Analysis: Another Late One

Departments - Analysis

Industry insider Rob English examines the state of deicing for Winter 2018-19 and to expect higher costs heading into next season.

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Those of us who saw any winter at all this past season saw it arrive late. The mid-Atlantic region up through New England had mediocre winter at best with most major Eastern cities reporting snowfall at 50 percent of normal, if any. Those snows didn’t really start until February and tended to develop up the coast followed by rain which washed away much of the snow that did fall. When cold temperatures did settle in, it was brief and did not have snow during those times. By the beginning of March, Boston had received a total snowfall of 10.3 inches against a seasonal average of nearly 60 inches. However, a large mid-March storm added another 15 inches to that total, but it again melted as quickly as it fell. So, the winter on the East Coast was mostly a bust in the major population centers, and rural mountain areas got mostly snow in the events that were rain along the coast.

Salt Use

The use of salt at the municipal level is managed very differently than that in commercial and private use. Municipalities will apply salt at any threat of snow as much to protect their budget as for public safety.

Municipal budgets are generally determined by setting the amount budgeted at the previous year’s use and expense, so if the winter is not materializing many municipalities will start to apply salt to use it up whether it is really needed or not. This is an attempt to not have their budget cut for the following year. This is why you seldom see municipalities with big swings in their snow budgets from year to year in spite of the fact the weather can vary significantly.

As we move across to the Midwest, things were different and particularly so in the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. These areas had record snows and, in some cases, record cold temperatures to match. They began the winter with concern about supply as labor problems and flooding in North American salt production limited tons to areas that usually have no problem. That caused a brief period of acid indigestion but rest assured that any under-served market will find a source of supply. As it turned out the lakes and river systems did not freeze and remained open to allow salt to move into ports and fill the shortfall. Prices went up as you would expect in any shortage, but overall, they seemed to get through the winter with enough road salt.

The Pacific Northwest and Sierras had a banner year for skiers and a challenging year for snow and ice control.

Increased use of deicers in the Pacific Northwest is meeting hostile opponents that may end up in a showdown between road safety and an emerging anti-salt group of citizens. Hard to say where the salt dust will settle, but increased concern about chloride-based deicing products continues to drive an effort to find non-chloride options.

Increased attention on chlorides

Regarding chlorides, it is a love-hate relationship for all involved.

States that have not traditionally used road salt for winter safety face public push-back when they attempt to implement salting to new areas. Everyone seems to forget that the only reason we apply any deicer anywhere is for public safety. Whereas these municipalities are funded with taxpayer money, there is always a drive to get the lowest cost for the best effect. Salt usually hits all those lower cost and best effect groups: it is inexpensive and readily available and does a good job of turning ice and snow into wet pavement. However, this always comes at a cost.

The market is asking for corrosion inhibitors in these products, but in my view this is putting lipstick on a pig. It makes it sound better but in reality, how much corrosion protection is it delivering to the infrastructure that is being dissolved by these chlorides?

Nearly all the corrosion inhibitor systems that are being added to road salt protect only minimally and most break down quickly leaving behind the chloride ion to go to work on ferrous metals. In fact, just this week a report on Magnesium Chloride was released by a top researcher in snow and ice chemicals, Associate Professor Xianming Shi of Washington State University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Professor Shi has been working for many years on alternative deicing products as well as studying products currently in use. Professor Shi has identified concerns with use of magnesium chloride in bridge deicing.

We will all keep an eye on this developing study because magnesium chloride has been the primary alternative to salt as it was thought to be less corrosive and far more environmentally friendly than road salt.

We’ve seen just one netgative report on magnesium chemistry and that was largely limited to a specific area of the US where high dolomitic limestone is used in concrete production. It appears that any supplemental source of magnesium applied to these high magnesium containing concrete products has a deleterious effect which is in sharp contrast to all of the studies and information from dozens of states from the East to the Pacific Northwest.

I have always maintained snow and ice control is a balancing act: We balance performance which is determined by clear-and-wet surfaces against adverse consequences of product use, such as corrosion. In some places the use of non-chloride deicers can raise macronutrient levels (N-P-K) and increase eutrophiciation potential (algae growth) in stagnant waters and choke off the very wetlands they are trying to protect.

There are no silver bullets in snow and ice control, and all have benefits and side-effects. As snow and ice control managers, we are tasked with balancing those two opposing sides – safety versus consequences. We are working on testing a new product which is 100 percent bio-based and renewable. This new product may have benefit ice control at a cost lower than road salt and all without many of the side effects.

Salt Supply

Supplies of road salt on a nationwide basis are very good and we see zero problems going into winter 2019-20 at this time. Stockpiles will be refilled and the ones that didn’t get used on the East Coast will free up tons to re-supply the drained reserves of the Midwest. One thing none of the readers of my SOS column will see coming however, is increased prices.

While most commodity chemical prices are driven solely by supply-and-demand economics, much of our salt along the river system, Great Lakes, and Eastern seaboard come from overseas supplies. On January 1st of 2020, the International Maritime Organization will fully implement compliance with the IMO2020 rule. I’ve written about this before, but it bears worth repeating.

IMO2020 reduces the amount of sulfur that can be in maritime fuels (predominately Bunker C for bulk vessels) from the current maximum of 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent. Currently, few vessels have scrubbers to continue using high sulfur fuel, so they will need retrofitting or be mothballed.

The supply of low-sulfur Bunker C is not sufficient to fill all the ships on the planet, so costs for ocean shipping are going to increase in a big way to the tune of $20 billion. That increase in cost will be passed on to shippers and shippers will in turn pass it down the line until it hits your salt price.

Be prepared for higher salt prices no matter how weak the winter or where you are located. In fact, be prepared for increased costs on all cargo that moves by sea because of IMO2020.

Premium Melters

Premium melters are generally considered to be anything that works at lower temperatures or is safer than rock salt. In the premium melter category we have calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, and acetates.

The chlorides are generally 4-6 times more expensive than salt in dry form. Acetates contain no chlorides at all and are used in airports due to the lack of corrosion, but they are also 10-30 times more costly than salt. Calcium Magnesium Acetate is about $90 per 50 lbs. compared to about $3.50 for a 50-lb. bag of salt. While these products have numerous performance benefits, they may also contain hidden problems in some areas.

As I reported earlier in this article, there is no silver bullet. We must continue to work hard to evaluate all alternatives that we can find and keep trying.

Magnesium chloride supplies continue to be sufficient for the current market and calcium chloride supplies are on par, as well. We do not expect any problems with supply of these two products, however, as a result of IMO2020 you can expect these prices to go up too.

I offer the same words of advice as usual: Plan early, commit to supply early, and hope for the best. If the weather that hit MN and WI this past winter year were to hit the population belt of the East Coast, deicing supplies would have quickly evaporated and problems we saw in February 2015 would be right back on our doorstep.

If you can accurately predict the weather, you can rule the world. Until then, expect higher costs this year. And if one product falls into or out of favor, that will be the first one to face supply problems with either over-supply or under-supply.

Robert S. English is president of Chemical Solutions Inc., based in Franklin, Mass., and is a regular Snow Magazine contributor. You can reach Rob at rob@meltsnow.com.