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Sand versus salt: methods of de-icing vary

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With a nearly three-day ice storm that recalled the infamous 1998 event — and days of sub-zero temperatures that have prevented melting — sand and salt for roads, sidewalks and driveways have become precious commodities this winter.

But with homeowners and road crews using various methods for the herculean task of de-icing, the question remains: sand or salt?

“It depends on the application,” said Travis A. Taylor, assistant manager of White’s Lumber, Watertown. “Sand will stick longer, but we’re finding with a lot of rock salt, which has been the most popular since the ice storm, that it’s not as effective.”

Rock salt melts surfaces, which then rapidly refreeze, requiring continual but ineffectual reapplication.

“What people need to do is remove the ice with scrapers, ice chisels, until it’s a manageable amount of ice,” Mr. Taylor said.

Rock salt, additionally, is “horrible” for concrete and pets, he said. A viable alternative is calcium chloride, which he said typically works in frigid weather and is safer for animals, but is on average about twice as expensive as regular rock salt.

Sand, on the other hand, is useful for “slip control” and areas where ice thwarts even the most diligent ice scrapers, but can also be dirty. Mr. Taylor said his store uses rock salt in its main parking lot, calcium chloride on its concrete steps and rock salt in its distant employee lot so winter boots cover enough ground en route so as not to track it into the store.

Sales reflect this winter’s deep freeze: In 2013, the Watertown branch of White’s sold 1,494 50-pound bags of rock salt, compared with 358 in 2012. It has also sold 226 of the 50-pound bags of calcium chloride so far, up from 50 in 2012.

At Stratton Hardware, Watertown, manager Skylar M. Gerken said the store usually recommends a True Value brand fast-melt mixture, which is recommended for colder weather and contains a mixture of potassium chloride, urea, sodium chloride and mg-104. Still, 50-pound bags sell for $15.99 each, compared to $7.99 for the same size bag of rock salt.

“It’s a little more expensive, but it doesn’t chew up concrete,” Mr. Gerken said.

Sand, $5.79 for 75 pounds, has been less in demand, he said, and bought most often by customers who want to use the bags to add weight to vehicles. The store has also sold a lot of water softener salt, a larger-crystal type that takes longer to work but is nearly as effective, he said; it sells for $4.99 per 40-pound bag.

At Aubuchon Hardware, West Carthage, employee Adam M. Cenito said sales of calcium chloride are up this year — primarily, he said, due to the frigid weather, not a spate of environmental consciousness.

“Rock salt won’t work in colder weather,” he said. “It all depends on what you’re looking to use it for — sand won’t melt anything.”

“Personally speaking, I go with salt, whatever the store has,” said Ronald F. Paratore, a Cape Vincent resident. “I usually use salt because it actually melts the snow, whereas sand just gives traction. If I’m trying to de-ice the porch or walkway, I’d rather get rid of the ice.”

He added that while he believes salt can corrode long-term, he hasn’t noticed much of a caustic impact on his wooden deck in places he salts versus places he doesn’t.

Corrosion, though, is only one factor to consider in the ice method debate, said Kris D. Dimmick, an engineer and vice president of operations at Bernier, Carr & Associates, Watertown. He cited the impact, for example, of sand on closed drainage systems, such as those in the city of Watertown, compared to areas such as Wellesley Island.

“I think you need to have both tools in your toolbox,” he said.

For roads, rock salt seems to prevail.

“We don’t use sand much anymore,” said state Department of Transportation spokesman Michael R. Flick. “Typically if we use sand it might be more in a hillier, mountainous application, or a long, steep grade that might just need a little extra help with traction.”

Otherwise, in almost all areas of the north country, “plain old rock salt” works, he said, adding that crews try to get layers of salt down before storms and frigid temperatures hit to help traction.

A total of about 57,000 tons of salt has been used so far by the state DOT on roadways in Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Franklin and Clinton counties, numbers Mr. Flick said are in line with averages of about 150,000 tons per season.

In Jefferson County, rock salt is also strictly used, said James. L. Lawrence Jr., county highway superintendent. But the application ranges from 100 percent salt to 100 percent sand and all types of mixtures in between on the 80 percent of roads in various towns where the county has service contracts. Four of the 22 towns in the county use 100 percent salt, whereas some, such as Worth in the southern portion and towns in the Tug Hill region, have gravel roads and snowmobile traffic and use 100 percent sand, he said.

“It’s a variety all over the county,” Mr. Lawrence said. “There’s a method to why we do what we do.”

That takes into account cost, as well as traffic volume conditions — the majority of the county’s high-volume roads, including all of those in the vicinity of the town and city of Watertown, receive 100 percent salt — and temperature.

The county tries to scale back its application rate as the winter wears on, applying 220 pounds per lane mile after the first storm this year, then 120 pounds per lane mile subsequently.

It’s “almost useless” to apply salt in the bitter cold, Mr. Lawrence said.

“Then we use sand or salt mixtures,” he said. “Or the sun does come out.”

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