t
needed a single repair in ten years of hard use. The device
stands on steel legs bolted to a platform made of 1/2″
exterior-grade plywood (again, it’s been drilled to permit
drainage) . . . which, in turn, is nailed to large railroad
ties to help keep the assembly stable.

We quickly discovered that most people prefer to buy small
quantities of crushed ice already bagged–rather than
bring and fill their own containers–so we sent away
to our local equipment company for some paper ice pouches
in 10- and 25-pound sizes. However, although we did use
these packets for a number of years, they tended to freeze
together, and eventually–for lack of a better
alternative–we switched to plastic sacks . . . which
are slightly more expensive, but less troublesome.

In the beginning, Dad and I simply used an old food freezer
to store our packaged ice, but–again, as business got
better–we eventually purchased a bag vendor: one of
the large cooled bins often seen in front of convenience
stores. Thanks to our increased storage capacity, we can do
almost all our crushing and bagging in the evening when the
air is cooler and our surroundings are less hectic.

I want to stress once more that such items as crushers and
bag freezers are not at all necessary for starting an ice
service . . . they’re improvements that can be added later.
Indeed, because it is possible to begin your business
without the extras, you can take your time shopping around
for good used equipment and probably save a lot of money as
a result.

HAULING AND HANDLING ICE

Anyone who’s starting on a bootstrap will probably want to
know how to turn a pickup into an ice truck. Well, the
conversion is easy: Just lay plywood in the bed to prevent
ice from freezing into the grooves . . . and you’re ready
to load.

The chunks should be placed in the truck on their long,
narrow edges and braced in on the sides with large wooden
blocks (put wedges at the ends, too, if the load doesn’t
butt firmly up against the tailgate). This procedure
prevents any ice from sliding and cracking other cakes, and
also keeps the cargo–and the truck itself–more
stable and easier to control.

Once everything’s in place, always cover the ice with a
tarp and weigh the cover down (with boards or whatever).
The sheet will keep the sun off your frozen merchandise
and–more important–protect the ice from the
melting force of the wind. At first, in fact, regardless of
how carefully you cover the cakes, air coming through
cracks and gaps in the truck body will cut into them. These
spaces can–and should–be closed up, using any
standard sealant or caulking material.

By this time you’re probably wondering just how, exactly,
an ordinary non-superhuman manages to get a 300-pound block
of cold, slippery ice from ground level to truck bed . . .
or vice versa?

Well, we now have the luxury of a hydraulic lift gate for
our big stake-body rig, but when we started out, we simply
manhandled our way through the problem. Our
supplier–who, of course, had heavy-duty loading
equipment–helped us to get the blocks onto our pickup
. . . but taking them off was another matter. During the
first year, we’d simply grab hold of a cake with our tongs,
slide the ponderous bulk on its side to the tailgate,
and–with our fingers crossed and muscles
straining–ease the chunk over the edge and onto a
plywood board.

Then, after a summer of sore backs and almost-squished
toes, we finally got smart and built a ramp out of scrap
lumber. The spinesaver took only about an hour to put
together, and made the job of unloading not only easier,
but faster and safer.

To build the slide, we first considered the width of our
ice (approximately 12 inches) and decided that our ramp would
have to be 14 inches wide to accommodate any slightly oversized
pieces. We placed two 2 by 6’s flat on the ground, parallel
to each other and 14 inches apart at the outside edges
(which left a 3inch gap between the slats . . . all the
better, since less wood in contact with the ice means less
friction and easier sliding). The ends of the planks were
beveled at a pitch of about 1/4 inch . . . with the bevels
on the same side of each board.

Then we cut 2 by 4’s into 14 inch lengths and used the pieces as
crossmembers, nailing one of them at right angles to the
parallel 2 by 6’s every 15 inches or so, ladderlike.
Finally, 1 by 3’s were nailed horizontally along the outside
of the 2 by 6 planks as side rails to prevent ice from
slipping off the ramp.

Ordinary butt-type hinges–one for each 2 by
6–were then screwed into one end of the ramp at the
bevels, with the attached side of each hinge countersunk
into the wood and the other side hanging free. If you have
an old-style pickup with a tailgate that’ll flop down when
you detach the chains that hold it, you can simply slip the
loose panels of the hinges into the gap between the gate
and the bed, and your ramp will be ready to use. And if you
own a newer-style vehicle with a tailgate that won’t drop
fully, it’s an easy matter to drill holes in the gate that
align with those in the hinges, and insert bolts to secure
the ramp in place.

In either case, with the other end of the slide board
positioned in the doorway of your icehouse, you’ll be able
to grab a block with your tongs . . . guide the monolith
down the plank . . . set it up on end . . . and drag it
into the cooler.

And, surprisingly enough, the process of setting a cake of
ice up on end or down on its side is relatively easy once
you learn how . . . there’s more skill involved than
strength. (My father, at age 80, can unload a truck himself
with very little difficulty.) Unfortunately, the technique
isn’t easily described . . . you really have to
see a demonstration, rather than read instructions. My
advice, therefore, is to ask your supplier to show you the
finer points of managing the blocks when you pick up your
first load.

Finally–and perhaps most important–always take
great pains to keep your merchandise absolutely clean. In
many areas, ice is legally classified as a food item. But
regardless of whether that’s true in your region, you
should be extra careful to keep your product free of dirt
and other contaminants . . . particularly if you’re
delivering to restaurants or other places where the ice
will come in direct contact with drinks or edibles! Wash
the blocks thoroughly with water, and transport your orders
in plastic tubs or other vessels that are easy to clean and
won’t corrode. The containers must be kept well scrubbed
and stored in a sanitary place when not in use, too . . .
and should never be put to any purpose other than carrying
food-quality ice.

You’ll also want to make every effort to keep all your
other equipment–such as tongs and
picks–as dirt- and rust-free as possible. We’ve
always placed a lot of emphasis on this aspect of our
operation. Consequently, we’re often complimented on the
clear, clean ice we sell . . . and our good reputation
keeps those customers coming back!

Of course, when you’re just starting out, you’re not going
to be nearly as concerned with promoting return business as
you are with simply getting your first clients . .
. so here are a few tips to help you out.

PROSPECTING FOR CUSTOMERS

There’s no way around it: You’re going to have to get out
there and sell your service. Nobody’s going to buy
ice from you if people don’t know your company exists, so
hop in your truck and hit the road!

First, stop and make a sales pitch at every local diner,
restaurant, factory, bar, and hospital .. . and any
other place in your general driving area where
drinks or water are served. Even businesses that don’t
actually need or sell ice themselves, but whose customers
might want the product, should be on your visiting list.
Simply posting small signs in liquor stores and tackle
shops, for example, will often bring in a steady supply of
clients. Area farmers may also need ice for shipping their
produce . . . so you might try placing a small ad in the
local paper or farm journal (a notice at the grange hall or
feed store can work wonders, too). Furthermore, don’t
overlook firehouses, churches, and other places where group
socials or cookouts are held during the summer. And county
fairs and carnivals can be important temporary sources of
income, so check them out as well.

Any construction site near you might also be worth looking
into. A few years back, for example, a giant shopping mall
was built about 40 miles from here, and the project
employed almost 4,000 workers. An icehouse in the area
brought them 6,000 pounds a day, six days a week, for a
profit of $6,000 a month over the course of the one summer
that work was in progress!

Factories can be fruitful places to sell, too. A few years
back a glass plant in our town was plagued by constant
ice-machine breakdowns, so the folks there ended up
ordering from us instead. They never bought less than 2,500
pounds at a time, and they usually needed it three or four
times a week! (Your ice can mean a lot to hardworking
people. One summer, just as we drove up to a factory in our
truck, the employees were walking out on strike because
they didn’t have cold drinking water. Everyone was mighty
happy to see us that day . . . in fact, the foreman had his
men unload for us.)

If you don’t sell every prospect right away, don’t be
discouraged. Just keep taking any opportunity to pass out
your business cards or notes stating your hours and phone
number and the various forms of ice (such as block,
crushed, bagged, or cubes) you offer. I suggest that you do
not include specific prices on your cards and
flyers, though. After all, you may need a little bargaining
room when negotiating a potential sale . . . and besides,
inflation can put a printed price schedule out of date
almost overnight.

Even though many businesses may turn you down initially,
there’s a good chance that you’ll hear from at least some
of them sooner or later. For one thing, with the frequency
of ice machine failures in any given summer, you’re likely
to get several “emergency” calls before the season is over.
And if those customers receive good service from you, they
may well decide that dealing with your firm is the best way
to go after all.

Of course, you can drum up business without making personal
visits. To lure in more customers, we’ve erected several
signs–handpainted on 3 foot by 4 foot sheets of plywood,
giving our phone number and brief directions to our
icehouse–along the major roads leading to our place.
We nailed the placards to fenceposts and telephone poles
(after getting permission from the landowners, of course),
and they’ve produced a sizable number of orders for us.
Before you put up any boards, though, do check your local
and state laws to see whether such advertising is allowed
or a permit required. (We have to pay the state $2.00 per
sign per year.)

PRICES AND PROFITS

The prices you charge for your ice should be based on
several factors . . . including your operating costs, of
course, but also taking into consideration such variables
as the distance you have to drive to deliver any given
order, the kinds and quantity of ice purchased, the
frequency of business from each client (certainly a
one-time customer shouldn’t get the same low rate as a
regular route buyer) . . . and any special problems
presented by the job (if, for instance, you have to climb
several flights of stairs to make a delivery).

In general, we pay our supplier an average of 1-1/2 cents
per pound or $4.50 per cake . . . and charge our customers
between 6 cents and 8 cents a pound. Blocks that are
purchased whole at our icehouse are the least
expensive, of course . . . whereas a delivery of 200 pounds
of crushed ice to a hotel 20 miles away would be charged at
our highest rate.

The secret to making a good profit, of course–and to
keeping your retail rates competitive–is to trim your
own purchasing costs as much as possible. Don’t be
afraid, then, to dicker a little with your supplier. If you
can, work out a quantity contract to get the best possible
wholesale price. (Incidentally, always be sure to specify
that you want precut, or scored, blocks . . . cakes that
are machine-notched so that you can easily split them into
25- or 50-pound units.) In many cases you can get a better
rate from your dealer by paying cash and by loading your
own truck. Remember, even if you end up paying only a
quarter or so less per cake, you’ll come out way ahead over
the months and years.

THE LAW AND YOU

Every business has to deal, from time to time, with
government agencies . . . and an ice service is no
exception. Before you build your icehouse, or so much as
buy your first load of frozen blocks, take a trip to your
town hall or county seat and check into local and state
ordinances: zoning restrictions, building codes, licensing
requirements, etc. You should also be sure to call your
board of health to find out whether ice is considered a
foodstuff in your area . . . and if so, what measures
you’ll have to take to comply with the relevant statutes.

Insurance is another important area. Naturally, you’ll need
adequate coverage for your truck, and you may also want
some protection against possible litigation … such as
claims resulting from injuries occurring in your yard or
icehouse. After 13 years of hearing (and worrying about)
increasingly nightmarish lawsuit stories, we’ve also
purchased a fairly inexpensive product-liability policy
that protects us in case someone claims to have gotten sick
from our ice. We’ve never had such a
complaint–and chances are we never will–but we
do feel the premium is a small price to pay for our peace
of mind.

A FEW FINAL WORDS

I’d be kidding you if I said the ice business is
problem-free (no endeavor is), but I can say that
we have always been able to overcome any obstacles.
Furthermore, we’ve found the rewards of our efforts to be
well worth the troubles we occasionally face.

Running a rural ice service is, after all, clean,
satisfying outdoor work. If you decide to try it, you’ll be
selling a good, useful product that–in nearly any
community–is increasingly in demand. You’ll also
often be able to keep as cool as you like during a season
when everyone else is complaining of the heat . . . and,
whether you choose to work part or full time, you’ll have a
good chance of making a very comfortable living.

In other words, when it comes to turning a long hot summer
into cold hard cash, there’s no business like the ice
business!

EDITOR’S NOTE: For further useful information, you might
want to read the articles about erecting an old-timey
non-refrigerated icehouse in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NOS. 17 (page 20) and 19
(page 30). To order back issues, turn to page 104 in this issue.

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