Road salt. It’s a gritty reality of cold winter months, sprinkled on our walkways to melt away the ice and snow and prevent us from slipping and sliding while we walk armfuls of groceries from our cars to our homes.
But as we gear up for the season of snowflakes and frosty mornings, understanding the nitty-gritty details of which de-icing option is right for you can be crucial, both in protecting you, your loved ones, and your pets, as well as the environment and infrastructure we rely on day to day.
So, grab a cup of hot cocoa, wrap yourself in a blanket, and let's find out how you can make winter a little less slippery and a lot more enjoyable (all while protecting our planet along the way.).
First, it’s essential to understand that a few different types of road salt are on the market. Quite a few, actually. Some are super common, like Sodium Chloride, while newer alternatives, like Calcium Magnesium Acetate, are growing in popularity — all of them have unique pros and cons.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most common options.
The first and most common type of road salt you’ll want to know about is Sodium Chloride, also known as ‘rock salt.’ You might recognize the name because it's the same salty compound we use to season our french fries — although we wouldn’t recommend sprinkling rock salt on your dinner!
Sodium chloride works best in temperatures above 15º F but can do its job in temperatures as low as 5º F. It’s often the cheapest option available, making it an enticing choice for consumers who go through quite a bit of road salt during winter. However, it’s not without its downsides.
For starters, it’s notably corrosive, causing lasting damage to wood, concrete, and metal surfaces, including our cars. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the corrosive effects of rock salt are estimated to result in $5 billion worth of repair costs every year — yikes!
In excess, it can be harmful to surrounding vegetation, can contribute to toxic chloride-rich surface waters that impact aquatic life, and when ingested by pets, it can trigger high blood sodium concentrations, a type of poisoning that causes thirst, vomiting, and lethargy amongst other, more severe side effects.
So, while rock salt may be cheap, it’s not the best. But what’s the alternative?
Enter Calcium Chloride, the second most common type of road salt. If you live in regions that experience some extreme chill, you might be familiar with this salty option. That’s because Calcium Chloride has a melting temperature of -20º F — talk about effective!
It’s known for providing rapid results, being less harmful to surrounding vegetation, and requiring smaller quantities than other road salts to work. However, it also costs roughly three times more, and the risk of corrosion is still quite significant.
It can also impact our health, as the compound is a notable skin irritant with the potential to burn when direct contact is made. This makes it a risky option when you have kids or pets, as the opportunity to ingest or make direct contact with skin is high. Even for adults, we always recommend using a shovel or gloves when dispersing this road salt on your pathways to avoid irritating exposed skin.
Fortunately, this is where Magnesium Chloride can help. Magnesium Chloride is available in both liquid and crystal form. Similar to Calcium Chloride, it is largely understood to be more environmentally friendly than its Sodium Chloride counterpart. However, it still contributes to elevated chloride levels in our local water systems, especially when used in excess.
Magnesium Chloride is less corrosive, meaning less damage to our cars, walkways, and roads, and is generally considered pet- and kid-safe.
It works well in temperatures as low as 5º F and can quickly melt down to brine when put into action. The downside to this? It dilutes quickly, too, and as a result, Magnesium Chloride is notorious for requiring twice as much product to get the job done.
And finally, we have Calcium Magnesium Acetate, a de-icing option we refer to as the planet's pick and the most eco-friendly member of the road salt family.
Calcium Magnesium Acetate is biodegradable and less corrosive than the traditional chloride-based de-icers we mentioned above, providing a gentler option for our infrastructure and vehicles. Its lack of chloride lowers its impact on aquatic ecosystems and makes it a less toxic option for plants, animals, and little ones.
Its lowest practical melting temperature is 20º F, so it's ideal for milder climates but can be impractical in regions where things get particularly cold. It also requires more product to work, can melt more slowly than its chloride counterparts, and may not be as readily available as some of the more common road salt varieties.
But, if it's an option for you, it's a clear winner in both safety and sustainability.
Of course, the best road salt option is no road salt, but that's unrealistic. So, no matter what option you choose from the ones listed above, here are a few de-icing tips you can implement into your winter routine to keep your impact low (and your wallet happy).
Always check that you're using the correct amount of road salt! Rather than just scattering salt helter-skelter, determine what is needed and disperse purposefully to ensure you don't salt in excess.
Consider investing in pup boots for daily strolls with your four-legged friends! These boots can help protect them from irritation and reduce the risk of ingesting lingering salt when you return home.
OUR PICK: These Paw Protectors from QUMY are great for winter and can also help protect your pet's feet during the summer months when hot pavement and sand can have damaging effects!
Of course, if they do get some dryness and irritation, a paw balm can help soothe and relieve pain while they heal. Try this Oatmeal Paw Butter by the Company of Animals for a natural option!
Before you reach for the road salt, consider whether an eco-friendly alternative may provide a better option! Sawdust and sand are cost-effective and low-impact tools for preventing slipping, giving traction to pathways for added grip. The ice may not melt, but it makes walking on it safer!
And finally, we know it's a chore, but shoveling frequently during snowfall is another critical method for reducing the presence of icy pathways. By keeping your walkways clear of snow build-up, you reduce the risk of ice accumulating, subsequently reducing the need for road salt in the first place — win!
Unfortunately, road salt is an unavoidable aspect of life in cold winter climates, but being strategic about your choices can take you far when it comes to reducing your impact on the planet, saving money, and protecting yourself and loved ones from potential side effects.
We hope this blog post was worth its salt and has provided you with a few helpful tips so that you can get back to enjoying the winter wonderland. Let it snow!