Deicing the Safe Way

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

With a cold, snowy winter lingering in many parts of the United States, many of you may be struggling with a perennial winter problem: an icy front walk. That freeze and thaw cycle wreaks havoc even when no snow has fallen recently, and the result can be the equivalent of an ice rink -- without the fun of skates and a Zamboni -- unless you do something about it. The question is: what? Classically, people have resolved the problem by throwing salt down (salt, in case you didn't know, lowers the freezing temperature of water, thereby melting ice...until it gets a few degrees colder, anyway).

The problem is that salt is not good for the environment. When salt is used for ice control, it ends up in the soil and in waterways, where it can hurt plants and animals alike. Since many of us don't much fancy this idea, this winter season, we're asking ourselves what we can use instead. Fortunately, many urban areas are way ahead of us on this one, thanks to their extensive inclement weather preparation programs. We rounded up a list of salt alternatives from the mundane to the weird, and hopefully one will tickle your pickle!

1. Sand

Sand helps out when there's ice by providing traction, for both feet and wheels. However, the problem with sand is that if it enters waterways, it can create blockages, buildups of silt, and problems with water quality. Unless you have a method for controlling your sand, it's not a hot bet for your stairs and walk.

2. Calcium magnesium acetate (CMA)

This substance isn't corrosive and is gentler on the environment, but it's more expensive. Plus, you have to use twice as much of it, so you could end up going through a lot of lettuce this winter if you want to keep your walkways and stairs ice-free.

3. Beet or corn juice

Yes, you read that right. Technically referred to as "carbohydrate-based liquid" (mmmm, appetizing), this compound has been used on roads across the Midwest and Canada this year. It actively inhibits corroding, is harmless to the environment, and is easy to handle -- plus, it's a good way to use up agricultural byproducts. Problem? You might have trouble finding it for personal use.

4. Potassium chloride or calcium chloride

These salts aren't the same salt discussed above; they're environmentally harmless and in fact are needed nutrients for plants. When they run off as a result of rain and ice melt, they'll be beneficial to the surrounding environment. They're also cost-effective, and available at many hardware and home supply stores.

5. Various commercial products

Numerous companies make deicers, including eco-friendly products intended specifically for use by people concerned about the environment who want to keep ice at bay. Be sure to check their ingredient lists (avoid those with sodium chloride, which is our old enemy), and make sure they are safe for use.

If you're working in a pinch, Philip Schmidt tested some homemade de-icers for us, but keep in mind that he advises his list is more emergency-focused than environmentally-friendly!

In all cases, you want to limit the amount of de-icer you're using. Start by shoveling well to remove as much snow and ice as possible, because this will help the product work better -- if you aren't up to shoveling, consider making an arrangement with your local handyman. Be sparing with your de-icer, because you won't need much to get the ice melting and keep the area clear, and stay on stop of shoveling to prevent buildups.

In the spring, your garden will be glad you took it easy on the chemicals, and so will animals, your kids, and your pets!

Katie Marks writes for

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