Reconsider Salt Use This Winter

Alternatives can add traction while protecting the environment

salt spreader

As the winter season deposits snow, ice, and sleet on sidewalks, parking lots, and roads, facility managers concerned about safety may be tempted to begin salting. However, salt may not always be the best option to melt ice and snow.

Grounds management experts with SSC Services for Education, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based company that provides facility management for more than 140 educational clients in 27 states, suggest you consider the alternatives before you grab that bag of salt. One of SSC’s clients, University of Wisconsin Superior in Superior, Wisconsin, reduced salt usage on campus by 65%, gradually switching from applying only granular salt and ice melt product to using a salt and sand mix where possible, according to Brayden Ward, Unit Director for SSC Services for Education at the university.

Ward said cost savings were a big reason for the switch, not only the cost of the product itself but the cost of repairing salt-damaged turf in the spring. Environmental factors also were a large consideration.

“The campus is located next to Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world; we need to be conscious of what we are putting into it,” he said.

Hold the salt

There are many advantages to salt. It quickly melts ice and snow under the proper conditions, creating safer roads, parking lots, and sidewalks. It also creates a layer of brine that keeps ice from bonding to surfaces, says Chris Metcalf, Grounds Manger for SSC Services for Education at Aurora University in Aurora, Illinois.

However, ice can corrode vehicles and cause permanent damage to structures such as bridges and parking decks, wearing down cement and brick over time and causing expansion cracks, says Ward. Salt also has negative effects on the environment. It can compromise groundwater and increase the sodium content in bodies of water, which can be fatal to aquatic ecosystems.

“It only takes one teaspoon of salt to permanently contaminate 5 gallons of water,” says Ward.

“Salt can also affect plants and turf grass, especially those along walk edges and shrubs near roads and the sidewalks,” Metcalf says. “Plants that are stressed by salt are more susceptible to disease and insect damage.”

Not just for the beach or the birds

Sand is a common salt substitute. It adds traction to slippery surfaces and roads, is safer on the environment, and works in all temperatures, says Ward. It won’t corrode vehicles and is less expensive to purchase.

However, sand is not perfect either. It is a short-term solution that doesn’t melt ice and it needs to be swept up in the spring. People track sand into buildings on their shoes and it causes a buildup of sediment in drains, flowing into waterways.

Mixing sand and salt can add traction to roads and sidewalks while also melting ice and snow. It is still effective when temperatures are fluctuating and is less expensive than ice melt products.

But the mixture doesn’t spread as easily as salt, does not have as much melting power as salt by itself, and still gets tracked into buildings.

Birdseed is a green alternative to salt that is safe for the environment and provides traction while feeding wildlife, Metcalf says. However, like sand, it is a short-term solution as it doesn’t melt ice and it is expensive.

“Plus, it attracts wildlife, which can be messy,” he warns

Chemical and natural options

Several ice melt products are available on the market that spread easily, can melt ice quickly, and help with snow removal, Metcalf says. These products come in a wide range of formulas and costs to fit different applications and conditions.

Unfortunately, these ice melts are harmful to the environment and can be expensive. Chlorides can cause concrete to rust, crack, and deteriorate. 

Ward mentions alternatives that are safer for the environment, such as calcium magnesium acetate (CMA), which is biodegradable, has low toxicity, and is recommended for those concerned about preserving concrete. “This product is about as corrosive as tap water,” he says. “But it can be expensive.”

Sugar beet juice is another alternative that is noncorrosive. When mixed with salt it can create a brine that works at a lower temperature than salt alone.

Salt treated with calcium or magnesium chloride liquid has improved performance due to its additives and is colored so you can easily see where you spread it, Metcalf says. As it has fewer lumps it can reduce spreader clogs.

Other advantages of treated ice are that it is less corrosive than regular salt and it melts at a lower temperature.

Another option is sodium acetate, which works quickly like calcium chloride, but does not contain the harmful chemical, Ward says. This product gives off heat as it dissolves.

The right product at the right amount

No matter which option you choose, be sure to follow directions carefully as to the amount of product to spread.  Ultimately, the exact amount to use is based on the amount of snow and ice, as well as the weather conditions.

“If you use too little, it may not be as effective, and you may have to spend more time going back to put out more product,” says Colton Metzger, Grounds Manager for SSC Services for Education at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.  “If you put down too much, it can increase the damage and harmful effects to nearby plants, soils, cement, and bricks.”

Ward emphasizes that you don’t have to use a large amount of product to melt every bit of snow. “We’ve found the toughest hurdle has been getting people to understand that every inch of sidewalk and parking lot does not need to be bare,” he says.

Aurora University has reduced the amount of salt it spreads by using electric drop spreaders that are 48-inches wide, slightly smaller than the typical 60- to 72-inch-wide sidewalk, Metcalf says. The spreader is calibrated to work from a center point of the sidewalk, reducing the amount of salt that ends up in lawns or shrub beds. The Aurora University team also recommends calibrating all spreaders at least once a year and consulting a salt usage calculator to help determine application amounts.

Consider using different products for different areas based on the level of care. For example, choose CMA in areas where you are concerned about preserving the surface being treated. 

“Birdseed can be used for traction in small areas that may not get used as frequently,” adds Metzger. “Sand is better for higher-use areas that don’t require bare pavement and ice melt products are best suited for areas with a high level of care and frequent traffic.”

Metzger believes no one salt substitute is better than another. The best choice depends on the weather conditions—as different products are most effective at different temperature ranges—and on your goals. 

“If you’re just looking for traction, sand would be better than salt because it is not as harmful to plants, soil, or pavement. However, if you need to get rid of ice, the melting power of salt and ice melt products are going to be better than sand,” Metzger says. “In other words, the best product for the job is really determined on a case-by-case or location-by-location basis.”


Posted On February 1, 2021

Kathleen Misovic

Managing Editor for CMM

Kathleen Misovic is managing editor for CMM. She has a degree in journalism and an extensive background in writing for print and digital media for various publications and associations. Contact her at [email protected].  

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