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Stretching your salt

  • Dale Keep
- Posted: April 1, 2014
By Dale Keep
This winter certainly has been one for the record books in many areas. With record-setting weather events comes heavy and challenging use of deicer chemicals. For snow & ice contractors, reordering supplies is possibly the biggest challenge. I have been contacted numerous times and have been asked how to stretch salt supply, or how to weather the challenge of a shortage. Depending on the details of the situation, the solutions fall within three areas.

Scope of work
If the contract terms state that the service provider will “keep the ice off,” this is the start of the challenges at hand. Clients will often dictate which ice management product its snow & ice management provider must use, regardless of whether the product of choice is insufficient when the temperature drops to a certain point. In extreme cold using extra salt won’t accomplish anything, it will just deplete the inventory. If it’s too cold to work, it’s too cold to work!

Tip: Ideally, your customer will allow you, as the snow & ice management professional, to choose the products that allow you to do your job to your best ability. If that’s not possible, look at the scope of work in future contracts and openly discuss with the customer what’s going to happen the next time the products they require become ineffective or another shortage occurs. Develop and implement a Plan B that will automatically kick in under specific terms. The backup plan must work for the service provider and the customer, and the terms and conditions of its use must be very clear.

It could simply be based on temperature: “When surface temperatures drop to ‘X’ or below we change our approach to Plan B as defined.” Or in the event of a shortage: “We reserve the right to substitute products as appropriate and available to meet the service terms.”

Salt use reduction
If the goal is to reduce the use of solid deicer chemicals such as salt, then the use of liquid deicers is key. In my opinion, using liquids as part of the winter operations strategy is the most important step one can take to reduce overall deicer chemical use per storm event. Liquids are not used to replace deicer solids or plowing, but are used congruently. When used correctly with the other tools in your winter operations toolbox, deicer liquids will deliver equal or better results, and you’ll use less deicer chemical during a given storm event than operations that don’t use liquids. 

For those who may doubt the benefits of deicer liquids, there’s an abundance of information available that touts their benefits. Whether purchased or made locally (at times with custom ingredients), the benefits of using liquid deicers are many, documented, and can help stretch your solid deicer inventory. Think what the outcome could have been if liquids had been used from the beginning of the winter season. Estimates as high as a 60% reduction in deicer use have been reported. What could using liquids have done for your company, even if it was just a 25% or 30% reduction?

Buying other products
This idea has some inherent challenges. For example, if your company uses salt and doesn’t regularly use large quantities of another product (e.g., calcium chloride), when times get tough it may be hard to get that product, too. 

I know one manufacturer/supplier of a liquid product that’s having a record year and can’t keep up with orders. The company established a priority system where longtime customers went to the top of the order list and new ones went to the bottom. They try to fill all orders, but shipping, weather, production and other challenges make it impossible at times. With this thought in mind, if switching to another deicer product is your Plan B, arrangements and/or contracts must be made in advance to make sure Plan B doesn’t fail.

Mixing salt and sand
I was also asked, “Can I mix my salt with sand at a 1:1 ratio to stretch its use?” If you only want to increase the volume of the load and not the melting performance, you can mix the products. However, bear in mind that salt has a melting ability and capacity based on surface temperature. Sand has neither. Sand can only temporarily increase the friction value on ice that cannot be removed at the time. This could be a viable Plan B (if you are in a market that doesn’t prohibit its use and your customer approves it), but one that needs to be understood. Sand adds volume and perhaps temporary traction benefits, but there are no ice melting benefits from its use. Salt melts snow & ice. Plus you’ll have a mess to clean up once the snow and ice melts, leaving the sand behind.

While there’s no black-and-white answer for how to stretch your salt supply, researching your options and educating and communicating with your clients to form a clearly defined plan (and backup plan) can go a long way toward successfully managing your inventory of ice management products. 

  • Develop and implement a Plan B that will automatically kick in under specific terms.
  • Deicer liquids can deliver equal or better results and require less product.
  • Sand will temporarily increase friction but does not provide efficient melting values.
Dale Keep owns Ice & Snow Technologies, a training and consulting company based in Walla Walla, WA.
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