deicers and safe ice melt

This or That: What's the Safest Way to Melt Ice?

Salt and sand both boast ice-fighting properties, but each has consequences for your soil and water.

This or That: What's the Safest Way to Melt Ice?

Properly deiced sidewalks prevent winter mishaps.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Snow and ice removal can be affected by budget or morale (who wants to dig out the snowblower yet one more time?), but its effectiveness starts with what you use to melt the ice. Chemical deicers can be marvelously convenient, "set it and forget it" modes of dealing with too much snow, but they don't always work in extremely cold weather. Sand may make it easier to walk to your car, but you need a lot for it to work. So, which is best?

This: Salt-based Deicers

Pros: When deicers come into contact with moisture, they form a brine, which has a lower freezing point than water. That brine does melt some ice or snow, but the primary purpose is to prevent the frozen stuff from bonding to pavement so it's easier to shovel. Standard deicers are made from various forms of salt—sodium chloride (or table salt, a.k.a rock salt when it's in bigger chunks), calcium chloride (that white stuff that looks kind of like styrofoam pellets), or potassium chloride—and two ingredients (urea and calcium magnesium acetate) that are commonly found in fertilizers. Most home-deicer formulations are made with a mixture of those ingredients for convenience and performance, as each one works differently under different temperatures and conditions.

Cons: All that salt can be damaging to plants (salt inhibits the absorption of moisture into the soil), and it can sicken pets who walk through it and lick it off their paws. Some forms of salt, along with those ingredients derived from fertilizer, are particularly hard on concrete. The chemicals can draw water down into a concrete surface, where it freezes and causes the surface to crack. Salt that washes into rivers and streams can increase the salinity of water to the point that fish and marine life begin to die off, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rivers and streams in areas of the northern U.S. that receive heavy snowfall have seen increases in salt concentrations. In some cases, those waterways feed into public drinking supplies, where salt concentrations can put residents at risk for high blood pressure or other heart problems. And, tracked in on the soles of winter boots, salt can stain carpets and floors.

Is there a better alternative to chemical deicers? Read on to find out.


Published on: February 8, 2010

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