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Icy stairs and sidewalks are terrifying to navigate on foot, not to mention dangerous. And the experts agree that rock salt (sodium chloride) is about the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to make ice go away.
But with everything good comes some bad: Rock salt can damage plants and, over time, can cause concrete to heave and crack.
“Salt kills the roots of plants and makes it impossible for them to absorb the nutrients they need,” says Ann McCulloh, plant curator at Cleveland Botanical Garden. “The salt washes into streams and waterways and can affect aquatic life.”
Homeowners might be looking for green alternatives to harmful salt and chemical de icers, but the options aren’t perfect yet. There are less harmful de icers, but they also are more expensive.
At Home Depot, a 50 pound bag of Halite Salt Crystals is about $5.50. A 50 pound bag of Prestone Driving Heat calcium chloride pellets that are less harmful to vegetation and don’t leave white residue is $15.97 for a 50 pound bag.
For now, salt and chemical de icers are a necessary evil, at least for clearing ice on roads. Salt damage to plants has to be weighed against the loss of lives due to slick roads.
One option is to use a smaller amount of salt or de icer just to loosen ice, not completely melt it, and then remove the softened ice manually.
Brad Charles Melzer of the Ohio State University Extension says the “greenest” method to melt ice around your home likely is already in your garage.
“Shoveling is the best line of defense,” he says.
But we all know how fast a sheet of ice can form, and trying to prevent the buildup with a shovel can be useless.
Sand, light gravel, cinders and cat litter can provide some traction but won’t melt ice completely, he says. These can be used in conjunction with de icers if you’re looking to use fewer chemicals.
Safe Paw Ice Melter is touted as a no salt melter that’s safe for the environment and pet friendly. It’s available online and at Wal Mart, Petsmart and other stores.
Rob English, president of MeltSnow, a New England based company that makes de icing products including Magic Salt, says consumers are concerned about de icers.
“People want to know what are the best products to use on city streets, in parking garages, around day care centers where children crawl and pick up deicers on their hands, and around canine kennels where pets are exposed.”
De icers containing calcium chloride, though not entirely “green,” are definitely among the safest but, like the Prestone product, pricier. De icers containing potassium chloride also are among the most environmentally friendly but expensive. And neither are always easy to find.
Here are the main five types of de icers for home and commercial use, according to English. Some might only be available online.
Sodium chloride, or rock salt. This crystal de icer is the least expensive and most widely used. It’s harmful to vegetation.
Magnesium chloride, such as Ice Melt by Uline. It doesn’t leave a powdery residue, and it’s considered safer for humans, animals and vegetation. But it’s pricier than rock salt and can damage masonry.
Calcium chloride, such as Prestone Driving Heat. If used as directed, it won’t harm vegetation. But it’s expensive, and it can leave a harmful residue on carpets and shoes.
Potassium chloride, such as Diamond Crystal. People like it because it’s environmentally friendly, says English, but expensive.
Acetates, such as IceClear De Icer. They come as sodium acetate, calcium magnesium acetate and potassium acetate. These de icers are organic chemical compounds that break down naturally in the environment and leave little damage.
If you do use rock salt, at the very least stop applying it by later winter. According to OSU’s Melzer, late March is when plants are breaking dormancy, and the roots begin to actively absorb water and nutrients.