A mild winter, such as this past one, left many snow removal contractors with a surplus of ice melt product. Ice melt materials, with proper storage, can be kept and used in the coming months, they say. In the Midwest, rock salt is king when it comes to ice melting applications.
“We really got lackadaisical throughout the years because it was so readily available. Then as this shortage took place, it’s been my experience you really want to plan ahead,” says Tom Barry, founder of Battle Creek Landscape Service, based in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Barry says prices were reasonable up until the 2012-2013 season. Then there was a salt shortage and prices have been higher ever since.
“I don’t see them ever going back down that low,” he says.
Battle Creek Landscape has been in business and offering snow removal service for 30 years. Its annual revenue is about $1 million. During peak season, 20 employees are on staff.
After the rock salt shortage, Midwest suppliers went to a pre-purchase plan, Barry says. All of his salt is purchased cash on delivery now. To free up funds, Barry says Battle Creek Landscape changed its business model and requires retainer agreements from all of its commercial clients.
“We like to give the analogy of we’re an insurance provider and by locking in with us, you’re guaranteed the quality service that you’re used to getting from us,” he says.
Going into each season, Barry says he prefers to purchase at least the same amount of salt that was used during the prior year. His company also uses a liquid brine application to augment granular applications.
“Then we try to have some sort of buffer. Usually we like to have 50 to 100 extra tons in reserve over what we used the previous year,” he says. “We’re still in negotiation with our different suppliers. If we don’t have something here by end of September we get nervous.”
At Avalon Landscapes, based in Meridian, Idaho, general manager Mike Martin purchased about 10 to 12 1-ton pallets of granular product last season. During peak season they employ 24 individuals.
Martin purchased about 20 pallets, for his $1.5-million company, but right now he is sitting on four pallets of unused product.
“We’re sitting on almost $1,400 worth of inventory that can’t make us any money until next year,” he says.
Managing a smaller operation.
As a smaller operation, Elijah Stiner, owner of Stiner Brothers based in Piedmont, Oklahoma, says his experience buying ice melt is a bit different than it is for larger companies. Primarily a fencing contractor, his company also offers landscape maintenance, and commercial snow removal. Stiner Brothers has an annual revenue of about $500,000 and five to seven full-time employees on staff year-round.
He only uses calcium chloride, available in bags from big box stores and uses his contractor discount of 10 to 15 percent off, depending on the store.
“We just try to have what we used the year before on hand,” Stiner says.
He says they did the same this year, but a mild winter left him with about 4,500 pounds of product. He will use it next winter. If planning for a harsh winter, Stiner offers a few tips.
“Be the first one at the store, get up early,” he says.
Stiner will call ahead to every store before showing up. Last year, the product was put in stores as early as September, he adds. Sometimes it’s marked down at the end of the season.
“If you can afford to, buy it in bulk and store it,” he says. “It’s always better to have more than not be able to have any.”
Barry’s company has a storage barn designed to hold up to 200 tons of salt at a time. Instead he doubles it and has about 400 tons inside. This has maxed out their space.
“We made it work but we’re at our limit right now,” he says.
A front-end loader is used to scoop the salt, which is contained on three sides by blocks.
Martin says he stores granular ice melt in a 15-foot covered trailer, but the trailer is rotting from exposure to the product. His company uses both magnesium chloride and calcium chloride in granular form.
“I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody because we have to do a lot of work on that trailer every year from the actual rot that’s happening,” he says.
Additional magnesium chloride is kept on site in trailers at client locations. Unopened magnesium chloride is placed in a “Marine barrack” like storage area, he says. This is where four pallets currently reside. Magnesium chloride can clump if not stored in a climate-controlled area.
Since first experiencing a shortage, Barry says his team implemented several tactics to track, measure and record salt usage. One tactic is the use of a DICKEY-john computer controller on his truck’s salt spreader.
“We got real accurate measurements of all of our parking lots. It’s a computer controller that measures and changes the application rates based upon the speed of the vehicle,” Barry says. “If the vehicle starts to slow down, the computer tells the applicator to slow its process so it’ll put down less product.”
Barry hopes to make a return on his investment in the controller within three years. Before purchasing the controller, they “measured” salt visually.
“It was accurate to a degree but because the salt prices were cheap we didn’t have to be spot on,” he says.
Martin says his company’s controller tracks salt purchasing.
“We know down to the bag count,” he says. “We know every year what we’ve purchased and what we use and what we have left.”
Negotiate early and often with suppliers, Barry says. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Use more than one supplier.”
Going with the supplier with the lowest price is not always the best tactic, he says. It’s important to keep a relationship going with a few suppliers.
Martin says he typically makes a deal with his suppliers at the beginning of the season.
“I have three to four vendors that we buy the granular magnesium chloride and calcium chloride, and only one vendor that sells us the liquid,” he says.
Fortunately, the liquid magnesium chloride can be sold back to the supplier at season end for the exact same price he originally paid. Martin recalls a two-day snow event last November where the area was hit with 16 inches. There was a shortage of magnesium chloride and instead they had to purchase overpriced, low-quality rock salt.
“We were paying about 35 to 40 percent more for about a week and a half, and it was junk and the guys that had it knew they had it and they would just mark it way up,” Martin says.