What you need to know before purchasing winter salt or ice melter

It’s winter. And with it comes snow and ice. Which I happen to like because it helps recharge my home, the aquifer.

But I understand for you, snow and ice can bring its own challenges. Along with the shovel, ice chopper and sand, salt is a tool you might reach for.

If you’ve ever purchased salt or another de-icing product, I’m sure you have discovered there isn’t just one cure-all, but several products that promise different things. And if you want to help protect the environment, product labels can be confusing.

Many different ice melting products available to purchase.

Did you know currently there are no labelling laws when it comes to de-icers? The product might say environmentally friendly, 100 per cent natural, or salt free. But is it?

Salt and most ice melting products contain chloride but how much? And it is the chloride that is damaging to me, groundwater – your drinking water.

So what to do? Before reaching for any product, read the Region of Waterloo’s snow and ice clearing tips.

Reading the labels of the different brands is important. Some products are more corrosive, whereas others are specifically designed to be safe around pets. Some products have finer grains to allow for a more even spread so it works faster and is more effective. The working temperature for these products can also vary making it crucial to follow package directions carefully.

Here’s a list of common active ingredients and the lowest melting temperature they are most effective. Keep in mind the melting temperature is for the pavement temperature and not the air temperature.

  • Urea (NH2)2CO : 0 to -7 Celsius
  • Sodium Chloride (NaCl) : 0 to -10 Celsius
  • Magnesium Chloride (MgCl2) : 0 to -23 Celsius
  • Potassium Acetate (KCH3COO) : 0 to -26 Celsius
  • Calcium Chloride (CaCl2) : 0 to -29 Celsius
  • Sand : provides traction but does not melt ice

What to consider when buying your ice melter:

  • Read the product packaging to understand what temperature your product works best
  • The finer the grain the better – it will work faster and spread more evenly
  • Whatever product you buy remember to use it sparingly to limit its damaging impact on me, groundwater
  • When using traction sand, look for a product with little – less than 5 per cent – or no salt

Make sure to read the product instructions for your salt or ice melter carefully. Using too much salt, or using it when the product doesn’t work at all, will not only waste your salt and money, it will also negatively impact me, plant life and infrastructure.

The hidden costs of winter salt and ice melter you might not know about

With winter here, salt is top of mind for me. Let’s talk about the cost of using salt (and ice melter and de-icing products).

Hidden costs of salt

The obvious one is the cost of purchasing it. For that reason alone, it makes sense to spread only what you need and only when you need it. And did you know you can sweep up leftover salt to save for another time?

Not that money is a big deal for me, but if we’re talking money, it’s hard to put an exact dollar amount on the environmental cost of using salt.

According to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s 2018 report (Volume 2 – Clean Water – Chapter 2 : page 87) the hidden cost of salt on infrastructure and the environment range from $200 to $470 per ton of salt applied.

A National Post article “The awesome price we pay” outlines some of the costs of using salt. The author writes “Dalhousie University estimated that it costs it an extra $15,000 in cleaning and maintenance each year just to repair all the damage salt does to floors and baseboards”.

What are the hidden costs of salt?

  • Your drinking water. Since this is my blog I’ll start with me. The salt and other de-icing products spread on the ground can eventually mix with me. Over time this will make me – groundwater – taste salty.
  • Sore paws. Have you ever watched a dog trying to walk through salt? Salt trapped in their paws can irritate and crack their skin.
  • Damage to buildings and concrete surfaces. Salt is toxic and will eat away at outside structures (brick/concrete/sidewalks), doorways and flooring may become damaged, increasing repair costs.
  • Health of soil, plants and landscaping. If sprayed with salt, vegetation can lose its hardiness to the cold and be killed by freezing temperatures and high salt levels.
  • Footwear and clothing. Salt stains and can ruin footwear and clothing.
  • Vehicles, bicycles and wheelchairs. Salt accelerates rusting, causing damage and increasing repair costs.
  • Health of waterways for aquatic life. Salt changes water density, which can negatively affect the seasonal mixing of lake waters. This mixing is important to increase oxygen levels required by aquatic life for survival.

That’s my list. Do you have an experience to share about the cost of salt? Also, check out the Region of Waterloo’s website for tips on clearing snow and ice.

Cheers, Groundwater

6 mistruths about winter salt

Groundwater here. Let’s talk salt. I’m not talking beaches or seasoning but the stuff spread on the roads, parking lots, sidewalks, driveways, stairs – pretty much anywhere outside you walk, bike or drive in the winter.

Don’t get me wrong, salt has its benefits. It’s easy to find, relatively cheap and for the most part does a good job of melting ice so it’s safer for you to get around.

But if you are me – groundwater – salt isn’t so great. Unfortunately, what is put on the ground can end up where I am and overtime that same salt and ice melter will make me – your drinking water – taste salty.

2018 Chloride levels at Region of Waterloo municipal well sites

Here are my top six mistruths about salt that I think contribute to it being a water quality concern for me and my cousins in lakes and streams.

  1. Salt doesn’t harm the environment. FACT: Salt is a toxic substance and is a pollutant to water quality. Salt is a chemical but because it is found naturally and it’s used in your food, salt isn’t treated as such. Like many things it is about moderation and only using the right amount when needed.
  2. You can use an environmentally-friendly ice melter. FACT: Most ice melter and de-icing products including ones labelled “100 per cent natural”, and “pet, plant and environmentally friendly” use salt as their main ingredient. Even when you think you are using something environmentally friendly, it probably isn’t water friendly. Take a close look at the product labelling. If it melts ice it most likely lists chloride (Cl) as one of its ingredients and is damaging to water.
  3. Salt works in all temperatures. FACT: Salt (sodium chloride) works best between 0 and -10 Celsius. When it’s colder, it is best to switch to sand for traction or use an ice melter that works at colder temperatures. That ice melter is still damaging to water so make sure to follow product instructions and only use on icy areas only after you have cleared the snow.
  4. Salt goes away. FACT: Salt doesn’t leave the environment. It’s actually the chloride in salt that’s the problem. Chloride is highly soluble, meaning it gets inside me and won’t get out. Have you ever had a house guest who overstays their welcome? For me, that’s chloride.
  5. Water and wastewater treatment removes salt. FACT: Current water and wastewater treatment does not remove chloride in salt and ice melter products from water. Removing salt requires desalination which is extremely expensive and energy intensive, and greatly increases greenhouse gases.
  6. Salt is regulated and you must take training to use it. FACT: Anyone can spread salt. If the person spreading the salt hasn’t been educated on proper techniques and how harmful salt is to water, they often spread way too much or assume salt is the best tool when conditions say otherwise.

So there you have it. My six mistruths about salt. I’m sure there are others so I’d love to hear from you.