Winter 2020-21 is underway and snow professionals in some markets are sounding the alarm bell that salt supplies are becoming strained.
For example, snow pros out of the Quad Cities -- a region of five cities including Davenport and Bettendorf in southeastern Iowa, and Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline in northwestern Illinois – recently reported to their local media that their salt bins were becoming bare.
So, is this the beginning of a salt shortage?
Heading into Winter 2020-21 most contractors were sitting pretty on salt stockpiles leftover from the previous lackluster winter. In some instances, this may have included remnants of salt purchased as far back as Winter 2018-19. According to data compiled in Snow Magazine's 2020 State of the Industry, most snow professionals (39 percent) categorized salt supply and availability as a non-issue this fall. Likewise, 41 percent ranked cost per ton as a low-priority business issue heading into the 2020-21 season.
I checked in with Rob English, Snow Magazine's resident salt industry insider who frequently contributes articles addressing the status of deicing materials, their availability and the impact trends may have for professional snow and ice management contractors.
In the Northeast, where Rob is based and serves as president of Chemical Solutions Inc., despite recording 14 inches of snow in December, recent weather trends have called for rain. He hasn’t heard any indicators of salt supply strain in that market.
However, Rob says regional supply problems do result from heavy and frequent snow and ice events. So, for a market like the Quad Cities region, which has been the frequent recipient of lake-effect weather this winter, supplies can become strained because it’s difficult to get enough replacement product into those areas.
“The shortage is regional and illustrates the need for the end user to take more risk and carry heavier inventory to avoid being caught like this,” he says. “Again, the problem is not having salt, rather It’s getting it to the areas in need and that’s a storage and transportation problem driven by a market that thinks just-in-time inventory is bottomless.”
The farther the region is located from a major source of resupply -- such as a salt mine or stockpile -- the more likely the problem will persist until either the weather abates or resupplies arrive. Waterborne and rail deliveries are usually impeded by the same ice and winter conditions further delaying relief.
Further exasperating supply shortages for commercial snow contractors, local governments have the ability to commandeer available supplier stockpiles in the interest of public safety.
Rob suggests snow pros take a page out of the municipal government supply playbook, maintaining a minimum of five to seven “storms” (treatments) of inventory at all times. This helps alleviate any potential supply threat.
"If the snow management contractor is unable to store those kinds of quantities, then they will be at the highest risk in shortages," he says.
When winter gets really bad supply issues can quickly get a lot worse for snow professionals, forcing them to seek salt from a supplier in an unaffected region that has ample inventory to help out – but at a cost.
“In 2015, we were shipping bulk salt trucks many hundreds of miles which is normally not economically feasible,” he says.
Rob’s sentiments were echoed in his recent appearance on The Snow Magazine Podcast when he discussed factors could impact salt and deicing supply to North America’s professional snow and ice management market. CLICK HERE to listen to that episode of the podcast.
Mike Zawacki is editor of Snow Magazine.