Managing salt/deicing products can make or break a successful snow operation. Here’s how some of the best do it.
Salt: it’s possible that snow managers dream of piles of it at night. It’s essential to your snow operation, yet it can be costly and difficult to manage. Whether it’s rock salt or deicer, the client expects it to work to perfection so ice turns to bare concrete.
So how do successful landscape contractors who offer snow services manage this valuable commodity and their clients’ expectations?
Money, money, money. First, let’s start with purchasing. Steve Bernhard, senior account manager and “snow commander” at Christy Webber Landscapes in Chicago, uses a combination of bulk and bagged rock salt, bagged calcium and bagged ice melt. He uses a variety of different brands and often shops around for the best value. And he orders it late.
“We don’t start bringing in salt until as late as possible,” Bernhard says. “We do landscaping usually right up until the first snow, so we are very tight on space. We generally don’t commit to quantities or pre-order well in advance. We have a division of our company that does all of the bulk buying – soil, mulch, salt – so I just need to let them know what I need, where and how much, and they get it there.
“Our purchasers are the ones who source the best values taking into consideration the product, trucking and delivery timelines. It’s great, because it’s one less thing I need to deal with.”
Christy Webber typically needs 700 to 800 tons of product in a normal season, with an additional 20 flatbed semi loads of assorted bagged product.
All bagged material is preloaded for exactly how much each route will need, and each job site may get different bagged material depending on what the client requests and what works best for those individual sites.
Cost per bag has ranged from $55 to more than $100 per ton several years ago when there was a big shortage in the Chicagoland area.
Overall, the product Christy Webber uses has been effective in doing its job, Bernhard says. But some clients have specific requests that may compromise that effectiveness. “Lots of people want pet-friendly ice melt,” he says. “But I explain to them that the best practice for pets is to use it sparingly. From what we’ve seen, the more pet-friendly it is, the longer and less effective it is at melting ice.”
Bernhard says that each year, his company tends to eliminate headaches with salt/deicer by working well together as a team.
“We buy what we need and keep excellent records on what we use and what we’re projecting. We have really good vendors and a great purchasing and yard department that all work together so we’re not sitting with lots of product at the end of the season.”
No pain. If more salt equals more headaches, then Case Snow Management of Attleboro, Mass., is primed for a migraine every year due to the fact that it uses more than 4,000 tons per winter.
But somehow they manage to avoid reaching for the aspirin by working with vendors who can fulfill their needs.
“We have (salt) before the season starts, but only a small bit in case we get those early winter or late fall storms,” says Neal Glatt, account executive for Case. “We work with suppliers to manage our supply. We let them know what we’re expecting as far as material purchases and make sure they’re up to the task of providing it to us at a moment’s notice.”
The material includes treated rock salt, or bulk rock salt with additives that help reduce the freezing point.
Case will use various sidewalk blends on different sites based on a variety of factors such as pavement type and what’s around the area that may be susceptible to corrosion.
“We try to come up with something that will be safe for all of the environment and the built environment while still being an effective deicer,” Glatt says.
Glatt says that most people in New England use sand, but his company has not used sand for almost 10 years and has no regrets.
“Being able to melt down to the bare pavement has been a big factor, and clients see a huge cost savings and we see safety increase, so it has been a win-win,” he says.
Case uses several different brands of salt/deicer and Glatt says it’s part of their job to evaluate the options for the client, test different products and determine which product is the most effective and allows them to pass along cost savings to the client.
“We’ve tried hundreds and found out that plenty don’t work as advertised,” Glatt says.
“The issue is that there are only so many deicers available on the market, and many people try to blend them together and cut them with this or that to make them work better.
“But if we take a salt shaker and add a pinch of sugar to it, we’ve lowered the freezing point of that mixture. But will it really help you in the field? No. That happens a lot in the deicer market.”
At the end of the day, Glatt says, you get what you pay for.
Case stores its salt in bins constructed of 2x2x6 concrete blocks. Hay bales are put around the bins to control leaching, and they get covered with heavy duty tarp systems to protect them from the elements.
Some salt is kept directly on job sites for maximum efficiency.
“We drop bins strategically through our coverage area so we’re not wasting time driving an hour to get salt to the site,” Glatt says. “We also aren’t relying on landscape centers to be open and not have lines.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.
Pouring it on
Regulating the use of salt/deicer is a science unto itself. It’s not easy, but when done effectively, you end up with happy clients and a happy bottom line.
“You want to make sure you melt ice adequately, but also that you don’t over apply because you’re throwing money on the ground and harming the environment,” says Neal Glatt, account executive for Case Snow Management.
From a theoretical perspective, based on all the research they’ve done over the years, Case Snow Management knows how much salt/deicer should be used at each site. At the same time, they let their drivers experiment a little.
“If it’s 4 a.m. and everything is plowed and now we have to deice and the site doesn’t open till 6 a.m., we’ll put down a little less and see how little we can get by with because there’s time to go back and touch it up before the client shows up,” Glatt says. “And obviously, the more time you allow for material to work, the less you need to melt the same amount of ice.”
The drivers are a taught a little scientific theory on how the salt/deicer works, but it’s also audited very closely as it is a major cost of Case’s snow operation.