Not so fast

Features - 2013 Snow and Ice Report

Liquid deicer offers some advantages over rock salt, but there is some advice contractors should heed before diving head first into the product.

November 5, 2013
Jason Stahl

In a perfect world, Randy Strait would use liquid deicer 100 percent of the time. It doesn’t leave a residue like solid salt does. Plus, you can pretreat a site with it and create a bond so that the ice won’t adhere to the pavement. With salt, the wind can blow it away, or cars can drive over it and crush it and make it an unsightly mess.

“A storm that you thought was five hours away ends up being a whole day away, and now you come off looking really bad for laying down all this salt where cars are crushing it and the wind picks up and it starts to blow away,” says Strait, president of Arctic Snow and Ice Control in Frankfort, Ill.

Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, and we know the snow business is anything but predictable and tidy. Liquid deicer has its disadvantages, too. Strait cautions that when you use liquid calcium chloride for deicing versus anti-icing, it becomes very slick prior to activating. Grains of salt, however, act like sand and provide instant traction. Another disadvantage of liquid is that you can’t visually see how much you’re putting down versus solid, which you can see sitting atop the ice. But GPS-driven units can help make sure operators put down the correct amount.

Still, the fact is that only three percent of Arctic’s anti-icing stockpile is liquid. And that’s simply because of the costs associated with liquid material – primarily from having to transport it to sites.

“With grain salt, you can have piles strategically placed in your area. We have 35 and a wheel loader at each location,” Strait says. “But if I were to switch over to liquid and you have to have big tanks to store it, where are those tanks? At your headquarters? And that presents a big problem for me geographically because I can’t have all 73 of my trucks driving all the way back to the yard and then back out to the site. Nor can I put tanks on every site because then I would need an engine or electricity to drive it, and now the costs are very high.”

Strait’s liquid product is dedicated to major jobs that demand a non-corrosive product. His bulk salt is enhanced or “pretreated and prewet” with either corn starch, magnesium, beet juice or a chloride product.

“The reason we do that is it brings the salt to lower temperatures for melting performance and it also keeps it soft,” Strait says. “One of the problems with salt trucks is that if you get big chunks the size of bricks, they can clog up your whole system.”

Strait’s advice for other contractors is to not go “all out” on liquid deicer; rather, use it selectively on sites where they have a long history and know exactly how much bulk salt they normally spread there. “Put a real good operator on it who you’re in communication with and watch the results,” he advises. “Find out what the previous costs were versus the current costs, and then you can make an educated decision.”

It’s always good to have some liquid in your arsenal, Strait says, just in case grain salt is in short supply. Arctic cured its own salt shortage problem by building domes that can hold 300 to 500 semi truck loads each.

A nice mix. Mike Jones, president and CEO of True North Outdoor in Kansas City, Kan., agrees that rock salt can leave quite a mess, especially if the storm misses you.

“Liquid deicer allows you to avoid the issue of granular salt having to be swept up,” he says. “With a melting agent, you can utilize it well ahead of the storm and there is a minimal amount of cleanup, plus it performs better.” Plus, aside from using it as a stand-alone product, you can apply it to solid product to increase the solid product’s effectiveness and extend its reach.

“Liquid with some kind of agent like beet juice or cornstarch lowers the corrosion of rock salt and acts as an adhering agent to create a liquid product that sticks to salt,” Jones says. “The rock salt becomes a carrying agent of better melting chloride, which kickstarts it.”

That’s exactly the reason why Jim Sebert of Sebert Landscaping Co. in Chicago is in his second year of a trial run using liquid deicer to extend his solid product applications and create a longer residual effect. He purchased three or four salt spreaders last year that incorporate liquid with rock salt, and while he didn’t get a whole lot of feedback due to the mild winter, he said that the results were positive overall.

“On the few test sites where we applied it, the biggest difference was that we got more of an immediate reaction when applying the granular product with liquid. It sped up the process,” he said. “I think this is the trend we’re heading toward. Municipalities have been using some sort of liquid for quite a bit of time now as a pretreatment to a snow event.”

One handy tip Jones has is to use the correct spray nozzles for liquid. Different nozzles have different applications, for example pre-treatment versus blanket application. Jones also cautions against over applying as it can result in slickness. Finally, he learned firsthand to use a snow-grade liquid for deicing versus a dust control liquid – an entirely different application where liquids are popular.

“Dust control liquids need to have less than one percent solids in them, where they’ll precipitate out and turn into gel,” he says. “I once accidentally used dust control liquid that gelled up on bridges I was doing for the city and it was a disaster.” Like Sebert, Jones says contractors who are new to liquids should take baby steps first.

“Start conservatively. Use some liquid at your own house and learn what it can do. Also, you could ask some customers if they would mind you putting some down for free on their property to see what it can do. In a way, you’re selling the customer on it by doing that, too.”



The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.