How to Melt Snow and Ice Safely

It’s cold enough now that I’ve resigned myself that snow and/or ice WILL probably happen this winter, like it does almost every winter here in the Mid-Atlantic.  So I looked into ways that people are melting ice and snow.  Turns out, we’re applying a whole lot of the wrong stuff in our attempts at fast melting – particularly on sidewalks, driveways, and steps.  What’s more, we’re not even following the instructions, so even when we’re using the right product, we’re causing harm by using them the wrong way.  Humans!

So, damage is done – to our home and the environment.  Here are some examples:

  • Overuse of some products causes the sidewalks to freeze repeatedly, which damages the concrete.
  • Some de-icers corrode metal.
  • Some de-icers harm plants.
  • Many de-icers cause run-off of harmful level of salts and nutrients, which enters storm sewers and eventually the Bay, where it causes harm to aquatic life.

What to Use and How

The table from the University of Maryland lists four de-icer ingredients commonly found on the market, along with information information concerning their effectiveness and safety.  U.Md tells us these products can be safe, when applied according to directions.  They further suggest using even less of the products than is recommended by the manufacturer, making sure the surface is covered thinly and evenly.

Prevention is even better:  These products are most effective when applied thinly and evenly over the surface before ice forms.  It’s easier to melt ice than to melt a thick layer of ice.

What Gene Uses

I asked Homestead’s Education Coordinator Gene Sumi what he recommends and he didn’t hesitate before mentioning Avalanche, a de-icing product that contains the safest of the four ingredients listed above.  If your plants DO experience any salt damage, he recommends adding gypsum to the affected soil, then flooding with water several times in the spring.  The gypsum binds to the salt and allows it to wash away.

Don’t Use

  • Plant fertilizers or products that contain urea – because the nitrogen or phosphorus in them can harm local streams and the bay.  The runoff created by melting ice and snow from one small sidewalk may not cause much harm, but the cumulative effects across a region can create harmful levels of salts and nutrients that eventually pollute the Bay.  In fact, according to Gene, the 2011 Fertilizer Use Act in Maryland prohibits the use of fertilizer as a de-icer.

More De-Icing Tips

  • To melt very thick ice in cold weather add a small amount of water to the de-icer to start the melting faster.
  • To aid melting AND make the surface less slippery, mix the de-icer with wet sand and/or ashes.
  • Store de-icer and sand separately to keep them dry.

(After last year’s nonwinter it’s easy to forget what real winters look like.  So here’s a shot of my back yard in 2009.)

 Salt Damage to Plants 

Symptoms of salt damage include poor or stunted growth in the spring (common in the grass along driveways and streets), dieback on evergreens, or leaf browning or scorch at the margins on deciduous trees.  To treat, follow Gene’s tip above.  Or in small beds, some soil replacement may take care of the problem.

Removing Thin Layers of Ice Without De-icer

  • Mix warm water and table salt and pour it onto the ice.
  • Use sand, ashes or kitty litter to improve traction on slippery spots.
  • If an ice storm is predicted, cover small areas with heavy plastic or other water-proof material.

Even worse was this remarkable snowfall in January of 2010, just three years ago.  Here’s the scene on my deck.

  Sources:  Gene Sumi and the University of Maryland.  Photos by Susan Harris.

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