Safer Ways to De-ice

My local landscape has been covered with road salt the last couple of weeks, due to periodic snowfalls and temperatures consistently below freezing. I can’t say I am sorry to have steps and sidewalks clear of ice (with my bad back, a fall could be disabling), but I wish the landlords and homeowners that dispense it knew more about what they were doing.

Most people use far more salt than is necessary and apply it too late. They also think that salt is a substitute for shoveling, which it’s not.

It wouldn’t be a big deal if salting were safe, but it isn’t. When salt blows over soil, seeps into groundwater and washes into lakes and streams, it destroys habitat for plants and animals. (The ill effects on roadside plantings, grass and trees are a common sight come spring.) And that’s not all. Infrastructure is harmed by excessive salt use, as are cars and footwear. Pets whose paws have been exposed to salt may end up ingesting a toxic amount when they try to lick their paws clean. The effect on human health of drinking water with excess salt has yet to be studied.

But not de-icing isn’t safe either.

Unfortunately, there is currently no competitively priced de-icing alternative to salt. Calcium magnesium acetate (CMA) appears to be the best option, based on current research, but it is many times more expensive than salt. Still, it’s not expensive in itself, just comparatively, and won’t break the bank if you only have a small amount of pavement to de-ice. A less expensive solution is to use a de-icing blend containing salt mixed with CMA or another, less studied but promising alternative called potassium acetate (KA).

All work best when applied early on to pavement that’s been cleared of snow.

For more on the subject, see my latest This Green Life column for NRDC, The Safe Road in Winter.

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12 Responses to Safer Ways to De-ice

  1. Anonymous January 23, 2009 at 8:54 am #

    I’ve also read that you could use bird seed rather than sand for traction. Is that alternative associated with any environmental issues?

  2. Anonymous January 23, 2009 at 11:02 am #

    I saw a news broadcast that told the story of municipalities in Wisconsin using beet juice to de-ice roadways as an alternative to salt.

  3. Anonymous January 23, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    What about the use of Epsom salt (Magnesium Sulfate)?

  4. Anonymous January 23, 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    Try these very friendly environmental solar powered and wind powered radiant heating road, highway, sidewalks, steps, driveways, and many others that can melt these snow without using these salts, deicers, any harmful chemicals, snowplows, etc. Do your math for these government budget with these comparison as above.

  5. Anonymous January 23, 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    Ashes may be messy, but for those of us with woodstoves they are a cheap material that helps prevent unpleasantness on paths and sidewalks. Because it’s dark colored, it also takes advantage of sunshine to diminish snow pack. Joan

  6. Sarah January 26, 2009 at 7:39 am #

    There is wonderful fine cedar kittie litter (Cedarific is one brand) that gives tranction, is biodegradable and won’t hurt anything. Keep an extra bathmat or washable rug at each outside door so you can take off boots or shoes without having to track the outdoors in…..

  7. Sheryl January 28, 2009 at 6:41 am #

    I’ll address a few of these comments all at once.

    Bird seed – I couldn’t find any research on this so I don’t know if there would be unintended consequences. Overfeeding birds? Poisoning them from the motor oil that drips onto the seed from the underside of your car in the driveway? A reduction in oxygen in nearby water bodies as a result of bird seed runoff and decomposition? Just throwing possibilities out there by way of example. I would think that if you wanted to try bird seed, the safest approach would be to sweep up and discard the leftovers afterwards.

    Beet juice – Yes, a number of municipalities are trying this now. The product goes by the name of Geomelt or something like that. (There may be other beet juice products, too.) Unfortunately, this could also lead to the oxygen depletion problem in water.

    Epsom salt – I don’t know anything about its use/effectiveness as a de-icer.

    Solar or wind-powered radiant heating elements – Please point me to information about this.

    Ashes – I recommended against ashes because of the mess. However, there is another potential problem with its use — ashes are alkaline and can raise the ph of nearby soil, which might be an issue for your vegetation. I’m guessing ash runoff into lakes and streams could be problematic for the same reason.

    Biodegradable cedar kitty litter – Biodegradable things can cause problems too (see above). I suggest sweeping up after use.

  8. Anonymous January 28, 2009 at 8:45 am #

    In your latest email re: de-icers, it’s suggested that you put booties on your dog. Where can one buy booties? (This is for a small dog – a chihuahua.)

    Thank you.

  9. Sheryl February 2, 2009 at 8:30 pm #

    If you can’t find booties locally, try buying online. You’ll find lots of sources if you search on “dog booties.”

  10. Anonymous February 4, 2009 at 7:55 am #

    My city grinds recycled glass. Would that help with ice on streets instead of sand?

  11. gb January 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    Geez, well you’re shooting down every suggestion in your response.
    Anything that’s added to the environment will have some impact or consequence. Even if it’s just dirty or messy to use. So then are you promoting CMA? It has absolutely no downside, like all the others you listed off. That’s hard to believe considering all the reasons you just stated for the other items.

    I’ve just been reading about a product called IceClear, a sprayed on liquid and preventative, which is supposed to be environmentally sound and is not messy either. Unfortunately lots of $$ lost spending money on shipping costs because it’s not readily available locally. But I might give it a shot. They do a lousy job of clearing walks around here.

  12. NS February 10, 2011 at 5:51 am #

    I like the idea of radiant heating under sidewalks. They do it in bathrooms,why not under sidewalks, powered by Solar collectors much like the ones for outdoor lighting.