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Gain traction against salt challenges

  • Douglas Freer, CSP
- Posted: September 1, 2014
The winter season is fraught with risk and challenges, but rarely do they materialize before the winter even begins. Like a storm on the horizon, we are witnessing the aftereffects of last winter as we head into this season. Rock salt is in short supply, and prices have significantly increased.

With stockpiles depleted, we are at risk of experiencing a severe shortage if winter weather comes early, strong and sticks around. To mitigate the impact of a potential supply shortage, do some advanced planning and make adjustments to your program now.  While some solutions may take longer to implement, adjusting your tactics for the short term will improve your odds of a more successful winter. 

Review expectations
Review your contracts, scope of work and your client expectations and determine the risk associated with servicing your contracts. Depending on client expectations, you may be able to adjust your service and still meet your obligations while conserving salt. If you have been overservicing your sites relative to the scope or expectations, now is a good time to communicate with your clients about the adjustments you plan to make. 

Focus on fundamentals
With a goal to conserve product, it’s vital to recognize the scenarios where more or less product may be necessary to achieve safe and clear pavement. Various factors will influence the amount of material necessary, and while not an all-inclusive list, some factors include: air and pavement temperatures, subsurface temperature, time of day, time of season and sun angle, type and condition of pavement, amount of residual or existing snow after clearing, moisture content, and the lead time available to achieve desired result. 

Are there opportunities to use less product without putting your client’s or your business at risk? Consider the factors listed above and relate this to your operations. If you have more lead time to achieve the results or expect the sun will aid in the melting process, reduce your materials and monitor for the proper results before your deadline. The possible scenarios are endless. You just need to be open to looking for ways to adjust your operations and default service techniques. 

Making adjustments will take some additional monitoring to ensure effectiveness until you determine a new “normal,” and you retrain yourself to approach storms a little bit differently. 

Regulate usage

If you have not developed a method to track your application rates, you will need a system to determine how much product is being applied over a defined area. After reviewing your application rates, set a goal to decrease usage, making targeted and smart decisions about scenarios where you can most likely decrease consumption. Attempt to reduce overall consumption by a steady 10% or even 15% without negatively impacting your service or increasing your risk exposure.

Measure and record your consumption for the company, and - if you’re able - record by driver and by site. Where you have more latitude to make adjustments in application rates, experiment by reducing your rates and monitor the results. Apply your findings to the next storm and expand to additional sites to further reduce consumption within your acceptable levels of tolerance for quality and expectations. 

Overapplying is wasteful and not environmentally sound, and underapplying could lead to increased liability as well as the need for a return service trip. Learning to apply the right amount of product for the storm scenario is the most cost-effective approach. This is best achieved by monitoring your applications rates and managing your crews. 

Liquid deicers
Liquid products may serve as a substitute to granular products to help extend your inventory. Solid chemicals must first dilute into a brine solution before melting snow & ice. Incorporating liquids with your granular products will increase the speed at which you begin melting and may help reduce application rates, depending on the storm and the products used. 

Using liquids requires infrastructure that may require additional investment. Depending on your current equipment, storage capabilities and available capital your decision to use certain liquids will vary. 

Some products are used to pretreat stockpiles, increasing the effectiveness and stretching the range of your rock salt. Pre-wetting salt at the time of application will activate the melting process sooner. With the increased application of brine, the rate of solid deicer may be reduced based on your experience. Liquids applied for anti-icing instead of solids will stay in place better and reduce the possibility of snow & ice from bonding to the pavement - making it easier to scrape and remove new snowfall after the anti-icing application. Pavement that scrapes cleaner will require less product for deicing, reducing chemical use. Liquid brine can also be applied directly for deicing as a direct substitute for granular products. 

The more time you have between when the application is made and your service deadline the less materials you may require. If you have difficulty getting to all of your properties soon enough after clearing and you’re delayed in applying your product, you may not have sufficient capacity to cover the frequency and geographic service area. Adding additional equipment to increase capacity will improve timing, possibly reducing application rates and giving yourself more time to let the chemical work.

Depending on the event, after clearing the pavement the remaining moisture will freeze, requiring more chemical to overcome the new ice. If you can prevent the pavement from refreezing, you will not be rushed to melt the glaze prior to your deadline, which might prompt you to apply more product than necessary. 

If the forecast is favorable, take advantage of sites that are closed by clearing them the day before (i.e. Sunday for Monday a.m. opening) to allow them to melt off in part before rechecking them early Monday morning with touch-up applications. 

Scrape more

There is a limit to how much chemicals can melt snow & ice. On marginal events with favorable temperatures, contractors calculate and weigh the cost difference between clearing the snow prior to an application or simply melting the snow with an application. With manageable temperatures and moisture content, it may be cost justified to melt down to pavement - but you will be using more product compared to scraping first. With salt costing 50% to 120% more than last season, you may want to recalculate to find savings and preserve your inventory.  Now it’s not only the immediate cost-benefit equation, but also weighing the cost of running out of salt earlier in the season than may have been necessary because you chose to melt instead of clear marginal snow events.  

With multiple variables changing this season, any alterations you make in your operations will need to be communicated through your training program. Otherwise, you risk falling short of your intended goals. Review thresholds for service, application rates, client expectations, and any changes in record keeping. How will feedback be provided, and what is the company’s expectation and plan to ensure goals are being met? 

SIMA has many training resources available for your employees, including the SIMA training video, “Basic Principles for Ice Control,” which is ideal for new employees and a good review for seasoned professionals.  

Contract and price changes
Beyond operational changes, it is wise to review and, if necessary, make changes to your pricing, and check to see if you have contract provisions that insulate you from the extreme cost fluctuations associated with material shortages. 

If you must raise your prices, it is best to have a conversation with your clients and negotiate before the start of the season. Even if you have language for material price increases or salt surcharges in your contract, having the conversation up front will be preferred by your client.  He might need to make adjustments to his budget and/or may want to adjust the scope of work to reduce the impact of a higher ice control price. 

How are extreme storm scenarios handled in your current agreement? For example, how is a severe ice storm managed in a fixed-fee agreement? What about a blizzard or continuous heavy storm that exceeds certain thresholds for what is considered beyond normal? 

Have access to emergency funds in case you need to buy rock salt cash on delivery. In heavy winters when shortages are more likely, it is plausible that your cash will have been consumed by payroll, fuel and your suppliers. Do you have available cash or a line of credit sufficient to buy materials? 

Municipal salt shortages created negative press last winter, and to avoid being the subject of your client’s scorn you will need to manage your inventory proactively from the start of the season to ensure you don’t run out of salt. Maybe we’ll get lucky and a mild winter will reduce the impact of the shortage, but ask yourself if rolling the dice on your reputation is worth the risk when you can make adjustments now to mitigate the effects of a possible shortage. 
Why the supply shortage?
While salt is infinitely available, many factors contribute to a supply shortage:
  • Severe weather is the primary factor driving demand.
  • 85% to 90% of rock salt is used by departments of transportation (DOTs) and municipalities.
  • DOTs often carry over 40% to 50% of their inventory from the previous season. This season, their carryover was less than 5%, causing many DOT orders to be twice their normal preseason fill orders. Estimated annual mining capacity for North America is between 25 and 30 million tons - nearly the equivalent to this year’s DOT preseason orders.
  • Salt from foreign countries supplements the U.S. market but is not a replacement for North American-mined salt. Foreign salt requires a minimum of six weeks lead time from order placement to arrival of product, depending on weather, shipping and other transportation factors.
  • For each ton of salt, approximately half of the cost is driven by transportation-related factors.
  • With everyone simultaneously restocking their inventory, the shortage will continue until a long enough period of mild weather allows for supply to catch up to demand.
  • Human nature leads to stockpiling when shortages occur, further exacerbating the shortage.

Get ahead of a supply challenge
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Build and protect your access to salt:
  • Buy early. Take delivery of your preseason order early to ensure you have the equivalent amount of salt for one winter on hand.
  • Increase your storage capacity to manage 120% of your annual requirements, giving you flexibility to buy and store when pricing is best.
  • If you have access to inexpensive industrial space, consider leasing warehouse space until you can build more capacity.
  • Stockpiles are perishable, losing 1% to 3% annually from weather and may become rock hard if exposed to moisture. Cover and secure your load for optimum longevity.
  • Check local and state environmental rules for stockpiles. Protect our waterways.
  • Buy from multiple sources to spread your risk in case your supplier is cut off
    from its source or exceeds its allocation.
Douglas Freer, CSP, owns Blue Moose Snow Co. in Cleveland.

Calibration must be part of your salt saving equation

By Dale Keep

While talking to many snow & ice professionals, the current hot topic is how to save salt. There is much talk about the use of liquids, pre-wetting solids, etc., in an effort to do so. This is definitely a step in the right direction, but one tactic I’m not hearing much about is equipment calibration. With all the talk about saving salt, calibration must be completed and done correctly on every liquid and solid deicer applicator before any savings can really be obtained.

A good litmus test for this is to ask: If the goal is to apply salt at a rate of 200 to 1,000 pounds per acre in 50-pound increments as needed, do you know how to do it, and can you do it accurately? On the liquid side, if the numbers were 20 to 100 gallons per acre in 5-gallon increments, could you do it accurately? If the answer to either question is no, then reducing salt use this winter will be a challenge. Even the most experienced operators cannot get the desired application rates without properly calibrated equipment.

Reducing deicer use requires a combination of things. It starts with management and the clearly communicated goal to the crews that can be reinforced as part of a training program. Determine the correct application rate under various winter conditions and ice control requirements. (Often an application rate of two “x” is applied when only “x” application rate was required.) Once the application rate has been determined, the product must be applied at the rate required and in a time frame that allows it to work to meet the ice control requirements.
Dale Keep owns Ice & Snow Technologies, a training and consulting company based in Walla Walla, WA.
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