Proper deicing salt storage is essential to any snow and ice operation. Whether you are a large municipality, a small private contractor or somewhere in between, how you choose to store your inventory can greatly affect the environment, your operations and bottom line. Prior to constructing your own salt storage facility, reach out to your local municipality and county to check any regulations that may be in force for these structures. Regardless of whether it is a temporary or permanent structure, there may be ordinances that you need to know.
In operating my snow and ice company, I watch my bottom line closely. For me, strategy — including managing inventory — is always top of mind. I like to start by breaking it down into three phases: Supplier Inventory, Company Inventory and Client Inventory.
Supplier inventory phase
We don’t have much control over this phase and often your supplier doesn’t either. However, how they handle their inventory is completely up to them.
I have seen bulk piles exposed to the weather at a dock. I have seen vessels unload when it’s raining or snowing. This usually happens when they are under pressure to deliver the supply or free up space. Wet salt can weigh over 20 percent more than dry salt. Given you probably pay by the ton, imagine the cost of lost volume when purchasing wet salt. On the flip side, I have received shipments of bulk salt that came from a vessel and dock storage facility that I would consider to be very high quality (no clumps, dry and consistent in granular size). Most recently, we took a shipment of bulk salt that was delivered by rail. The rail cars were weather tight. The product was great. It was so dry that scooping into the pile would set off a dust cloud of dry salt.
While we can’t control how suppliers handle their salt, we can control from whom we purchase and when. Suppliers should work with you to see that you receive the desired quality you seek.
The third-party transport company that handles most of our bulk salt hauling will tip us off to high- or low-quality salt at the dock, triggering a quick order or a hold. Purchasing salt inventory in season is not ideal and should be reserved as a last resort option. Instead, purchasing and stockpiling during the summer or early fall will more often than not result in drier salt and better availability. The downside is that you will need to secure working capital (generally a line of credit) or use cash to pay for the salt months before you get paid for it. Additionally, you will need a facility to properly store that valuable inventory.
Company inventory phase
This is usually at your home base, shop, satellite location or a combination. I recommend your facility has the capacity to hold 120 percent of what you would expect to use in an average year.
- Tarps and concrete: The most common form of this stage is the classic tarp roof structure mounted atop concrete blocks. These structures usually have an enclosed end panel and open front. Three years ago, we upgraded our salt storage building to this type of structure. Our building features an extended roof tarp that blankets down the exterior of the concrete blocks and further lays about three to four feet from the base along the ground. We then used clear stone to backfill the exterior wall for added strength and to hold the tarp down on the bottom. This has ensured that water shedding from the roof cannot run through the block walls and contaminate the salt.
Our building has an asphalt floor and is adjacent to a concrete pad for loading and unloading. We chose this type of facility because of its low cost per square foot. Additionally, in our area, tarp roof structures are considered “temporary” structures and do not require local building permits, and are not subject to real estate tax. The structure itself is subject to property tax, a much more favorable expense than a “brick and mortar” facility where real estate taxes would apply.
- Warehouse storage: Another common inventory structure is piling salt inside an existing warehouse-type building. The cost per square foot of warehouse space can be expensive and salt can be damaged since it will attract moisture from everywhere, even drawing it out of the air. The damage to the walls, steel fasteners, trusses, doors, etc. could be extensive and irreversible.
- Shipping containers: Bulk salt can be stored in shipping containers, which can be acquired at a low cost but don’t come without drawbacks. They are hard to load and move; can easily be damaged during loading or unloading; generally have a short lifespan; can be a cosmetic eyesore; and don’t allow for unused product from trucks to be easily returned to inventory. Trucks obviously can’t easily back into a shipping container and unload unused salt.
This brings up another valuable point when considering your storage facility. Salt that has been inside a salt truck during a snow or ice event has almost always been contaminated with moisture. It is virtually impossible to keep the salt from drawing moisture through the top and spinner shoot when driving around in the snow and slush. I am sure all of us have had the salt freeze while waiting to be reloaded for the next event.
Historically, when dealing with wet salt, we have plow/salt trucks plow unloaded and return to our shop to load just prior to spreading the wet salt. The idea is to reduce the amount of time the wet salt sits in a truck and to hopefully get it spread before it has a chance to freeze. This is very inefficient and costly and should never be a part of your normal operating strategy. So, the moral of the story is to purchase dry salt and keep it dry.
Client inventory phase
Having salt properly stored on-site can offer many advantages, including quicker response times and serving as a visual reminder to your client that you are prepared for the next event. If you find yourself in a slip and fall lawsuit, having salt on-site and ready to go sends the message that you care about what you are doing. A claim of negligence is that much more of a tough sell. It removes the variable of getting a salt truck to site during a snow or ice event. And, to take it one step further, it can eliminate the need for a truck altogether.
There have been many different approaches to on-site storage. Mostly I have seen a bulk pile and tarp, or a shipping container and truck. This is obviously more efficient than continually sending trucks back to a primary salt facility. The problem remains the storage. Pulling back a tarp on a salt pile that is covered with snow and ice in the freezing cold and wind can be dangerous and frustrating. It is also an invitation for government regulations that our industry doesn’t need.
Many clients will not agree to a shipping container being placed on their property for salt storage. If they are receptive to it, you still must contend with the issues stated earlier and still require a truck for spreading.
Up until a few years ago, my company did not store much salt on-site. Trucks loaded with salt were dispatched directly from our home base. I have become a big believer in having inventory at service locations.
A lot of money and effort is wasted driving around during snow and ice events when we should be focused on servicing the client. The operational inefficiencies, overhead, insurance and staffing costs of trucks on the road during events is so incredibly high that most snow contractors hesitate to even try to figure it out. It’s a complex equation, and the answer is discouraging.
There is a lot of revenue at stake. While there will likely always be a need for the typical truck/plow/salt rig, newer and more efficient technologies have come to market that are worth considering.
Equipment-based (skid loaders, wheel loaders, tractors, etc.) snow and ice control operations offer huge efficiencies. We use BOSS Snowplow’s QuickCube system*, which has allowed us to eliminate nearly all of our salt truck routes. The cubes are visually acceptable, weather tight and allow for a store and spread approach ensuring the material is never exposed to the elements. We inventory enough salt at each location to get through about four events.
How often have you had to dispatch salt trucks to maintain certain areas during a day event and then again to follow up after cleanup at night? It’s not uncommon to have three to four trips between clients and the loading facility just for one snow event. Our equipment operators are now engaged during salt events, not just plowing events. Salt budgets are kept in check because the operators are given a very specific quantity of cubes to use. We have been using the system on small gas station lots up to 14-acre lots.
Prior to making large investments in facilities and equipment to house your salt inventory, take the time to consider all aspects of your operations. Consider how much damage can be done by a leaky structure; how costly lost product can be, or all that water in the salt you just purchased. Consider your operations, and the logistics and growth plans for your company.
I recognize the need for smarter salt storage to help preserve our environment, protect our bottom lines and aid in efficiencies. Remember, your career is not a race to who has the prettiest, largest truck fleet or who is leveraged the most. Rather, it’s how much of that hard-earned revenue you were able to keep, invest and give back.
*Disclosure: Kohn is the creator of the QuickCube concept.
Nate Kohn is president of Nate’s Lawn Maintenance in Milwaukee, WI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.