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Can snow really go green?

  • Dale Keep
- Posted: June 1, 2015
Going green is a term widely used today. By definition, going green means “to pursue knowledge and practices that can lead to more environmentally friendly and ecologically responsible decisions and lifestyles, which can help protect the environment and sustain its natural resources for current and future generations.” But what does it mean to the snow and ice business?

To my knowledge, there are only four ways to remove snow and ice: mechanical (plowing and shoveling), deicer applications, Mother Nature, and any combination thereof. From my experience, the only one associated with “going green” is deicer use. So, if we are not willing to accept snow and ice on surfaces occasionally and be prepared to personally manage it, then what is the alternative?

In the current business environment, going green must mean eliminating or reducing overall deicer use while still controlling snow and ice. But is it realistically achievable?

Not likely - at least until the public changes its expectations for bare surface conditions on highways, sidewalks, and parking lots when the temperature is low enough that Mother Nature cannot remove it. It is impossible to correctly use less than the required amount of a deicer product and effectively remove compact snow and ice under those conditions. 

In the extreme, going green could mean plowing only. Though this would totally eliminate use of deicer products, would the public be satisfied? This extreme approach would mean that the public would have to accept icy conditions at times, and be prepared to travel when the winter road and sidewalk conditions were less than perfect. The legal system would also have to buy into this approach for it to work. Short of reduced public expectations and a buy-in from the legal community, nothing will change.

When a snow and ice service provider is asked to reveal bare surfaces in cold snowy weather, the contractor has no choice but to use deicers; the colder it is the more deicer they have to use to meet expectations. Eliminating or greatly reducing deicer means that often snow and ice will not be removed - and that is a risk I don’t think the public is willing to take.

As long as deicers are being used, their use will continue to impact the environment somehow. Is there an alternative deicer that would not have some environmental impact? Sand, grit, or cinders are not viable “green” alternatives since they have their own environmental challenges and they do not melt anything.

Transportation demands
Our economy revolves around transportation. Commodities are continually moving within our transportation system. Good transportation requires good surface conditions, and this requires use of deicers to keep things moving. Plowing combined with letting Mother Nature slowly take her course on remaining ice on the roadway surface is not a practical or economically viable alternative. Airports and airplanes also need deicers - not only to keep runways open, but also to deice planes so that they can keep passengers and commodities flowing in winter conditions. 

Reducing deicer use is possible
The actual impact a product such as salt has varies by the ecosystem. For example, use and overuse of salt on a bridge containing cathodic protection and residing over salt water would have pretty much zero impact. The same actions on a similar bridge without cathodic protection and over freshwater would certainly have an impact.

We can and should reduce usage of deicer products by using them effectively and efficiently, while not overusing them. This will require methods to accurately determine the application rate required to address current and expected weather and surface conditions to meet level of service requirements. Skilled, well-trained operators operating quality calibrated application equipment to correctly apply the determined amount also are needed. Another element involves educating the public. They need to understand that high level-of-service requirements mandate deicer use.

Reduced deicer use can only be achieved to the level the public will accept the possibility of and, at times, the presence of snow and ice. Even with absolutely perfect application rates, it appears that some will continue to seek further reductions in deicer use while expecting bare surfaces - reductions that realistically cannot be provided to maintain high customer expectations. So until new technology and/or products come up with a magic solution, use of deicers is here to stay. 

Dale Keep owns Ice & Snow Technologies, a training and consulting company based in
Walla Walla, WA.

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