Tackling your Personal Frozen Winter Wasteland

January 11, 2014

Removing snow and iceDigging through drifts to make paths for people and cars is tough enough. But the really hard part is dealing with the ice underneath. If it’s not too cold and windy, you could wait for the sun to remove it. But when the weather doesn’t cooperate, there are only three de-icing alternatives: break it, sand it or melt it.

One tempting option that doesn’t work: melting ice with hot water. You’ll get a brief improvement in a small area, then kettle after kettle of boiling water freezes quickly and makes the accident zone larger and more treacherous.

Breaking: Blows from a sledgehammer will break ice but too often damage what it’s clinging to, including slate walks, brick paths and concrete drives. You’ll have better but still iffy results breaking ice on a wood deck or steps that flex without fracturing.

Sanding: This is the quickest fix, with a coarse grade for better traction. And sand isn’t corrosive like some chemical de-icers that can erode the mortar holding together masonry steps and walks. You might follow the example of municipal road crews that use sand instead of salt, or use sand in addition to chemical de-icers to prevent skidding. In a pinch, some people use fireplaces ashes, which also improve footing but are tough to clean up when the mushy mix is tracked into the house.

Salting Salt works on highways the way it does on walks and drives — by lowering the freezing point of water. It was first used on U.S. roads in the 1930s but not until the 1960s as a routine addition to plowing. Now more than 15 million tons are used each year. In heavy snow states it’s a huge part of the highway department budget, and well worth it. A Marquette University study found that de-icing reduces winter weather crashes by 88 percent and injuries by 85 percent.

But there is a down side around the house. Repeated use of some salts will pit concrete and erode mortar, especially if you dump handfuls in one spot instead of spreading the mix evenly. In concentration the salt-laced runoff can harm vegetation and pets. To prevent that, check de-icer caution labels and always observe the cardinal rule about household chemicals: Don’t use a product on a problem it’s not intended to solve, like trying to melt ice with automotive antifreeze.

The best time to use de-icers is after snow starts to fall but before it accumulates, the way road crews do it. Salt too soon and the crystals bounce around and don’t adhere. Salt once the ground is wet and the granules take hold, then form a brine wash over the surface. That prevents more snow and ice from packing into a blanket that’s difficult to remove. Spreading early also uses less salt (one half to one cup per square yard on average) and makes it easier to shovel later on.

The most common de-icers are sodium chloride and calcium chloride. But many product names stress pet safety, plant protection or corrosion-free runoff, and leave you to decipher the chemical content from the fine print. Many are chemical combinations, which makes things more complicated.

Sodium chloride (rock salt) is the chunky version of everyday table salt. It’s the least expensive, $7 or $8 at big-box stores for a 50-pound bag, and melts to about 5 degrees. The down side: It leaves a white powdery residue when it dries and in concentration can erode concrete and harm vegetation. Calcium chloride is a faster-acting mix that melts to about -15 degrees. Available in flakes, pellets and as a liquid, it’s more expensive ($18 to $20 for a 50-pound bag) but less harmful to concrete and vegetation.

This post was originally published on ChicagoTribune.com on Jan. 10, 2014.

About The Author

Read All Stories By By Mike McClintock, Special to the Tribune