The State of Salt: Fall 2022

Columns - Salt

Learn what ice management chemicals are available and what remains in short supply for winter professionals heading into this season.

October 27, 2022

© Tricky Shark | adobe stock

The world of commodities, which includes virtually everything used in professional snow and ice management, has been turned upside down with global logistical challenges, fuel costs, regulatory restrictions, and a decreasing number of truck drivers in the US, just to name a few. Ocean shipping by container and break-bulk costs have skyrocketed and closed many markets out of supply. Low water and COVID in China have most of China’s production of deicing chemicals shut down due to a lack of power. The Yangtze River’s water levels have snarled up electric generation at key hydroelectric facilities sparking energy chaos across much of the country. Hydroelectric accounts for nearly 20% of China’s power. Coal accounts for the lion’s share of electric production in China. Coal increased mining production by 11% this year for generating electricity. With air pollution problems from coal, it is not fixing their industrial woes. Rather, it’s making them worse. I see this as a house of cards.

In2022, we’ve seen severe drought across much of North America. My own experience is that nature will put back whatever it missed; that’s how averages are established. The summer of 2014 was similar to the summer of 2022, albeit not nearly as severe as 2022. Many will remember what happened in the winter of 2014/2015 when it got a late start but once it established a pattern, it snowed like there was no tomorrow.

Now this is my view and my view only, but we are going to see a lot of precipitation this winter. Whether it falls as rain, snow, sleet, or ice I can’t say. With a clearly warming climate, it is reasonable to expect regions typically hit with snow will see more ice storm. Accordingly, areas normally hit with ice storms may see rain. In my experience, a blindfold and dartboard with potential weather scenarios is as accurate as any long-range forecasts.

Premium Deicers

For over 135 years, calcium chloride has been available in the US. It is a well-known, high-performance deicer that will melt down to -30F. Few products match this level of performance. It does contain about the same amount of chloride as road salt, but sodium levels are dropped by 90% or more. The market has seen imports from all over the planet arrive to the US over the past 20 years and they have replaced some of the tons manufactured domestically. Now, with problems in ocean shipping and production in China strangling delivery to the US market, all eyes fall back on the US to cover their needs. While liquid and dry calcium chloride have been readily available, do not expect this to be the case if winter comes hard and cold and drives up demand.

Magnesium chloride has also been used in the US for well more than 50 years. And while not as well known in the Eastern US as it is in the west where it is produced from brine from the Great Salt Lake, it is nonetheless an effective deicer and dust agent and has half the chlorides of road salt and calcium chloride. While this may make the compound more attractive to users, there is a global shortage of mag chloride and it is not easy to find. ICL, a fertilizer and magnesium chloride producer in Israel from brines in the Dead Sea has had challenges reaching the US market and product is completely sold out.

In summary, at this point (early September) it appears we will rely on domestic producers for these premium deicers.

Non-Chloride Deicers

The continued push to reduce and/or eliminate chloride deicers will drive interest in alternatives. Not all alternatives are necessarily a better option, though. And in some cases, the desire to protect ecosystems may push some snow professionals to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

For example, UREA is a common compound that is widely used in fertilizers and has been used in non-chloride applications for winter snow and ice control. UREA is 46% nitrogen and if you substitute this for road salt, you may quickly find that the waterways wetlands you are trying to protect and plugged with algae from the macronutrient (nitrogen). BOD is biological oxygen demand and that is something that most worry about increasing in areas where the ecosystem is fragile. Eutrophication is the term applied when excessive nutrients enter bodies of water from runoff. They promote dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen.

These are considerations that must be part of any analysis of alternatives. Acetates are used in airport deicing and are non-chloride, however they are in the range of $4,000 per ton compared to salt at under $90. The sticker shock of acetate chemistry is often unexpected and is another part of the cost-benefit analysis needed when looking for ways to reduce or eliminate salt.

So, as we head into Winter 2022-23, and at the risk of repeating myself, plan early, buy early, and maintain sufficient snow and ice control supplies for 3-5 storms to be safe.

Remember, it was only seven years ago that securing anything to treat your surfaces in February and March of 2015 was nearly impossible and this was before the global supply chain crisis. Add to this the never-ending spiraling up of costs driven by fuel, less truck drivers, and all the other components that bring these critical public safety supplies to your door. The hard truth is it’s unlikely that waiting for deicer prices to come down will do anything but make matters more difficult and challenging this winter.

Snow Magazine contributing editor Robert S. English is President of Chemical Solutions, Inc., Franklin, MA. You can reach him at rob@meltsnow.com.