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Predicting Mother Nature's Whims Block By Block

Ryan Zimmerman's forecasts help landscapers, snow plowers and baseball players do their jobs.

Most of us see a storm fast approaching on the weather map and think of the barbeques that will be ruined, the baseball games canceled and the inevitable bad traffic.

When Ryan Zimmerman looks at the map, his adrenaline starts pumping.

“I don’t want anything to get damaged by a storm,” he said. “But looking at all that red and orange on the radar — it’s fun.”

Zimmerman, a life-long weather fanatic who lives in Morton Grove, is the founder of Weather by Request, a one-man operation that delivers hyper-local forecasts to landscaping companies, public works departments and others whose jobs are closely tied to the whims of Mother Nature.

Earlier:

By letting them know what time they should, say, pour concrete or muster the snowplow troops, Zimmerman helps clients save money. Most of the time clients get a forecast in a daily phone call, email or fax. But during bad weather, it’s not unusual for Zimmerman to be on the phone with the same client dozens of times a day.

“He’s super accurate and detailed,” said Peter Morjal, owner of Acorn Landscaping in Niles, who said Zimmerman can save him $1,100 an hour in the winter by pinpointing when his snow plow drivers should show up.

A childhood dream

Zimmerman, 33, decided he wanted to be a weatherman when he was 8 years old after reading the children’s book, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

“That sparked my interest,” said Zimmerman, who grew up in Lincolnwood.

He wrote to Chicago-area meteorologists for advice, and received encouraging notes, weather maps and information about thunderstorm tracking in return. He soon started calling into local media with reports on rainfall and wind speeds in Lincolnwood.

He graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in geography/climatology, then worked the night shift for Weather Command in Palatine, a company similar to Weather by Request that is now Zimmerman’s main competitor. In 2004, he decided to strike out on his own.

Starting his business

“I had to prove to them that I’m better than the forecast on TV,” he said of potential clients. His solution was to cold call businesses and offer a 30-day free trial.

Morjal was among those early calls.

“I typically don’t like salesmen,” Morjal said. “But he sounded so sincere, so I said, ‘okay, come on by.’”

Zimmerman gave Morjal a presentation, the free trial and then welcomed him on as Weather by Request’s first client. Six years later, Morjal remains happy that he switched from another weather service to Zimmerman.

“They were good, but they were nowhere near like Ryan,” Morjal said. “He’s accessible. If I have a problem, I call him. He’ll hold my hand on the phone and tell me everything is going to be OK.”

Growing list of clients

Zimmerman uses the same computer weather models that other forecasters do. The difference is all in the interpretation of weather patterns and the ability to give a forecast for a pinpointed locale, like a street that’s being resurfaced or a farm that needs to decide when to plant.

One of Zimmerman’s biggest coups was getting the Cincinnati Reds to sign on six years ago. When bad weather is approaching, “the groundskeeper will call 20-30 times a day,” Zimmerman said.

While he would love to get more sports teams, Zimmerman already has a waiting list of clients. However, he’s willing to add on occasional extra forecasting. He accurately predicted rain-free days for two of his siblings’ outdoor weddings and lets Morjal know what to expect in Florida when he’s there on vacation

Chicago’s volatile weather

Zimmerman, who writes weekend weather forecasts for many North Shore Patch sites, counts municipalities among his list of clients.

“Chicago is such a crazy place for weather,” said Jim Maiworm, public works director for the Village of Hawthorn Woods. What’s happening in the south suburbs can be totally different than what’s happening in Hawthorn Woods or along the lake

Maiworm credits Zimmerman with getting him an accurate prediction — and one that was earlier than other forecasters — for when the February “snowmaggedon” storm would start. This meant Maiworm was able to request help from outside plowing contractors before other municipalities, which secured the extra help he needed to clear the streets quickly.

Winters are busier than summers, said Zimmerman, who has about 50 winter clients and often works 16-hour days during the snowy months. Summers, when he has about 30 clients, are a little slower paced.

He doesn’t get too much time for vacations. But some day, when he has time, he’d like to go on the ultimate meteorologist’s dream trip: storm chasing.

The appeal is “the adrenaline of seeing a tornado,” said Zimmerman, before adding, “hopefully in an open field and moving away.”

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