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Experts share do’s and don’ts of de-icing

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 8, 2012

BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD HILLS — While we’ve been fortunate to have an unusually mild season so far this year, we’re not out of the woods just yet, and we may need to haul out that bag of salt again a time or two.

But how salt-savvy are we in metro Detroit? Laura Gruzwalski, a staff environmental analyst with Hubbell, Roth & Clark, has worked with several communities in the area, including Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, Franklin and Beverly Hills, on how they can keep city roads safe in a more efficient and eco-friendly manner.

“They’re just making sure their trucks are calibrated so they’re not wasting any salt,” she said. “Also, they’re identifying areas of greater need to save salt. Intersections get more salt than side streets. But safety is obviously an issue.”

The idea, says Gruzwalski, is to use as little salt as possible to prevent it from seeping into storm drains, which eventually lead to lakes and streams. She says many people don’t think about how sewers could lead to contamination of natural resources.

“Unlike a sanitary sewer system, storm drains take in water and (don’t) treat it in any way. So whatever catch basins you have along your street, when things get in there, like leaf debris, fertilizer, or salt, it eventually goes to a lake or river, and it isn’t treated.”

In an effort to promote sustainability, Gruzwalski said, many communities are utilizing beet juice in de-icing efforts. The natural antifreeze properties of beet juice, when combined with the salt and salt brine normally used, help the salt to work better at lower temperatures while stretching the amount of salt needed each time the trucks go out.

“It’s organic, it works at lower temperatures, and it lowers the corrosiveness of the solution,” said Birmingham Public Works Manager Paul Matthews. He said Birmingham has tried a couple of additives to its salting solution over the years, including beet juice, but the city is currently looking to switch to a new product called Thermopoint, another organic mixture that comes at a lower cost than beet juice.

Gruzwalski said Bloomfield Hills is also actively looking for sustainable additive options for its de-icing efforts, but at this time, the city is unable to purchase anything because it doesn’t have the means to store it, as it shares facilities with Cranbrook Educational Community.

On a smaller scale, residents can make minor changes to their de-icing practices to help protect pavement and the surrounding natural environment. Gruzwalski recommends shoveling snow from sidewalks and driveways before spreading salt, so it can be more effective and smaller portions can be used. Wetting salt with water helps to activate it much like beet juice, and less salt should be used in areas closer to catch basins, such as at the end of driveways.

While Grunzwalski said salt alternatives, such as sawdust or kitty litter, are always options, she doesn’t recommend using sand, as it could cause problems if it gets into waterways.

To protect your landscape from the corrosive effects of de-icing, landscape designer Scott Goldman of James C. Scott and Associates said the key is to keep your plants from drying out. He recommended treating plants with a product called Wilt Pruf, which will protect plants that maintain foliage through the winter, including holly, evergreens and rhododendrons. Homeowners can also windscreen plants and shrubs by wrapping them in burlap. Goldman said that when roads are salted, cars can spray the dust and salt up to a quarter mile. The windscreen will protect the foliage from the salt, as well as the biting winter winds, both of which dry out and kill plants.

While it might be counterintuitive to water your plants as it gets colder, Goldman said that packing as much moisture into the soil as you can is one way to prevent winter dryness. He suggested keeping irrigation systems on as long as you can or using a hose once your system has been winterized for the season.

“We had a really good fall, because there was a lot of moisture in the soil, which is really good for plants.”

For those who want to go the extra mile and use salt-tolerant plants in their landscape design, Goldman recommended visiting for a list of species that handle salt well, such as scotch pines or petunias, as well as other tips on protecting plants in winter.