A mild winter, such as this past one, left many snow removal contractors with an oversupply of ice melt product. Ice melt materials, with proper storage, can be kept and used in the coming months, they say.
In the Midwest, rock salt is king when it comes to ice melting applications.
“We really got lackadaisical throughout the years because it was so readily available. Then as this shortage took place it’s been my experience you really want to plan ahead,” says Tom Barry, founder of Battle Creek Landscape Service, based in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Barry says prices were reasonable up until the 2012-2013 season. Then there was a salt shortage and prices have been higher ever since. This past winter was no different.
“I don’t see them ever going back down that low,” he says. “The better we can manage our salt use the better our bottom line is.”
Battle Creek Landscape has been in business and offering snow removal service for 30 years. The company’s annual revenue is about $1 million. During peak season, 20 employees are on staff at the full-service company.
After the rock salt shortage, Midwest suppliers went to a pre-purchase plan, Barry says. All of his salt is purchased cash on delivery now.
To free up funds to do this, Barry says Battle Creek Landscape changed its business model and requires retainer agreements from all of its commercial clients.
“We like to give the analogy of we’re an insurance provider and by locking in with us, you’re guaranteed the quality service that you’re used to getting from us,” he says.
Going into each season, Barry says he prefers to purchase at least the same amount of salt that was used during the prior year. His company also uses a liquid brine application to augment granular applications.
“Then we try to have some sort of buffer. Usually we like to have 50 to 100 extra tons in reserve over what we used the previous year,” he says. “We’re still in negotiation with our different suppliers. If we don’t have something here by end of September we get nervous.”
At Avalon Landscapes, based in Meridian, Idaho, General Manager Mike Martin purchased about 10 to 12 one-ton pallets of granular product last season. Martin purchased about 20 pallets, but right now he is sitting on four pallets of unused product.
“We’re sitting on almost $1,400 worth of inventory that can’t make us any money until next year,” he says.
Barry’s company has a storage barn designed to hold up to 200 tons of salt at a time. Instead he doubles it and has about 400 tons inside. This has maxed out their space.
“We made it work but we’re at our limit right now,” he says.
A front-end loader is used to scoop the salt which is contained on three sides by blocks.
Avalon Landscapes has an annual revenue of about $1.5 million. During peak season they employ 24 individuals. The bulk of their work is construction for commercial and municipal and government jobs.
Martin says he stores granular ice melt in a 15-foot covered trailer, but the trailer is rotting from exposure to the product. His company uses both magnesium chloride and calcium chloride in granular form.
“I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody because we have to do a lot of work on that trailer every year from the actual rot that’s happening,” he says.
Additional magnesium chloride is kept on site in trailers at client locations. Unopened magnesium chloride is placed in a “Marine barrack” like storage area, he says.
This is where four pallets currently reside. Like rock salt, magnesium chloride can clump if not stored in a climate-controlled area.
Since first experiencing a shortage, Barry says his team has put into place several tactics to more accurately track, measure and record salt usage. One of those tactics is the use of a DICKEY-john computer controller on his truck’s salt spreader.
“We got real accurate measurements of all of our parking lots. It’s a computer controller that measures and changes the application rates based upon the speed of the vehicle,” Barry says.
“If the vehicle starts to slow down, the computer tells the applicator to slow its process so it’ll put down less product.”Barry hopes to make a re
turn on his investment in the controller within three years.
Before purchasing the controller, they “measured” salt visually.
“At each stop, we would look in the back of the truck to see how much was there and how much we used after we were done with that stop and estimate it through gauging it by sight and not by weight,” Barry says. “It was accurate to a degree but because the salt prices were cheap we didn’t have to be spot on.”
Martin says his company is a subsidiary of a large construction company. The company’s controller tracks salt purchasing.
“We know down to the bag count; we know every year what we’ve purchased and what we use and what we have left,” Martin says. “That will roll over to the next year.”
Negotiate early and often with suppliers, Barry says. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Use more than one supplier.”
Going with the supplier with the lowest price is not always the best tactic, he says. It’s important to keep a relationship going with a few suppliers so you have outlets to purchase product from when supplies run low.
Martin says he typically makes a deal with his suppliers at the beginning of the season.
“I have three to four vendors that we buy the granular magnesium chloride and calcium chloride, and only one vendor that sells us the liquid,” he says.
Fortunately, the liquid magnesium chloride can be sold back to the supplier at season end, for the exact same price he originally paid.
Martin recalls a two-day snow event last November where the area was hit with 16 inches. There was a shortage of magnesium chloride and instead they had to purchase overpriced, low-quality rock salt.
“We were paying about 35 to 40 percent more for about a week and a half, and it was junk and the guys that had it knew they had it and they would just mark it way up,” Martin says.