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Sustainable snow

  • SIMA
- Posted: June 1, 2015
By Phill Sexton

The issues and opportunities associated with green practices for the snow and ice management industry have evolved since SIMA and Snow Business magazine reported on the topic in September 2007.  Being “green” means more than it did eight years ago, particularly for the snow and ice management industry. Terms like “carbon footprint,” “environmentally friendly” and “global warming” were most closely associated with opportunities for fuel efficiency, reduction in carbon emissions and the use of materials that were branded (sometimes erroneously) as “environmentally friendly.” Today there is a more diverse set of issues upon which the snow and ice management profession has an opportunity to influence and make a positive impact. 

Green versus sustainable

One striking comparison from eight years ago is the term “green” compared to today’s more recent focus on sustainability. The principal focus of being green is environmental. The principles of sustainability are a holistic focus of economic responsibility, environmental stewardship and social license to operate - particularly related to the reputation of an individual, business or company.  In the business world, the principles of sustainability are sometimes referred to as “triple bottom line.” Since beginning the discussion on green snow practices eight years ago, several terms (some confusing) have been introduced, leaving us to question what the correct terms are and what we should focus on as in industry.

Carbon reduction vs. salt reduction
In the previous decade, the greatest influence being promoted for the environment was how we contribute and affect our carbon footprint. As an industry this boiled down to controlling what we drive, how we drive it and what type of fuel we used to power it. The overarching theme and facts from SIMA’s initial green report in 2007 remain virtually the same. Diesel fuel technology continues to be the most cost-efficient, carbon-efficient fuel to use when possible, particularly for larger vehicles and equipment. Most of the new engine technology and clean fuel research that’s been developed in the past decade is available to the general public, is strongly supported and mandated by government regulation and is becoming more affordable for all industries to implement. 

Today there is more research and more facts than ever that show the greatest environmental effect the snow & ice management industry can influence is through water quality.

Water quality impacts
From a sustainability perspective, causes for alarm include the environmental effects salt has on freshwater resources; damages caused to infrastructure and landscapes; and the reputation of a virtually unregulated snow and ice industry that contributes to these issues.  

A majority of contractors surveyed by the University of Waterloo iTSS lab reported applying excess salt to avoid slip-and-fall claims. Seventy-five percent reported 10% or more salt could be saved if litigations and insurance premiums were not a concern. (Hossain, 2014). Furthermore, a majority of contractors surveyed are charging extra for salting and are charging by the quantity of salt used rather than for the quality of the results achieved. Framed by the principles of sustainability, responsible salt application requires a balanced approach of environmental stewardship with economic benefit and social responsibility of protecting your neighbors’ drinking water. A sustainable approach to applying deicing salt is not possible to achieve so long as those who are applying salt continue to be compensated for the amount of salt that is applied rather than being compensated for responsibly achieving a desired result. 

According to the Global Risks 2014 Insight Report published by the World Economic Forum, two of the top 10 global risks of highest concern in 2014 directly relate to the snow and ice management Industry: No. 3 is “water crisis” and No. 6 is “greater incidence of extreme weather events.” When thinking of water crisis, people typically think of water shortages more so than water quality. In regions of North America where snow and water are in abundance, our attention as an industry requires us to focus on how our practices for applying salt affect the quality of freshwater resources, including open source lakes and streams, watersheds and underground aquifers, all of which can be sources for drinking water. 

Salt’s effects
Many research studies and white paper publications focusing on chloride and sodium contamination in lakes, streams and rivers have been conducted since the September 2007 Snow Business article was published. For example:
  • Streams in New York, Maryland and New Hampshire with sodium chloride concentrations as high as 5 g/l (25% of the concentration of sea water) were measured in some urban streams during the winter. During the summer, concentrations were upward of 100 times higher than unpolluted streams in undeveloped forest regions. (Kaushal et al., 2005).
  • A study conducted by the University of Minnesota in 2007 included an analysis of sodium chloride concentrations in Waterloo, Ontario, where urban wells revealed as much as 40% of salt loading can be attributed to salt application on private roads, parking lots and sidewalks. (Novotny et al., 2007).
  • Researchers in New Hampshire determined that 50% of salt introduced into the I-93 corridor / Policy-Porcupine Brook watershed was from parking lots and 36% was contributed by state and municipal roads (Burack et al., 2008).
  • A 20-year study in upstate New York found a doubling in salt concentrations in the watershed, with 91% attributed to road salt application and 9% to sewage and water softeners (Kelly et al., 2008). In the Mohawk River Basin in Upstate New York, estimated concentrations of Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg) and Potassium (K) ions during the 1990s were similar to estimates from the 1950s, with all three showing a modest increase of around 10%. Sodium (Na) and Chloride (Cl) ions, on the other hand, increased by 130% and 243%, respectively. Researchers reported the only plausible source of Na and Cl that could account for the large mean daily yields was road salt (Godwin et al., 2003).
Road deicing salt (NaCl) also influences the chemistry of the soils it infiltrates. Research has proven Chloride ions are conservative substances that have little effect on soil chemistry. However, Sodium ions take part in a chemical process that changes the soil properties and affects its fertility (Novotny et al., 2007). This is why turf and landscape plant damage is observed in areas where salt applications have been overused beyond the target surfaces.

SB0615_Sexton_NH_Graph (600x483)
Environmental progress

From an environmental perspective, the industry hasn’t changed much in the past decade. There continues to be a lack of environmental regulations, standards and licensing that specifically apply to snow and ice management. We are an industry that, in most cases, is still allowed to apply as much salt deemed necessary without any required education or licensing and without any formal oversight, regulations and standards by which to abide. Simultaneously there is an increasing focus on freshwater quality that has sparked debates at local, state, federal and international levels, both in the public and private sectors.

A number of state and provincial organizations throughout North America have been formed over the past decade to address the growing effects salt is contributing to their freshwater resources. Some organizations have been successful in influencing voluntary regulation of salt usage through training and legislation: 

Smart About Salt Council is a non-profit organization established in the region of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, with a mission “to protect freshwater from winter salt applied on facilities.” It offers a voluntary training certification for anyone willing to improve their salt application practices. Learn more at

The Green SnowPro certification
was developed in New Hampshire as part of a joint initiative between the New Hampshire State Legislature and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services with a goal of reversing the effects of chloride contamination in surface water throughout the state, particularly along the I-93 corridor. For the past two years, SIMA has partnered with New Hampshire DES and the University of New Hampshire to provide continuing education requirements for the Green SnowPro certification and education curriculum for the New Hampshire annual Salt Reduction Symposium. Learn more at

The FUND for Lake George
is a not-for-profit, privately funded organization dedicated to the protection of Lake George in New York. Formed in 1980, the FUND applies a science-guided approach to protection focused on Lake George water quality and the overall health of the Lake George watershed. Recently, the organization sought help from SIMA and the local departments of public works that apply salt near the 32-mile-long lake in developing salt reduction strategies and training with a goal of reversing the increasing effects salt has had on the lake over the past 30 years. Studies have shown the levels of sodium chloride in Lake George are 30 times what they were in 1985. The organization, in partnership with SIMA, is planning a salt reduction symposium later this year. Learn more at

3x - Salt levels have tripled in Lake George, NY, since 1980 and are more than 30 times above the natural background characteristic Adirondack lakes in undeveloped watersheds. (Source: Fund for Lake George).

Waterloo’s iTSS Research Lab (in collaboration with SIMA and Landscape Ontario) is working to validate and revise application rates that have been developed during a three-year academic research project and control study co-sponsored by SIMA and conducted by the university entitled “Snow and Ice Control for Parking Lots and Sidewalks.” The next phase of research includes a validation process being performed by SIMA members who are applying and measuring salt at a practical level and comparing their results with the initial application rate recommendations developed by the university. To download the report, visit

SB0615_Sexton_Table1 (600x381)
SB0615_Sexton_Table2 (600x335)

The University of Waterloo, in partnership with SIMA and other industry organizations, is working to develop best practices for application rates of deicing materials. The tables above show some of their preliminary research.

Baseline statistics and standards for salt application began to be compiled last snow season. SIMA, in collaboration with former University of Waterloo research associate and current CEO of Viaesys Inc., Raqib Omer, is working with SIMA members on consistent equipment calibration, salt application rates, and salt usage totals throughout the season. The goal is to develop standardized methods for determining the most environmentally responsible application rates that affordably meet typical levels of expectation (LOS), provide safe conditions, and are defensible against slip-and-fall claims. Initial results from the first season will be presented at the 2015 Snow and Ice Symposium in Schaumburg, IL. If you are interested in learning more or participating in the SIMA Salt Research project, contact Phill Sexton at 

Where can progress be made?
For the industry to make any legitimate progress, snow and ice management professionals must begin to take steps to become environmental stewards of the industry. Following are five opportunities where the industry can begin to make an impact.

Calibrate and measure. A survey by the University of Waterloo indicated nearly half of the contractors and municipal organizations surveyed don’t use or don’t have guidelines for determining the best application rates for salt application. Furthermore, more than 70% do not have equipment that accurately measures the amount of salt being used at different locations (Hossain, 2014).

The ability to reduce the amount of salt you are applying first requires you to be able to consistently measure how much you apply. Choose a consistent method to calibrate and adjust the flow rate of salt, and establish a uniform ground speed for operators to apply salt that will enable consistency for measuring.  

Anti-icing is the proactive method of applying salt to prevent the bond of snow and ice to paved surfaces. This method is typically applied in a liquid form (brine) and can also be applied as a solid. The benefits of anti-icing include maintaining friction on the surface, which helps to alleviate the risk of slip and falls, and enables a cleaner scrape when plowing accumulated snow. Research has shown this proactive method requires only a quarter (or less) the amount of salt that is required to reactively melt snow and ice that has bonded to a paved surface.

SB0615_Sexton_BrineGraph (600x555)

Charging for the quantity of salt applied (by the pound or ton) no longer makes sense for our industry. Charging for salt with no consideration for standard methods or rates is not sustainable. The solution? Changing to a pricing method that accounts for meeting LOS expectations and providing accessible and safe conditions — not for the amount of salt used. The last two seasons of salt inventory shortages throughout North America have proven we, as an industry, are capable of using less salt and achieving the minimum required results when forced. 

Developing a budget strategy to consistently upgrade the quality of your fleet can be a benefit. New engine technologies and government fuel efficiency mandates are introduced to market on a regular cycle that promote cleaner and more efficient fuel alternatives. Additionally, new plowing and ice management equipment and technologies are continuously being introduced that support our ability to use less salt. 

Become a leader and get involved with the research. Contact Phill Sexton to learn more about how you can be involved in future salt research efforts being led by SIMA and their research partners. 

Be informed
by obtaining resources and training that can help you implement these sustainable practices. Visit SIMA’s Resources 24/7 Training Center at or contact the SIMA office 414-375-1940. 

Phill Sexton is Director of Outreach and Chief Knowledge Officer for SIMA. Contact him at
  • Burack,T., Steart, H., and P. Trowbridge. 2008 Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Study of Waterbodies in the Vicinity of the I-93 Corridor from Massachusetts to Manchester, NH. PolicyPorcupine Brook in Salem and Windham, NH. NHDES-R-WD-07-41.
  • Godwin, K. S., S. D. Hafner, and M. F. Buff. 2003. Long-term trends in sodium and chloride in the Mohawk River, New York: The effect of fifty years of road-salt application. Environmental Pollution 124:273-281.
  • Hossain, Kamal. December 2014. Optimal Snow and Ice Control of Parking Lots and Sidewalks. iTSS Lab Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Waterloo.
  • Kelly, V.R., Lovett, G.M., Weather, K.C., Findlay, S.E.G., Strayer, D.L., Burns, D.J., and G.E. Likens. 2008. “Long-term chloride retention in a rural watershed: legacy effects of road salt on streamwater concentrations.” Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 42, pp. 410-415.
  • Kaushal, S. S., P. M. Groffman, G. E. Likens, K. T. Belt, W. P. Stack, V. R. Kelly, L. E. Band, and G. T. Fisher. 2005. Increased Salinization of Fresh-water in the Northeastern United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102:13517-13520.
  • Novotny, E., D. Murphy, and H. Stefan. 2007. Road Salt Effects on the Water Quality of Lakes in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area. Project Report No. 505, St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • Smart About Salt. 2010. Regional Municipality of Waterloo. Educational Achievement and Award Submission to the Knowledge Management Working Group. Transportation Association of Canada.

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