Think about the Environment when Melting Ice

Posted on February 18, 2010. Filed under: air quality, green home, green services, living green, water conservation | Tags: , , , , , |

SPECIAL BLOG CONTRIBUTION by Ryan Keith, Landscape Architect and General Contractor

As a Washington, DC resident, I have been digging out of the snow for the past week.  It has been back breaking work and I am excited for all the snow to melt.  Over the past 2 weeks, many of my clients have been contacting me to discuss the use of chemical Ice Melt products.  What are the best choices to ensure safety yet minimize environmental impact?

The first thing to realize is that Ice Melt products are not good for the environment but there are products that are less harmful.  Ideally, we would all use shovels to clear snow and ice and the sun would do the rest but, the reality is that Ice Melt products keep us safe walking around and keeping up with our busy schedules in the winter.

Here are the pros and cons of the different Ice Melt products and my feedback on which ones I use in an effort to be “greener”.

  • Not Green, but Effective in Melting: Currently, the most common and cost-effective Ice Melt product is Rock Salt (Sodium chloride).  This product is the most common product used by municipalities for roadway clearing and is quite effective at its job and it is cheap.  The problem with Rock Salt is what happens after the snow and ice are gone.  Rock Salt will kill vegetation, wash into the waterways and increase salinity, kill fish and contaminate drinking water.  Additionally, it is harmful to pet’s paws and is very corrosive to metals and concrete.
  • Greener Alternatives: Potassium chloride and Magnesium chloride are alternative chlorides that are better than traditional rock salt in that they do not harm plants but, they still wash into our waterways and have a great environmental impact.
  • Less Harmful, but Not Green. The second category of Ice Melt products is Urea (carbonyl diamide), these are commonly marketed as “green” Ice Melt products.  Urea is less hazardous to children and pets but will still release nitrates into the waterways, depleting oxygen in the water and killing fish.
  • Greener Alternative: The better Urea based product is Coated Urea (Carbonyl diamide with glycol mixture) as it is less hazardous to children and pets and the glycol mixture inhibits the release of nitrogen into the waterways.  Limiting nitrogen in the water keeps our waterways healthy.
  • Municipal Ice Melt Mixes: The third category if Ice Melt is Biological Ad Mixtures.  These products do not work on their own yet, but increase the effectiveness of Rock Salt (Sodium chloride) when added together.  You can add a Beet Sugar Extract or Corn Extract to Rock Salt and it makes the Rock Salt more effective and thus reduces the potential quantity of rock salt needed to keep roadways clear.  These extracts are currently only being added at the municipal level and are not commercially available to consumers.  Since an enormous user of rock salt is municipalities, we should be encouraging our local department of transportation to utilize an extract to keep cost down by making the rock salt more effective and limiting rock salt in our waterways.
  • Greener, but More Expensive: The last category of Ice Melt are the Acetates.  The Acetates are Calcium Magnesium Acetate (CMA), Sodium Acetate (NAAC) and Potassium Acetate.  The acetates are some of the safest around children, pets and the environment.   The major drawback is that they are all significantly higher in cost.  It is common to see products that mix an Acetate with one of the Chlorides to form a more cost effective and more environmentally sensitive product.

Personally I use a Calcium Magnesium Acetate (CMA) by itself or mixed with salt to make it more effective at lower temperatures.  I have also used Coated Urea with success.  Most importantly, I do not over-use the products and only spread what is absolutely needed to maintain safety.  Less of any of the Ice Melt products is always better for the environment.  I also do my best to lobby the local Department of Transportation to use Biological Ad mixtures or Acetates with their Rock Salt to reduce impacts on the environment while keeping costs under control.  The Department of Transportation uses a lot more Ice Melt than consumers do and their decisions have a much greater impact on the environment.

About the Author: Ryan Keith is a Landscape Architect and General Contractor in the Washington, DC region.  His firm, Redux Garden + Home, specializes in environmentally sensitive design and construction practices.  See his work and contact him through his website at www.reduxgardenhome.com.

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