A shot of salt: Adding salt brine to your deicing arsenal

August 4, 2014 -  By

Snow removal professionals and experts discuss adding salt brine to your deicing arsenal.

Using salt brine in a snow removal operation follows the same concept applied when cooking an egg, Diana Clonch says. You put oil in the pan to prevent the egg from sticking to the cookware.

When used as an anti-icing application before a winter event, salt brine prevents a bond from forming between falling snow or ice and an outdoor surface.

“What it does is create a little layer, a cushion we can plow off when we get there, and it’s not stuck to the road,” says the owner of consulting firm DW Clonch. She presented the concept at a preconference workshop at the Snow & Ice Symposium, held June 18-21 in Columbus, Ohio. 

The workshop included a facility tour of the City of Columbus Complex and an education session on brine production and application—a practice Clonch started using 20 years ago and carried over to the City of Columbus before retiring from her public works position three years ago.

It’s the simplest liquid formula in the snow removal market, she says. The “secret recipe” is rock salt and water, 23.3 percent of salt dissolved into water, to be exact. It equates to a little more than 2 lbs. of salt per gallon of water. 

While brine has been used overseas and among governments and municipalities for 30-plus years, Clonch says the solution is slowly picking up steam in the private sector. It’s anticipated to gain more popularity, given its cost-effective nature and the industry’s lingering wariness from last winter’s salt dilemma.

“It’s an evolution,” she says. “It’s a very inexpensive alternative to other deicing chemicals, (it’s) a tool (contractors) certainly need to know about.”

Though it’s not ubiquitous, there are some snow removal professionals who have made and used their own brine for some time.

Take Chris Molloy, who’s used brine for more than a decade, working at landscape companies with snow removal operations and now as a manufacturer and distributer of it as a general manager for Harmony Deicing.

There’s also Shannon Shaw, who tested brine out when he founded Pinnacle Property Maintenance in Columbus, Ohio, in 2005.

How salt brine is used is a matter of whether the contractor wants to be proactive or reactive to a winter event.

Proactive approach: anti-icing

Anti-icing, Clonch and professionals concur, can be the most effective use of the deicer. It’s taking the proactive approach, directly applying brine to a surface before a storm to prevent snow and ice from bonding to the surface.

The rule of thumb is to use only an ounce per square yard for anti-icing applications, Clonch says, or “a shot glass per square yard.”

“We aren’t trying to saturate the pavement,” she says. “It’s to prevent a bond from forming.”

How that works is after an anti-icing application—which can be performed with a spray wand or walk-behind unit for smaller areas and, among other equipment, a tow-behind unit for trucks—the water in the brine evaporates, leaving small concentrated lines of salt that mix with falling snow or ice to form a cushion between the surface and precipitation.

There are several factors to take into consideration before anti-icing with brine, Clonch says, and most are moisture-dependent.

For example, brine should be applied to dry surfaces where rain is not forecasted for 24 hours and temperatures are 20 F to 35 F, she says. At above 35 F, the salt will suck moisture out of the air, and below 20 F there’s the potential to create ice. There must be a sufficient amount of time for the solution to dry onto a surface before the surface’s temperature falls below 20 F, she adds.

Molloy, who also is a project manager for Mundelein, Ill.-based Woodland Landscape Contractors & Nursery, has found using brine as an anti-icing application is only good for melting or cushioning up to 1 inch of snow. While it’s not a dramatic amount of snow, he says it still can lower contractors’ costs in the long run because they aren’t working as hard to deice surfaces, which means saving on money, time and labor. 

Other professionals, like Shaw, see the proactive approach not worth their while. Recently retired from Pinnacle, Shaw is now the owner of Snow & Ice Consulting. He recalls when Pinnacle first introduced salt brine to clients. It offered anti-icing services to them one to seven days before a winter event, but most customers viewed that as overkill.

“It’s such a proactive type of item that finding a customer that wants that level of customer service is difficult,” Shaw says.

Still, he sees the benefit of brine in that it gives contractors some borrowed time to treat a surface after a snow event, since surfaces aren’t as bound by snow or ice. Plus, he says, “Environmentally, it’s a better product because it goes where you put it.”

Reactive approach: pre-wetting

To that end, Clonch reminds snow pros: “Anti-icing is not a replacement for anything we do in deicing. It is a complement.” 

Still, brine can cut back on rock salt application rates by 20 percent when applied as a pre-wet to rock salt, Clonch says.

“When the rock salt is wet with a liquid, it has a tendency to stick where you put it,” she says and suggests contractors pre-wet rock salt with brine as it’s being discharged onto a surface. Although, pre-wetting an entire stockpile could cause it to firm up, she cautions.

Jack DeFillip notes agricultural products, such as beet juice, as must-have additives for brines. Clonch advises to use about 15 percent agriculture product in brine.

“Basically the ag products are there as a corrosion inhibitor or to make it a little more viscous,” says DeFillip, vice president of sales for Snow & Ice Management Co., a Pittsburgh-based snow removal company and deicing product distributor. The viscosity reduces bounce and scatter of the rock salt and it lowers the chance of melted snow or ice refreezing.

Shaw advocates for agricultural additives in brines, too, given he’s always used them.

“We experimented with every one you can think of over the years,” he says, and adds Pinnacle prefers beet juice now. The firm also prefers calcium chloride brines more than salt brines because they lower the freezing temperature of water more.

The narrow freeze point depressant of salt brine is one of the “limits of the tool,” Clonch says.

Salt brine limitations, other recipes

Because its active agent is salt, salt brine has the same deicing range as rock salt. It becomes ineffective at around 20 F, whereas other chemicals deice far beyond that temperature.

It’s for that reason some contractors turn to brines composed of, for instance, water and magnesium chloride or calcium chloride. Or they might add those chemicals to salt brine to increase its melting range, but Clonch says they shouldn’t make up more than 10 percent of the solution.

For the most part, choosing what type of brine to use depends on what’s available in a region of the country, Molloy says. Magnesium chloride is more available in the West; calcium chloride is typically available in the Midwest, he says. Salt, on the other hand, is used universally.

The flip side to using other brines is they’re often more expensive, DeFillip says. He has seen up to an 80 cents per gallon price difference between those and salt brine to produce the solutions.

Another hesitation about salt brine is the cost of switching or purchasing new equipment for liquid applications and, perhaps, the equipment expense that comes with making your own brine.

A safe entryway for smaller companies, Molloy says, is to test out premade brines in the market to figure out what works best for you and to fabricate your own application equipment, such as booms, sprayers and holding tanks before investing in new products.

“You have to weigh those upfront costs versus what you will save for several seasons,” he says. “Liquids are a great product. They can save a contractor money and reduce his cost, but the biggest thing is they have to have an understanding of what they’re working with and what their limitations are.”

About the Author:

Former Associate Editor Sarah Pfledderer is a West Coast-based contributing editor for Landscape Management.

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