Make Sure You Buy the Right Kind of Snowmelt

If you live in an area that snows regularly, you know the love-hate relationship with white stuff. A snowy evening can be peaceful and beautiful – everything calms down, and the untouched snow cover creates a magnificent blank sheet of the world. There are sledding, snow angels, and children playing snowballs.

And then there’s the cleaning. Snow and ice seem beautiful for a while, but they also make getting around dangerous and difficult, so the day after a blizzard is a day of sweaty, back-breaking shoveling. To make sure no one slips or falls outside of your home, it’s usually necessary to apply some form of ice melt to sidewalks, driveways, and steps. While we tend to use the generic term “ice melt” (or the very specific term “rock salt” as a general term), there are actually many different compounds used as ice melt, and each has its own pros and cons. In order to choose the right one for your property, here are the basics you need to know.

How does ice melt work?

Regardless of what the ice melt product is made of, they all work in essentially the same way: lowering the freezing point of water so that it remains liquid at lower temperatures. This is why most ice melt products are salts of one kind or another—salt is very effective at lowering the melting point, preventing surface water from freezing, which in turn allows it to melt the underlying ice. Dropping a layer of melted ice on sidewalks is an effective way to protect them from ice both before and after a storm. Some ice melts do not use salts, but rely on compounds that have a similar effect.

When choosing an ice melting solution, you need to know the main ingredient it uses to melt ice because that in turn will tell you a few basic facts:

  • effective temperature. Various compounds can melt ice to a certain temperature. If you live in an area where temperatures typically drop below 15 degrees or so, melting some ice just won’t work.
  • Damage and danger. All melting ice can be hazardous to your property in different ways. Your choice of ice melt may depend to some extent on whether you have more difficult terrain or more vegetation around your property, and whether pets will be affected by this.
  • liquid or solid. When melted ice combines with water, it becomes a so-called “brine”, which in turn helps prevent ice from forming. Pre-brine in liquid form is sometimes the best choice for ice and snow work because it works faster because it doesn’t need to be converted to brine.

So, what are your choices when it comes to choosing ice melt?

Ice Melting Compounds

Here are the various compounds that are commonly used in most ice melting products you can buy. Note that some manufacturers combine two or more of these to create a specific performance profile:

  • Sodium Chloride: This is what the term “rock salt” specifically refers to – it’s just salt that comes in large, rock-like lumps. Sodium chloride is your cheapest option and it technically works down to about 5 degrees, but you will actually see a drop in efficiency when temperatures drop below 15 degrees . While all chlorides will eat away at your hard design, rock salt can be the worst of them due to the sharp edges that can really scratch surfaces. On the other hand, it can also provide better traction.
  • Calcium Chloride: This stuff works in temperatures as low as -25 degrees , so it’s a better choice than rock salt if you live in a very cold area. It also works faster than sodium chloride and does not cause the same corrosion of concrete. On the other hand, it is more dangerous to handle, as it can burn the skin (as well as the paws of animals). It is often added to other ice melt compounds to lower the effective temperature.
  • Magnesium chloride: effective at temperatures down to minus 5 degrees, magnesium chloride is less harmful to both landscaping and landscaping. It is also generally considered a safer choice for ice melting for children and pets because it is less irritating to the skin and paws. But there are downsides: it’s expensive , doesn’t work as fast as some of the other options, and you need to use it a lot more than other ice makers.
  • Calcium Magnesium Acetate: You will find it in many ice melting fluids and is often touted as an environmentally friendly ice melting solution because CMA is less harmful to plants, less corrosive than some other options, and is biodegradable. But beware – some icebreakers use CMA as a coating around plain old rock salt and label it “eco-friendly”, but once the CMA melts off the rock salt, you’re left with a bunch of sodium chloride all over the place, making the claim meaningless.
  • Sodium acetate: One of the most common alternatives to chloride based ice melters. Sodium acetate works well at temperatures around zero degrees and has a long “residual effect”, that is, it keeps the ice melting for a long time after its application. However, it is one of the most expensive melt ice you can buy, so if you have a lot of sidewalks to worry about, this might be a budget choice.
  • Potassium Acetate: Usually found in liquid form, this ice melting solution is gaining popularity with some government agencies seeking to avoid chloride-based ice melting as it works quickly and is effective at low temperatures. However, this is a costly option and the environmental impact, especially on aquatic wildlife when they enter the aquatic system, has not yet been adequately assessed.
  • Pet Safety: Let’s be clear: melting ice is not completely safe for pets. Melted chloride-based ice will irritate their skin and paws, and if they lick off the ice, it can make them sick. Most “pet-safe” ice melters use either ethylene glycol or propylene glycol, both of which are actually very effective at melting ice and won’t irritate paws. But ethylene glycol is essentially an antifreeze , and ingestion can be fatal; and while propylene glycol is safe for dogs, it ‘s actually not safe for cats at all, so be very careful when using it. Even if you’re using pet-safe ice, you should consider rinsing your pets with water after they’ve been outside.

You can also see urea-based ice melt, but this is not very common these days outside of some industrial applications because it has an extremely heavy environmental impact.

Your choice of ice melt depends on how cold it is in your area, how much property you need to manage, and the mix of terrain, landscape, and pet access you need to be concerned about. Knowing what’s in the products you use is critical to protecting you and your pets.


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