By Tony Johnson
A chloride crisis is happening right under our feet. Aquifers and wells throughout the United States and Canada have been irreversibly compromised in part by our industry’s over-reliance on salt - and it’s time for every stakeholder in the private snow and ice management industry to take off the blinders and realize the impact our work is having on the environment. I know that may sound hypocritical coming from me, since my company is one of the largest suppliers of rock salt in the Midwest. But hear me out.
From my perspective, as one of those stakeholders, we must be committed to being part of the solution. Yes, we need to make money, but it is also our job to be stewards of our environment by educating snow and ice management professionals and their clients on rock salt alternatives that will still allow them to safely service properties, and even save significant money along the way.
The business model of relying on rock salt treatments as a profit center is quickly becoming unsustainable. Property owners and management firms are becoming more educated about the benefits of using liquids on their properties. As a result, some of them are re-evaluating their current contracts and determining the profile of a snow contractor that will work to reduce the harmful effects on infrastructure such as sidewalks, parking lots and structures, and buildings (both interior and exterior).
In addition, rising chloride levels continue to attract the attention of governmental agencies as citizens demand action.
Solutions are out there, and they’re not new. We believe that with the wider use of better techniques, equipment and liquid deicers that already exist in the marketplace, we will greatly slow the pollution we are creating using a one-size-fits-all (use more salt) approach to deicing and snow removal. It’s no different from the evolution of the automobile industry, which has improved engine and exhaust systems to reduce emissions. Municipalities and forward-thinking colleagues in the private sector are already implementing these changes and successfully reducing salt consumption; yet for many, the resistance continues.
Our company established a liquids program in 2010, and it has been a hard sell - not because of the product but simply because it’s hard to get the contractors to make the change.
When we began looking at selling liquids, I was surprised that contractors said they didn’t work. Since rock salt turns into “liquid” salt brine - the same solid material that contractors have used for years, I was puzzled. Contractors either saw problems with old liquid equipment or didn’t believe the science. We did extensive research into contractor perspectives and narrowed our focus to three distinct areas that shaped their notion that liquids don’t work:
- Contractors relied on electric spray pump systems that released only 25% of the liquid required for the application. Hydraulic and gas pumps are considered the standard in meeting the PSI requirements for spraying liquids for anti-icing and deicing applications.
- Contractors expected liquids to replace solids and tried deicing an inch of snow or a half-inch of ice. The science and in-field uses validate that properly blended brines begin to melt snow and ice on contact. Soon after the brine begins to lose its effectiveness because its concentration is reduced as water (created after melting snow and ice) blends with the chloride brine. De-icing no more than ¼ inch of snow or frost is recommended.
- Some of the liquids produced pre-2010 were based on flawed science. The concentrations of chlorides were under or over optimal ratios, making them ineffective.
The industry, including suppliers, SIMA, industry experts and case studies, have shown that liquids, treated salt and non-chloride alternatives will reduce salt use. Yet, fear of change, unfounded declining profit margins and/or unfounded performance concerns make moving the needle on progress difficult.
Consider the following:
- Anti-icing will significantly reduce snow and ice bonding and reduce the amount of deicing material to remove snow pack by two to four times.
- Contractors using liquids are growing their businesses faster than those who don’t.
The more that snow professionals learn the science behind removing snow and ice, the more profitable they will become. In the past seven years, many contractors have gone through our program of learning ice melt science and how to use liquids. No company has come back to us saying they lost money investing in new equipment and using liquids as part of their strategy.
Take a chance
I encourage contractors who are serious about accepting responsibility for lowering their company’s chloride emissions to invest in learning the science behind the use of treated salt and liquids and to take an honest, objective look at their salt use per season, per site, per event, etc. Benchmark against industry best practices established by organizations like SIMA (www.sima.org/bestpractices
) and strive for more efficient use. Small steps can lead to big reductions, but you have to make the effort.
Users of treated salt in the Midwest market have increased more than 20% over the past three years, with much of the conversion coming from contractors earning $1 million or less in snow removal revenue. Users of treated salt use 20% less material while achieving the same result. As a result, the contractors are more profitable by 10% to 20%.
Don’t spend time trying to reinvent the wheel. Trust the work already done over the past 20 years by municipalities, SIMA, snow contractors participating in the Sustainable Salt Initiative (SSI) in your market or others, and programs like Chloride Conscious, Smart About Salt and Sustainable Winter Management (SWiM) to give you a template of best practices and tools to help you adapt/transition or get started in using new snow removal methods and deicing materials, which will result in higher profits for you.
We are committed to increasing the narrative on this subject not only with contractors but also with property owners and managers seeking a better way. We can’t undo the damage that has been done but we can take steps to mitigate future impact that our operations have on our groundwater supply.
Following are keys to establishing a solid salt reduction program:
- Knowing how much liquid you are applying is paramount to your success.
- Blend carbohydrate material (e.g., corn syrup, beet juice or organic polymers) to reduce brine runoff and, in most cases, increase the melting performance.
- Use the right liquid (brine) at the right time.
- Calibrate your existing salt spreaders to ensure you know exactly how much salt your team is applying at each setting.
- Begin to use treated salt. We have found most contractors use 20% less material than when using untreated salt.
- Upgrade snow equipment with the goal to remove as much snow and ice prior to using deicers.
- A good first step investment for most is to add saddle tanks to existing V-boxes. This enables contractors to apply the best liquid at the time of salt application, providing the benefit of treated salt at a fraction of the cost.
Do the math
I have heard stories of contractors using 900 lbs. of salt per surface acre for a typical application. If this is you, you’re using too much salt. By following the aforementioned tips, contractors have been able to lower their application rates by more than half, including the liquid applications. If anecdotal evidence isn’t enough to sway you, will the math?
For a contractor buying 3,000 tons per year at $60/ton, the material savings is 1,650 tons or $100,000. Is that savings enough for you to make the switch?
- Snow and ice will bond with pavement and sidewalks.
- The more snow and ice removed with a pusher or shovel, the less chemical is needed to remove the remaining snow and ice.
- Solid deicing chemicals must change from a solid to a liquid and then blend with water to reduce the freeze point of the snow and ice.
- The more surface area the deicing material is touching, the faster the material will work.
- Too much deicing material causes:
- Dehydration (browning of plants and grass) next to the treated surfaces
- Messy and polluted parking lots and sidewalks with extra salt that did not form a brine because there was not enough snow and ice
- Contamination of on-site ponds and waterways
- Pitting of some concrete surfaces
Tools to help reduce chloride emissions
Tony Johnson is president of Midwest Salt, based in West Chicago, IL. Learn more at www.MidwestSalt.com, www.ChlorideConscious.com, or by calling 630-513-7575 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.