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Rock Salt: Drawbacks and Alternatives - Quicken Loans Zing Blog

Unless it’s in skating or hockey rink form, ice is one of the worst parts about the winter experience. It’s slippery, dangerous and potentially costly. Just ask any resident of the Deep South after this week’s bizarre winter storm.

Ice is annoying, but there’s no secret on how to remove it. If you have copious amounts of salt and some way to spread it, it shouldn’t be a problem for you, right? Well, perhaps. Let’s take a look at the science behind ice melts, alternatives to rock salt and some other ways you can clear ice from your home and car.

The Science Behind Ice Melts

You probably learned about ice melts in 6th grade chemistry class, but if you can’t remember the details, that’s OK! Here’s a refresher:

Water freezes and turns to ice at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, so during the winter season, melted snow and precipitation freeze pretty regularly since temperatures routinely fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Salt (and other compounds) lower the freezing point of water so that it can withstand lower temperatures without freezing and making people’s lives miserable. When you lay down rock salt, the salt actually dissolves into the water, spreading outward to cover a larger area.

One thing many people don’t realize is that salt only lowers the freezing point of water to around 15–20 degrees Fahrenheit. If the surface is much colder than that, like the sub-zero temperatures many of us have experienced during this historically cold winter, salt will have virtually no effect.

The Drawbacks of Rock Salt

While salt is definitely the most commonly-used ice melt, it has some disadvantages:

  • Temperature –As you just learned, salt only works down to 15–20 degrees, so it’s not effective in very cold conditions.
  • Ground water contamination –Rock salt has been known to seep into ground water supplies, leading to drinking water contamination if not properly managed.
  • Corrosion – Anyone who has driven an automobile in a northern climate knows that salt causes rust.
  • Environmental issues –In large quantities, salt can damage vegetation and is harmful for wildlife.

Alternatives to Rock Salt

If you’re concerned about the potential risks associated with using rock salt to melt ice, there are plenty of alternatives out there. Just be prepared to whip out the wallet, as all of these are much more expensive. Here’s the list, ranging from least to most expensive:

  • Potassium chloride (KCl) These pellets work in temperatures as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit and are less toxic to the environment. However, potassium chloride is also about two times the cost of salt, and you need more of it to cover the same space.
  • Calcium chloride (CaCl) –Perfect for people in super cold areas, calcium chloride works all the way down to almost -24 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also use it more sparingly, but at three times the cost of salt, it’s an investment.
  • Potassium acetate (KAc) – At an average of eight times the cost of salt, it may not be financially viable. But if you need something that theoretically works in temperatures as low as -76 degrees Fahrenheit, potassium acetate is your best option.

Natural Alternatives to Rock Salt

Want to go completely green? There are natural alternatives.

  • Urea –Commonly used as a component of fertilizer, urea (synthesized from natural gas, not pee) can be used as a de-icer. It has the same relative temperature performance as salt, but is commonly regarded as less toxic.
  • Beet juice –This purple marvel has gained traction as a large-scale alternative to rock salt in some areas.
  • Salt brine –You can melt and even prevent ice from forming by treating surfaces with a mixture of salt and water. Click here to learn how.

Why Ice Is Dangerous and What to Do About It

So why should you go to all the trouble of buying and spreading rock salt or rock salt alternatives? Here are some reasons why it’s best to melt that ice!

  • Around the home – Ice buildup on your roof can lead to ice dams, which can damage your gutters and shingles. Icicles falling and hitting you and your family isn’t fun either. You can stop ice dams from forming with heated cables that keep your roof warm enough to prevent water from freezing. If you need to remove  excess snow and ice formations, use a rake or long-handled scraper to remove as much snow from your roof as possible. You can even blow salt or another ice melt onto your roof to melt ice and prevent future formation.
  • Around sidewalks and driveways – Ice on your grounds is slippery and can lead to injuries – which you’ll be liable for. Don’t be that bad neighbor or lazy homeowner; make sure you’re properly maintaining a safe environment around your home. Pick your favorite ice melt and be diligent. For large grounds, you may need to buy a walk-behind salt spreader. Hand-cranked versions are available for smaller areas. In a pinch, you can even repurpose a milk jug or large can to create an ice melt shaker. Consider adding sand or kitty litter to your salt for added traction.
  • Around the car – Driving your car without a defrosted windshield is just stupid. Defrosting is a fact of life if you live in a winter climate. Don’t take chances with your or anyone else’s safety. Make sure all of your windows are clear and your visibility is good before driving. Make sure to keep an ice scraper in your car during the winter months. For particularly stubborn or thick ice, make sure you also have a bottle of professional de-icer, or a do-it-yourself alternative. 

Removing ice is critical, regardless of how you do it. Whatever product you use, make sure you apply it early and sparingly.

Have any other alternatives to rock salt? Let us know in the comments below!


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